N-deal, China and the Assassin’s Mace

Last Updated: Wed, Sep 24, 2008 06:47 hrs

Bhaskar Roy, who retired recently as a senior government official with decades of national and international experience, is an expert on international relations and Indian strategic interests.

The merits and demerits of the conditions under which India was cleared by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in Vienna on September 6 will continue to be debated for some time both at home and abroad.

The non-proliferation lobby will continue to snap at India’s heels whenever the opportunity arises. There will be interest groups and countries who will also try and avenge their defeat at the NSG. In regional and global politics, India will have to be on guard. Yet, India came out of the tense two-day negotiations winning its rightful place in the nuclear community, despite opposition from powerful interest groups.

Of the Gang of Four and a Half (GOFH), there were three in the forefront – Austria, New Zealand and Ireland. They were allegedly compelled by domestic political pressure to take a hard line.

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The Austrian government is allied with the Greens Party, which strongly opposes proliferation, and there is an election coming up there in six months. New Zealand was in a similar predicament. The biggest nuclear no-body, Ireland held its ground till the last moment for no explicable reason.

All the three countries, as was revealed on September 4 in Vienna, were being strongly backed by China to either vote outright against India, or delay the negotiations to such an extent that the issue would die down at least for the near future.

In fact, there Chinese delegation at Vienna adopted the “silent mode” for itself and was quietly urging the other three to walk out and kill the negotiations. Had US President George W. Bush not called the Chinese President Hu Jintao on September 6, the Chinese delegation would have sabotaged the NSG waiver process.

The Indian government had also summoned the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi on September 5 to explain China’s position. This is, perhaps, the rarest of rare occasion when an Indian government has taken such a strong diplomatic step with China, and indicates New Delhi’s increasing unhappiness with Beijing.

The Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) M K Narayan finally made clear India’s “disappointment” with China’s role at the NSG meeting. He officially revealed for the first time that China at the highest levels i.e. President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Foreign Ministers Yang Jiachi, had assured India that China would not obstruct India at the NSG. It was, therefore, assumed by New Delhi that while Beijing would not actively support India, it would go along with the flow of opinion in the 45-member NSG.

Because of the opposition to the Indian draft at the NSG orchestrated by China from the background, certain adjustments were agreed to by India at the last moment. The NSG document does not include the text of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s statement of September 4 on India’s unilateral voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing, and its proven position on non-proliferation.

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But the document refers to it in one sentence. The statement is a reiteration of the NDA government’s position, but China was not satisfied that Mr Mukherjee’s statement really bound India within a nuclear ball park.

India’s nuclear programme forms a very important part of China’s India strategy: to turn it into a bonsai nation. Beijing may tolerate India with the attributes of a great nation, but clipped into a drawing room size. This strategy appears to have collapsed to a significant extent with the NSG waiver in China’s perception, and one should expect a variety of Chinese thrusts to counter India aggressively from now on.

It is well established and beyond any debate that the Chinese government has been the biggest proliferator officially, helping Pakistan to become a stand alone nuclear power with a missile delivery system. Chinese language nuclear weapons documents were given by Libya to the US when Tripoli decided to completely surrender its nuclear establishment and plans and come clean. Even after China signed the NPT, it continued proliferation to Pakistan to complete the latter’s technology and equipment agreement to the full.

India-Chinese relations have gone through the “Bhai Bhai” days in the 1950s, to swords drawn in the 1960s, the US-China alliance in the 1970s and parts of 1980s, to the post Cold War and 21st century, when each country is trying to find its own place under the sun.

While India has been slow, hesitant and cautiously reactive most of the time, China followed a consistent policy to undermine India at every stage – bilaterally, regionally and globally.

China saw one window of opportunity to force the roll-back of India’s nuclear programme following the 1998 Pokhran-II tests, when US President Bill Clinton almost handed over the anti-India nuclear initiative to China’s leadership. Beijing demanded India roll back its programme, adding that then only would Pakistan follow suit, since India was the first to test. This official position of China does not appear to have been withdrawn.

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The point to note in China’s position is that it spoke on behalf of Pakistan. This is highly significant, suggesting diplomatically that Pakistan had become not only a client state of China, but a front line ally and forward nuclear weapons base of China.

The import of China’s strategy and its threat to India’s security is undeniable. Since Beijing had political difficulties in setting up nuclear missile bases on India’s shoulder in Tibet, bases in Pakistan more than served the purpose. A nuclear Pakistan could only target India as China’s surrogate. It was an astute strategy. Beijing could use Pakistan to threaten India, and yet restrain it at the right time to show to the world that it was a responsible power. A highly dishonest and deceitful strategy served on a plate of deniability.

On the nuclear deal, the Chinese leaders starting from President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiachi deceived their Indian counterparts and politically disarmed them. Then they tried to pull the rug from under the feet of the Indians at Vienna in the last 72 hours of the negotiations, when the other opponents to India began to give in. There must have been a very strong reason for China to make such a turn which could tarnish their credibility in the world. It was also a very big risk.

From recent Chinese statements and writings in their official military and security connected journals which allow a glimpse into their internal thinking, China’s rise to straddle Asia with impunity is being challenged by India and the growing India-US strategic and military relationship.

There is also a perception that the US is weakening Pakistan to enable India in South Asia, and is making India a “firewall” against China. There appears to be a fear that Beijing’s gateway to the Gulf and Middle East through Pakistan could be lost. Hence, it appears, that China has pulled out all stops where India is concerned.

An old Chinese warfare strategy states – when confronting a strong enemy, appease its head but sever its weakest link. Here, the US is seen as the head and India the weakest link.

There were also many opponents of the nuclear deal with the US within India. One is the largest opposition party, the BJP. The BJP’s arguments range from national sovereignty and pride, and their own strategic calculations. Their objections for most of the period from 2005 were based on information available. Statements from senior US officials from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice downwards suggested the deal would bind India hand, foot and mouth permanently. Besides, it was the BJP led NDA government which had laid the foundation stone of the India-US strategic relationship.

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There are domestic political issues, but the BJP’s concerns must be clarified in due course in national interest. The BJP cannot be faulted one inch on their nationalist credentials irrespective of differences in perception. Of the GOFH, four have been clearly identified. The remaining “half” cries for some discussion. It is the left front led by the CPM.

Mr. D. Raja of the CPM described September 6, the day of the NSG waiver came India’s way as a “Black Day’ for India. A statement so steeped in deep dismay and frustration is not normally used by a senior politician on a subject of such strategic definition as the nuclear deal. Is it a catastrophe for India, or is it for some other country?

Throughout the period when the left front was with the Congress-led UPA government, they concentrated on two basic issues, both of which ran in parallel. One was anti-“American imperialism”. The other was to promote China in India’s sensitive security areas and arbitrate on behalf of China.

To the left front, especially the CPM, scuttling the Indo-US nuclear deal within the Indian government, Indian Parliament, and the political stage, became as important for them as it was for China. There was a desperation which ended in the left walking out of the UPA alliance, and a call for the trust vote in Parliament.

The CPM leaders claim that they are fighting to protect India’s sovereignty. Their frustration over failing to stop India appears as deep as that of China’s.

China all along opposed not only the nuclear deal, but also the enhanced India-US military relations and military exercises, India-US strategic partnership, and enhanced bilateral relations. This is exactly the line that the left front, led by the CPM, pushed hard in India.

From within the UPA, the CPM ensured that the government absorbed all Chinese transgressions along the borders and Beijing’s sharp rhetoric. Even Chinese official criticism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh had to be given a go by. In the interest of keeping the government together, the Congress allowed the CPM to blackmail the country.

The Indian government has let out little in the public domain about the real state of India-China political relations, which has led to many analysts saying the so-called India-China strategic partnership can be damned.

More columns by Bhaskar Roy

To appreciate China, which has one of the oldest strategic cultures of governance and warfare, is important. The Confucian theory of a benevolent and equitable King, avoiding outward war as far as possible is very significant. War brings hurt and deprivation to all, including this victor.

Master strategist Sun Zi advocated winning a war without fighting a war. A later strategy developed was the “Assassin’s Mace”, something on the lines of the Trojan Horse, but also very different in that the activation of the Trojan Horse strategy was limited by time. The “Assassin’s Mace” is not.

The “Assassin’s Mace” strategy creates agents in the opponent King’s Court, agents who will strike when the master signals. In modern asymmetric warfare terms, the actionable strategy has been polished and developed by China’s political security establishments. This is a strategy being studied and turned into a highly potent weapon in China’s armory.

The Indian government and its strategic policy establishment appear to have realized only now that when dealing with any country, “trust” must be based on “verification” of the opponent’s intent. India has to deal with China, work with China and sit with China. With a 4,000 km border dispute yet to be resolved, there would have to be certain cooperation.

Having said that, China has demonstrated in global headlines that it cannot be trusted by any country. To deceive, deny, and kill with a smile, is the backbone of its strategy and foreign policy. It is a sad commentary.

The people of India had started trusting China. Attempting to murder India twice over is unpardonable.

But as the old proverb goes:
Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not of Sify.com.

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