NEW DELHI — Behind the pomp and ceremony that greeted Indian President K.R. Narayanan during his state visit to China earlier this month was an important message: Beijing wants to strengthen its engagement with India, but not at the cost of its containment strategy. Despite hailing Narayanan as an “old friend” of China, the Chinese used his largely ceremonial visit to send clear signals on where they stand on Pakistan, terrorism, Tibet, a permanent seat for India in the U.N. Security Council and the Himalayan border issue.

While Narayanan deferentially dropped a passage explaining India’s 1998 nuclear tests from a pre-released public speech, the Chinese seized the visit to publicly stand by their “all-weather” ally, Pakistan, and to lash out at the exiled Dalai Lama in a manner vicious even by their standards. Not only were the “foreign forces” behind the Dalai Lama denounced, the Tibetan leader was called an “arch criminal” and held responsible for rape, murder and child cannibalism during the failed 1959 uprising against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. This came from a state with the most shocking human-rights record of the past half-century.

In his gentle, diplomatic way, Narayanan drew the attention of his Chinese hosts to the need to resolve the outstanding India-China problems. But, repeatedly, the Chinese leaders laid stress on atmosphere building rather than dispute resolution. That was hardly a surprise. For China, engagement can actually facilitate containment if the emphasis is kept on atmospherics. It not only lulls the Indian establishment into a sense that things are moving in the right direction, it also allows Beijing to continue its game with India without having to give up any of its cards.

Take the case of the 4,004-km Himalayan frontier, one of the longest borders in the world and the only one not defined, either in maps or on the ground. By breaking their promise to define a line of control, the Chinese are not only helping Pakistan by tying up large numbers of Indian troops in the Himalayas, they also retain the option to mount direct military pressure on India through border incidents if New Delhi attempts to play the Tibet card.

China typically never gives up a card; it only creates new cards so as to change the situation and agenda overwhelmingly in its own favor. Only clueless India tamely surrenders its cards, as it did on Taiwan (1949), Tibet (1954) and, most recently, on China’s entry to the World Trade Organization. Even as India seeks to moderate Chinese behavior on one issue, Beijing has already moved on to building another tool of leverage.

Having sowed the wind, whether by arming Indian rebels or giving Pakistan military aid, China watches India reap the whirlwind while it chisels its next tool. India’s northeast has never recovered from the original Chinese-inspired destabilization of that region. If the situation there were to even begin to stabilize, China has the option of stirring up trouble anew. Barren atmosphere-building has served Chinese interests marvelously all these years, from the time of independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to the present.

Narayanan’s visit was a classic exercise in this ritualistic game, with the ambience good and the Chinese uncompromising. India’s egotistic leaders, however, never return from an overseas visit without having achieved some kind of success. So we had Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s “historic” 1988 visit to China and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s “ground-breaking” 1993 trip to Beijing, although no one asked how Rao signed (and hailed as “momentous”) a pact to maintain peace along a frontier that has not even been defined. Now we have Narayanan boasting that, “From now on, cooperation between the two countries will acquire both speed and intensity.”

In practice, India’s obeisance just encourages atmosphere building. It is always India that makes the first offering to China’s Communist Party deities before they deign to smile. After diplomatic ties were restored in 1979 following a 14-year break, then-Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (now prime minister) paid his respects in Beijing before the Chinese foreign minister came to India. President R. Venkataraman also went to China before Chinese President Jiang Zemin came here (Jiang further showed his disdain for India by going straight from New Delhi to his country’s regional surrogate, Pakistan. Now Narayanan has begun a new round of obeisance.

One would think from this that it was India, not China, that had committed naked aggression in 1962 across the Himalayan border or gobbled up Tibet in 1950. Jiang can tour India and Pakistan together, but Narayanan respectfully traveled only to China, with not even a brief stop in Tokyo, say, or Hanoi.

It is high time Indian foreign policy became more realistic. The Chinese formulation, repeated to Narayanan, that the Himalayan border issue can be resolved when “conditions are ripe” really means when the balance of power has shifted in China’s favor as it did vis-a-vis a weak Russia and Central Asia. China drops atmosphere building and becomes business-oriented generally with declining states, not rising powers.

Also, as long as Pakistan survives, China will use it to countervail India. That problem will disappear only when Pakistan disappears. If Taiwan is a renegade province of China, Pakistan is a renegade, terrorist province of India. In fact, India has a much better historical claim to Pakistan than China has to Taiwan. More subcontinental Muslims live in India than in the homeland created for them.

To Beijing, terrorism is not a problem when it plagues India; it becomes a problem only if it creeps into Chinese-ruled Xinjiang. This is evident not only from Beijing’s defense-cooperation agreement with Afghanistan’s terrorism-sponsoring Taliban regime, but also from a dinner meeting the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan had with recently with the chief of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States for its export of extremist violence to Indian Kashmir.

If India is not to get pushed any farther into a corner, it has to shift from a single-track approach to China to a twin-track one, blending engagement with containment, Chinese-style. Engagement itself will have to move beyond atmosphere building to achieving tangible results. Strategic partnerships with East and Southeast Asia are a must. India’s “look east” policy will never be taken seriously by Asian states if it lacks strategic content. The decision to hold joint naval exercises with Vietnam and South Korea in the fall (even if they constitute a thumb in the Chinese eye) and efforts to promote maritime cooperation with Japan are sensible first steps.

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