Dear Mr Prime Minister,
A decade ago, India was moving towards becoming a significant actor in Asia second only to China. This has receded somewhat because the hiatus in decision making has impacted domestic growth. Yielding to domestic lobbies and an unwillingness to devote sufficient time and resources to neighbours has enabled China to advance its position while diminishing ours. Still the slowdown does not mean that the momentum will not reappear. The need to develop the India-China equation remains fundamental. Recent statements by President Xi and by Premier Li in India in May indicate some desire to foster the relationship.
India needs to shed the defensive mindset towards China adopted since 1962 and recalibrate relations. In today’s globalized world some cooperation is inevitable even between opponents and rivals. To vacillate between yielding unnecessarily to Chinese demands and a rigid negative approach citing vague security concerns is unwise. Allowing the Dalai Lama to go on a formal visit to Tawang, along with other displays of firmness did seem to make the Chinese ease off on the measures they had adopted on Arunachal Pradesh.
China does pose a threat to India. It is multidimensional and its economic and soft power aspects require as much attention as security. The most serious threat could emanate from the economic condition of India’s North-East rather than defence preparedness. Economic development and political stability there must be fast forwarded so that they can resist such penetration. This should become a major theme for our policy in SAARC, BIMSTEC or BCIM. Initially the bilateral track might be most suitable, but multilateral projects with willing partners such as the World Bank or the ADB, or donors such as Japan and even China should follow. Major re-education in the setting of priorities and decision making in many of the line Ministries, State governments, and even the private sector is essential. Investment decisions in infrastructure and on development programmes have been perverted for too long to pander to vote banks. Modernising transport technology and cross border formalities to enhance connectivity would pay off handsomely. Fostering cross border social and cultural cooperation would solidify the process.
Our Western neighbourhood is also undergoing major restructuring in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Gulf and Central Asia. India has begun to opt for rational bilateral and regional policies rather than merely reacting to Pakistan. What we have achieved in Afghanistan needs to be maintained and incorporated into the links now being forged with Iran and Saudi Arabia into making the Delhi to Istanbul Corridor being promoted by ESCAP another focus for regional cooperation, preferably with Pakistan, and certainly with an increasing presence of China.
The unsettled border is a major factor. When I conducted the first bilateral border talks in the '80s it appeared that with some modifications the “Package Proposal” made by General Secretary Deng to Foreign minister Vajpayee, which entailed acceptance of the status quo in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, could form a suitable basis. This realistic approach is generally acceptable today in India. While there has been progress in the last rounds of border talks, I suspect the Chinese procrastination is due in part to their belief that Indian Governments cannot deliver on agreements to revise borders. The never ending difficulties in settling relatively unimportant territorial disputes with all our neighbours using legal and other subterfuges do not inspire confidence. Can we now envisage political agreement at the highest level to deliver within a short time frame as a win-win achievement for both sides?
India and China were once major civilisations and powers in Asia and the world. They are now set to regain those roles. Differences will continue as our interests cannot be identical. Like most other nations we should seek to enhance bilateral and regional, social, cultural and economic cooperation. The beginnings made in joint action on common rivers can be expanded to further cooperation on multilateral issues.
This is the vision that should guide the new Indian government.
The writer is a former diplomat