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Millennium Post

Watch out for the ‘big brothers’

Following independent diplomacy in a bi-polar world is like a polygamist practicing to please two peevish partners. No country has suffered the unpleasant diplomatic truth more than non-aligned India in the years of cold-war between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union. It is suffering even now trying to be in the good books of both the US and the People’s Republic of China. While relationship with the US clearly comes with an expensive price tag, wooing China is probably the toughest bargain. In the process, India is forced to make huge compromises and large investments – physical and psychological – with no assurance of reliable return from either country. Even the short-term picture is unclear especially when it comes to dealing with China, with which India has too many nagging issues several of them being very petty but highly irritable.

For example, the case of almost a year-long Chinese torture on two innocent Indian employees of an Arab businessman, who escaped the country allegedly cheating a Chinese trade partner, and the incident of jail and harassment of two of the members of a visiting Indian jewelry industry delegation. Even repeated high-level diplomatic appeals from India for the release of those Indian nationals evoked no positive response from the Chinese authorities. With its image badly bruised at home for failing to secure the release of those Indian businessmen and employees in China, the foreign affairs ministry issued a travel advisory to Indian businessmen against visiting a particular Chinese commodity market, Yiwu. This incensed China so much that it first stopped import of fish from Kerala and then issued a tit-for-tat travel advisory to its citizens against visiting India due to protests against petrol price hike earlier this month.

The Chinese claim of parts of Indian territory, including the Arunachal state, frequent Chinese military skirmishes on Indian soil across the international borders, wrath over India’s sheltering of Tibetan refugees and the Dalai Lama, India’s cagey response to constant Chinese bid to enter the country’s strategic sectors of industry, the Chinese warning against India’s joint venture offshore hydrocarbon exploration in Vietnam along the South China sea and its unhappiness over the Indian presence at the Myanmar coast in the Bay of Bengal to drill oil and gas under an ‘equity oil’ deal with the Myanmar government are among scores of issues directly dogging India’s diplomatic relations with China. The list is almost never-ending as new issues crop up suddenly and also periodically. China is particularly angry with India for its perceived nearness to the American axis in the Asia-Pacific region.

On India’s part, it has always been patient with China. As a grand diplomatic gesture, it has embraced China as India’s largest trade partner replacing the US. Indian businessmen are buying mad from China. Pending capital goods import contracts with the Chinese industry is estimated at over $60 billion. Thousands of Chinese workers are engaged in Indian projects. These deals have upset many western suppliers, India’s traditional business partners. Now, India is considering approval of license to Chinese banks to operate branches in the country. The Indian government has withstood the pressure from critics to allow Chinese telecom hardware companies to sell equipment to Indian telecom operators even at the risk of its national security. In another nice and significant gesture, India recently pulled out of exploration at one of the offshore oil blocks off the Vietnamese coast in the international waters of the South China sea, following a Chinese objection. In multilateral diplomatic forums, including the UN, India is almost always on China’s side. But, nothing seems to please China and induce it to behave more cordially with pluralist India. The Chinese mind is more like a Chinese puzzle. India is yet to fathom its depth and spread.

With the US, tying a friendship knot looks easier though it comes at a huge financial cost and at the risk of alienating even traditional friends who the American administration may perceive as enemy. Oil-starved India has already lost over one billion dollars in crude imports this year and a great opportunity to forge a bilateral rupee trade with Iran to reduce pressure on its Reserve Bank’s foreign exchange reserves, following the US-Iran nuclear stand-off with America forcing embargo on countries importing oil from Iran. India, whose crude import from Iran averages a monthly bill of around one billion dollars, has ‘significantly’ cut the import volume and go for more expensive spot or short-term oil deals to please the uncompromising Obama administration. It is true that several other Iran oil-depending US friends, including Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Taiwan, have also agreed to compress crude import from Iran to please America and avoid the oil embargo-linked financial sanction. But, none of these countries featuring in the latest ‘US exemption list’, except Sri Lanka, is as dependent as India, the second largest buyer of Iranian crude, on Iran supply.

It is not that India is any less concerned about unpredictable Iran becoming nuclear-armed, but it knows very well that a determined Iran – like North Korea and Israel – can’t be forced to abandon its overt or covert nuclearisation programmes. At the most, it could just be delayed through international persuasion at appropriate forums. India had offered to broker a dialogue between Iran and the US camp on the issue. But, the US is not known for exercising patience when it comes to deal with international ‘boiling issues’ by its own definition. Its growing impatience with China over the control of the South China sea has lately shifted the US defence focus towards India, which it wants to be ‘adequately’ US-armed for geo-political reasons to tackle China in case the latter tries to militarily control the South China sea. Since 2009, every top level US strategic dialogue with India had ended with proposals of fresh US arms sales to the country worth billions of dollars.

Although India is concerned about the Chinese posturing at the South China sea, its diplomatic stance is more in favour of consultations than confrontations. India wants the littoral South China sea states to solve the issue through dialogues. The US does not see China yielding to such a namby-pamby approach. The US has already declared the intention of placing 20 per cent of its naval fleet in the region within the next few years to confront China militarily, if necessary. The controversy about China’s juridical claim over the 3.5-million sq km South China sea is further hotting up, following US defence secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to India, earlier this month. He termed the region as the ‘US pivot to Asia’ in which Panetta wanted India to play ‘a lynchpin’.

The US-China relations over the Chinese territorial claim of the South China sea have substantially deteriorated since last year. At stake is the free passage of one-third of the world shipping tonnage through its waters. Apart from China, the littoral states in the region include Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. The all-important shipping route through the Strait of Malacca too is part of the South China sea. Over $150-billion worth India’s foreign trade sails through the Strait and the region.

It is a matter of concern that the government of India’s two top power centres – the North Block, managing the country’s economy, finance and home affairs, and South Block, looking after foreign affairs and defence – are simultaneously under big pressure to lift the country’s economy from near-stagnation and ensure better external security and environment without offending the big brothers, US and China, and trusted friends such as Iran, Russia and Vietnam. Unfortunately, both the ministries look too shaky and uncertain to deal with the situation with the office of the prime minister, also in the South Block, providing little help in this regard. As a result, the two important ministries, which share several complimentary functions, are operating almost in silos to make things even worse. This is further weakening the country, internally and externally.
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