An Indian fox for the Chinese dragon
National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently but he negotiates with Beijing in English. He is a pedigreed diplomat with roots in Kerala, but he is equally at ease with Punjabi aggressiveness in Delhi — including all the cuss words.
He is a sharp and complex individual who even the Chinese find it difficult to fathom. Since the day he took over as NSA from MK Narayanan in January, the India-China bilateral equation has undergone a perceptible change. That change reflects in the special representative (SR) border talks. The first meeting on these talks took place between then NSA Brajesh Mishra and then Chinese executive vice minister Dai Bingguo in June 2003. Much has changed then. As Menon and Bingguo, who is now state councillor, meet next month for the 15th round of the SR talks much has changed since 2003. Beijing no longer adopts the big brother attitude and there is more parity in the engagement.
The fact is all NSAs, from Mishra, to JN Dixit, or to Narayanan, kept talking about drawing a boundary line between India and Tibet Autonomous Region of China. It is not that Menon is not interested in settling the border issue, but he and the UPA government have made it clear that they are not overtly eager if Chinese are not interested.
The previous NSAs were interested in maintaining status quo on the border dispute and they thought that fending off Beijing’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh was an achievement. Menon is made of different stuff. He turned the tables on China by asking Beijing to return Indian land lost in the 1962 war if it wanted to settle the border issue. Many may laugh at this “preposterous” proposal but there have been several surprises for the Chinese since Menon took over. First, India last year cancelled an unprecedented 30,000 business visas issued during Nirupama Rao’s tenure as ambassador to China. New Delhi then raised the issue of China granting stapled visas to Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh residents though Beijing had being doing so since 2008-2009. Beijing was flummoxed again when New Delhi suspended defence dialogue after China refused to give a visa to Lt General B S Jaswal, who was then Northern Army Commander, for a bilateral visit on the grounds that he was serving in Kashmir.
India resumed the defence dialogue only after a Major General level officer serving in Kashmir was permitted to go to Beijing this year and China stopped issuing stapled visas. The next point of friction was India’s ONGC tying up with the Vietnamese to explore hydrocarbons in South China Sea, which China has claims comes under its sovereignty. China vehemently objected to Indian presence in South China Sea, but New Delhi quietly responded by saying that it was going as per international laws. The latest and strongest Indian move was India’s cancellation of the SR dialogue last November. China wanted New Delhi to cancel a Buddhist Conference, which was to be addressed by Dalai Lama, during the same period but India refused to bend. It is evident from all these events that New Delhi has decided not to diplomatically molly coddle the Chinese any longer but are prepared to deal with them on the same plane.
It is easy to confuse the Indian posture as assertive or hard line but this is far from truth. This is simply neither Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nor Menon’s style of doing diplomacy with neighbours. New Delhi is plainly giving a signal to Beijing that it is in no hurry to settle the border dispute and is prepared to play the waiting game with Chinese leadership without blinking an eyelid. The Indian posture to Chinese presence in Indian Ocean is also quite similar as it has a proven naval capacity to respond to any aggressive manoeuvre by Beijing from Gulf of Aden to South China Sea. Given that India-China bilateral trade is touching $60 billion and is heavily tilted towards the latter, it is in Beijing’s interest also to improve its relationship with New Delhi.
While there have been feelers that the new political leadership under Xi Jingpin, who takes over as Chinese President from Hu Jintao next year, could be inclined to sort out the long pending border dispute, New Delhi expects forward movement in January border talks. The outlook on bilateral relations is optimistic as the foreign ministers of the two countries are meeting in February and then PM Singh is meeting President Hu Jintao in March in Delhi. If the annual defence dialogue this month is any indicator, then Beijing has realised that New Delhi cannot be trifled with any longer. For Menon, this was the first step in the changing relationship.