India is unwilling to be drawn into US-China conflicts

By Shastri Ramachandaran

Deputy Chief of the People’s Liberation Army Ma Xiaotian’s visit to New Delhi for Sino-Indian defence dialogues today is an affirmation that neither country will allow periodic irritants to derail bilateral talks.

Ma’s visit shows a resolve on the part of the two countries to ensure that differences do not become an obstacle to keep up communication by sticking to scheduled exchanges. There is a realization in both capitals that any rift between the two neighbors would be exploited by powerful forces which are unhappy with the growing cooperation and trade links between the Asian giants.

In India there is general agreement that, given the sensitive and complex relationship between the two countries, the postponement of the 15th round of Sino-Indian boundary talks, which China backed away from after a visit by the Dalai Lama to a Buddhist conference in New Delhi according to Indian media, was unfortunate and avoidable.

Previously the boundary talks have always been held on schedule, and has never had to be put off. And successfully maintaining peace and tranquility on the disputed border for such a long time, the two countries had decided to create a new boundary mechanism for New Delhi and Beijing to stay in direct contact regarding incidents on the “Line of Actual Control” along the Sino-Indian border. The mechanism offers the potential for new avenues of cooperation.

The Indian government was all too aware of these factors. But once the Buddhist conclave was scheduled, there was no way New Delhi could accede to Beijing’s demand to cancel or postpone the event, or, as a democratic state, prevent the Dalai Lama’s participation.

But at a time when the US and its Asia-Pacific allies have stepped up efforts for containment of China, the Indian government made it publicly clear that it would not get sucked into any security cooperation arrangement aimed against China.

India’s snub to the US and Australia, by rejecting the proposal to join a trilateral security pact calculated to check China, came two days before Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard rooted for selling uranium to India in mid November.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd went on record last week about his country working on a three-way economic and security pact with the US and India. In an interview with the Australian Financial Review, Rudd went so far as to say: “The response from the Indian government has really been quite positive.”

The very next day, the official spokesman of India’s Ministry of External Affairs trashed Rudd’s claim, saying, “We are not aware of any such proposal.” Clearly surprised by Rudd’s statement, the spokesman made it clear that India would neither join nor encourage such a trilateral security agreement.

India has valid reasons for spurning this US-Australia initiative. India’s defense cooperation with other countries is only on a bilateral basis and it is not keen on getting onto “multilateral security constructs” in the region. Those regional arrangements currently embraced by India are those under the UN or those like ASEAN regional forum.

India does not want to take sides in the rivalry between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region. And critically, India does not want to be part of any axis aimed at containing China in the region, when cooperation between the two countries can lead to win-win results for the two.

The message New Delhi is trying to send out is this: China and India may be competitors, but they have much to gain and it is to their mutual advantage to move cooperation forward. They have problems, but these cannot be resolved by adding an extra dimension involving other countries or regional pacts.

Against this background, events like the Dalai Lama’s conference look like only minor irritants, which won’t destabilize the growing ties between the two nations.

The author, an independent international affairs commentator based in New Delhi, is a former copy editor with the Global Times.

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