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EFSAS Commentary

India’s unreciprocated ‘One China Policy’ is strategically not sound


China’s acrid statement on the day of India’s much-debated bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into two union territories (UT) on 31 October begot an equally stinging retort from India. The shrill war of words between the two countries on the issue underscored the pitfalls of India’s acceptance of a ‘One China Policy’, as also the limitations that such acceptance places on India’s strategic outlook.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, commenting on the bifurcation, said, “The Indian government officially announced the establishment of so-called Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory and Ladakh Union Territory that included some of China’s territory into its administrative jurisdiction. China deplores and firmly opposes that. India unilaterally changes its domestic laws and administrative divisions challenging China’s sovereignty. This is unlawful and void and this is not effective in any way and will not change that fact that the area is under Chinese actual control”. Geng called on India to “earnestly respect Chinese territorial sovereignty, abide by our treaties and uphold peace and tranquility in the border areas and create favourable conditions for proper settlement of boundary question”. On J&K, he reiterated China’s position that “It is a dispute left from history and it should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN charter, the relevant UNSC resolutions and other bilateral treaties and relevant side should resolve dispute through dialogue and consultations and uphold regional peace and stability”

India was prompt in its response to the Chinese statement, and the retort of Raveesh Kumar, the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), was bathed in meaning. Describing the UTs of J&K and Ladakh as integral parts of India, he averred that “China is well aware of India’s consistent & clear position on this issue. The matter of reorganization of erstwhile state of J&K into UTs of J&K and Ladakh is entirely an internal affair of India. We do not expect other countries, including China, to comment on the matters which are internal to India, just as India refrains from commenting on internal issues of other countries”. The last twelve words of this statement were the most significant and revealing. 

India has, since 1949, been supporting the ‘One China Policy’. After the Communist Party of China (CCP) came into power in 1949 by driving out the nationalist Kuomintang government into Taiwan in the Chinese civil war, Beijing made the ‘One China Policy’ a prerequisite for countries to establish diplomatic ties with it. This formulation required countries to acknowledge that Taiwan and Tibet were part of China’s mainland. In the phase of initial bonhomie between the newly independent Indian government and the freshly empowered People’s Republic of China (PRC), India was quick to shift recognition from Republic of China (ROC) to the PRC. It also played an important role in China’s inclusion in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At a later stage, India resisted pressure to join a United States-led campaign to isolate China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Little wonder, then, that India is aggrieved by China’s consistently unfavourable attitude on the J&K issue in which it sides with its all weather friend, Pakistan, even on indefensible issues such as State-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan. Despite this, India continued to reaffirm its adherence to the ‘One China Policy’ in all joint statements with China till the end of the last decade. 

That India’s policy had begun to shift became apparent when India, for the first time, declined to reiterate the ‘One China Policy’ in a joint statement that was issued after a meeting between the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in New Delhi in December 2010. The immediate provocation was the new practice that China had initiated of issuing stapled visas, as against the usual visas pasted on pages of passports, to residents of J&K. The Indian government viewed the stapled visas as a Chinese ruse to question India’s claim over J&K, and to support Pakistan’s narrative. Since then, the ‘One China Policy’ has not made a re-entry into India – China joint statements, although some members of the Indian leadership have sporadically referred to the policy verbally. As per the Chinese State-run news agency Xinhua, India’s former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had told her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Pretoria last year that “India will firmly adhere to the One-China Policy and properly handle issues involving the core interests of China, such as Taiwan and Tibet-related issues”

Statements such as this from the Indian side have been few and far between in recent years, and have been interspersed with demands of reciprocity from China if it wanted India to play ball. A strong signal was sent to China by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he chose to transcend tradition and invite the representatives of the Taiwanese government and that of the Tibetan government-in-exile to his swearing in ceremony when he first came to power in 2014. During her first meeting with Wang Yi in New Delhi in June 2014, Swaraj had made it clear that China would need to adhere to a ‘One-India Policy’ and stop supporting Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir if it wanted India to stick to its ‘One-China Policy’. More recently, India’s new External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar during a visit to Beijing in August this year responded to concerns on J&K that were articulated by Wang Yi by underlining that J&K was purely an internal matter of India, and that India’s moves in J&K had no international ramifications as bifurcation of the state and dilution of Article 370 did not alter the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries. He also called for both countries to be “sensitive to each other’s core concerns”

Unlike the earlier defensiveness that was perceptible in India’s dealings with China, Jaishankar’s message reflected a bold and aggressive posture. He effectively told China that in the absence of Chinese sensitivity to India’s core concerns on J&K, India would be constrained to review its stand on the ‘One-China Policy’ and leverage the Taiwan and Tibet issues, as also those of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea. The MEA spokesperson’s message of 31 October was essentially also the same. He reminded China that its insensitive remarks on J&K had been articulated even while India consciously chose to refrain from commenting on China’s many soft underbellies, a choice that it could quite easily rescind. 

In light of the latest statements by China on J&K, questions about whether India’s adherence to the ‘One-China Policy’ is strategically sound are bound to arise. As Tibetan author Tenzin Tsundue asserted in an article on 23 October, Today, India is a democracy and only has to deal with the Kashmir issue. But China is facing resistance movements in Tibet, East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Southern Mongolia. The five-month revolt in Hong Kong is also hugely significant for it shows the limits of Chinese power, and may be inspiring citizens inside China. Taiwan too remains a concern for Beijing. This makes Delhi’s One-China policy absolutely lopsided in terms of diplomacy. India has to remain silent on 60% of contested area under China’s territorial control, and also its rule over Hong Kong and claims over Taiwan, while China has to stand with India only on Kashmir. And it does this too unfaithfully, as we have seen recently at the United Nations”

In a speech in Mumbai in December 2011, the then Chief Minister of J&K Omar Abdullah had eloquently articulated the need for India to revisit its stand on the ‘One-China Policy’. He had said, I wish India shows some spine while dealing with China… we are expected to follow a ‘One China’ policy and not call into question Taiwan’s status, or not call into question Tibet’s status… Why is it that China wants us to follow ‘One China’ policy for them but it won’t follow a ‘One India’ policy for India… I think that for far too long we have been apologetic, both in terms of our relationship with Pakistan and also China which we don’t need to be. I think we should deal with China on an equal footing. If they call into question parts of our sovereignty, we have every right to call into question parts of their sovereignty”. 

The cordiality of the Wuhan and Mamallapuram informal meetings between Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping notwithstanding, India appears to be finding itself increasingly at the crossroads in its relationship with China. It may be constrained to seriously reconsider the desirability of towing an unreciprocated ‘One-China Policy’

Indications are that India has already begun looking at this policy in transactional terms, and the latest Chinese statement would not sit well with it.