Junking ‘One China’ policy: What to do and not to do to hurt the Asian dragon?

Photo: For Representational Purposes Only.

(Editor’s Note: The opinions are that of the writer’s.)

By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

India‘s adherence to the “One China“’ policy has arguably been more fervent and stricter than People’s Republic of China‘s own adherence to this policy. Consider this, Taiwanese firms get privileged access in Beijing, trade links between the Taiwan and China are almost double India-China trade, and the leaders of Taiwan (then president Ma Ying-Jeou) and China (Xi Jinping) have had a formal summit-level meeting.

India, on the other hand, treats Taiwanese businesses like dirt, refuses them any official meetings, and maintains low trade levels, despite Tiawanese interests in investing in India’s highly unpredictable and investor unfriendly market. Meetings between governments and businesses, leave alone between heads of governments, simply don’t happen.

Much of this comes down to India’s extraordinarily masochistic policy of self-harm and getting carried away by our own propaganda. But it also points to a compromised bureaucracy, an inability to set priorities and gauge which priorities are realistic or not.

In that sense, India is the alcoholic, who desperately needs to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting and listen to the AA prayer, “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” also known as Reinhold Niebuhr‘s prayer.

To my mind listening to several diplomats over the years, our priorities can be condensed down to this list in descending order:

  1. Getting a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)
  2. Keeping the India-China border calm
  3. Thwarting the China-Pakistan nexus
  4. Minimising China’s naval presence in the periphery

The problem is, their top priority, getting a permanent seat at the UNSC, has always been a fool’s errand. China has always used it as leverage for Indian “good behaviour” and India has always behaved with wretched pusillanimity, citing the imminent possibility of a permanent seat and China’s role in it.

To this end, we have refused to build infrastructure in our border regions, refused military cooperation with friends, stayed away from alliances, and maintained the comical farce that is “non-alignment.”

Sadly, these kinds of tangible-for-intangible deals never work. The closest international example of India’s foolish self-harm for possible UNSC seat deal is Israel’s “land for peace,” which has turned out to be as much of a disaster, except that Israel learnt from its mistakes rapidly. India after 58 years still hasn’t learnt.

Consequently, China has taken to eroding priorities 3 and 4 and it would appear since Galwan, priority 2 as well. Curiously, it is said that when Indira Gandhi imposed an honourable peace at Shimla on Pakistan following the 1971 war, her adviser cautioned her against being harsh stating “the roots of the second world war lay in the humiliation of the treaty of Versailles that followed the first world war.” Apparently for all their profound historical wisdom, they forgot the lessons of Neville Chamberlain and Munich when it came to China.

Some of this probably is also cultural and derives from oppressive caste patriarchy. The obnoxious behaviour of Indians in general towards those of lower social standing or perceived “lower caste” led a keen observer to once note, “India treats kindness with contempt, and grovels when confronted with arrogance,” or as John F. Kennedy summed it up bemoaning India’s harsh rhetoric against America: “Pandit Nehru keeps taking slap after slap from the Chinese and pretends nothing happened.” Sadly, what was true then, remains true today.

The surest way of breaking this toxic chain simply cannot come from the “incrementalism” this government loves so much and uses as an excuse to cover up its inertia is amending India’s adherence to ‘One China’.

The point is, such adherence need not be a break from the past and can indeed be done covertly and incrementally. Policy consistency is a much appreciated trait among friends. Switching our ‘One China’ policy, therefore, within the ambit of both covert and incremental, provides for policy predictability and hence, strategic trust with our friends.

For example, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd‘s announcement in Beijing that Australia was withdrawing from quadrilateral naval exercises with India, the United States and Japan came as a rude shock to India and vitiated the atmosphere for decades. As for China, it was never a friend of India to engender trust.

So, how do we proceed with adhering to ‘One China’ while systematically dismembering it? For this, we need to consider two questions

  1. What can we do to China that they have already done to us?
  2. What can we do to prevent them from harming us more, while carrying out 1?

For this, we need two approaches — posturing and covert actions. Posturing acts as leverage against China, without destroying the trust friendly countries have in India, while covert actions actively undermine Chinese policy.

Note that we do this not to punish China as a retributive and an ad-hoc measure, but as a matter of consistent policy. The real challenge will be maintaining the said consistency, which India has a terrible record of.

Be it from compromising intelligence assets in Pakistan twice, first under former Indian prime minister Morarji Desai and then under I. K. Gujral to first supporting the Baloch insurgency and then abandoning it; from supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to later attacking it; from supporting Tibetan uprisings with the Americans to actively discouraging them.

In such a case, the effectiveness of the policies recommended below must be efficacious if and only if they are maintained irrespective of the ideology of India’s ruling dispensation.

Sadly, the Taiwanese contention of India’s bureaucrats being hopelessly compromised gives no succour, but purely to cogitate the mind, the following could be considered along with their negatives.

Photo: A participant at the India-Taiwan industrial exposition held in New Delhi last year.

What India should not do?

  1. Recognising East Turkestan could be one, but this would be a self-goal given that Islamic terrorism is highly internationalised and as Pakistan is learning supporting one form of terrorism opens the house up to all other terrorists, who are fundamentally uncontrollable, as our experience with propping up the LTTE and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale show. In short, this is not a feasible option.
  2. Encourage any violent Tibetan resistance or recognise Tibetan or Taiwanese independence. Remember that there are enough separatist movements in India for the Chinese to recognise and provide arms and aid. Moreover, keeping the border quiet is a priority.
Photo: Indian Navy’s Scorpene submarine.

What India can do?

  1. Start engaging with Tibetan refugees on more publicly, including regular and public meetings for the Tibetan government-in-exile with Indian officials participating. This is not a “bargaining chip” to be ceded to China in return for worthless nothings.
  2. An intensification of economic cooperation between India and Taiwan, requesting the moving of all of Taiwan’s production on the Chinese mainland to India, both negatively affecting the Chinese economy as well as positively boosting the Indian economy. This, of course, will be subject to India rationalising its notoriously business-unfriendly investment laws and regulatory and dispute resolution mechanisms.
  3. Adopt the US strategy versus the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) of keeping their direct border — the Barents Straits — relatively trouble free, while ensuring the main hostility was in the Fulda Gap between erstwhile East Germany and West Germany. Keep the theatre of conflict far away in the South China Sea as active as possible, while keeping the direct border quiet. That is, stiffed ASEAN‘s spine through military cooperation.
  4. Ramp up covert military cooperation with Taiwan. The most important element of this will be to create a linkage between Chinese arms sales to Pakistan and Indian arms transfers to Taiwan. This can be safely negotiated as the “cascading of obsolete arms” that are going to be replaced in the Indian arsenal. For example, the brand new Scorpene class submarines are quieter and more sophisticated than any current or planned Chinese submarine. One could simply negotiate a new batch of 24 “more advanced” variants of the same submarine and transfer the current six to the Taiwanese claiming obsolescence. This protects both the supplier nation not wanting to antagonise China as well as Taiwan, which will benefit from significant spare parts commonality with India, not to mention interoperability.
  5. Act as a liaison between Vietnam and Taiwan and a supply bridge between Vietnam and the West. The Communist Party of Vietnam (as opposed to the country) has always maintained cordial ties with the Chinese Communist Party and cannot be seen breaking the “communist block” for whatever little it is worth. However, Vietnam also suffers from a fundamental distrust of western suppliers, who are prone to imposing sanctions based on internal issues like human rights. Expanding the scope of the India-Taiwan cooperation, India could act as guarantor of Vietnamese purchases of vastly superior western arms (the differential between Russian and Chinese arms is rapidly reducing given Russia‘s ossification on the technology front). This is extremely beneficial to India, as it creates significant economies of scale for large scale purchases and setting up a localised defence indigenisation cluster between India-Taiwan and Vietnam — an alliance in being if not on paper.
  6. Ask Taiwan as a claimant to the whole of China to unilaterally declare the international border as defined by India, between China and India as the legitimate border. This will be sequential and take time.
  7. Finally, the ultimate pillar of trust will be intelligence sharing, given Taiwan’s remarkable electronic and human surveillance assets monitoring China.
Photo: Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang meeting.

All these steps are sequential and based on the assumption that India can in fact adjust its notoriously self-defeating policies and unpredictability.

What India can threaten to do, but must not do?

  1. The final element of trust between India and Taiwan must be to threaten, but never actually, to transfer nuclear weapons to Taiwan. To be sure, Taiwan’s industrial abilities are far ahead of our own. Moreover, any such transfer would be treated as a severe breach of trust by friends including the US and France. The best thing under the circumstances would be to coordinate what India will say and when, and to keep the threats verbal during off-the-record conversations — effectively ending any dream China will have of reuniting Taiwan. This is, of course, particularly difficult given India’s lack of knowledge of what the words “covert” and “discrete” mean and will need some extremely disciplined and nuanced diplomatic rigour.

All of these steps are graded, practical and achievable. The only thing in our path is our own acute weaknesses, mind-set and policy masochism. As such ending the ‘One China’ policy is not just good for everyone else, but acts as a fait accompli for economic reforms, increasing industrialisation and employment as well as buttressing our foreign policy.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies)

3 replies »

    • Senseless recommendations. Author has no strategic depth. He writes well without any substance.

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