Rajesh Ghosh is a Research Intern at ICS and is pursuing Masters in Diplomacy, Law and Business at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat
One way to understand Indian perspectives on China is to examine the nature of questions asked by Members of Parliament (MPs) and the respective answers by concerned Ministries. This piece highlights some critical issues related to China that Indian MPs have raised in the 16th Lok Sabha (LS) thus far. In total, there have been 81 China-related questions from 7 July 2014 to 11May 2016. Out of these more than 70 per cent were directed to three ministries – Ministry External Affairs (MEA), Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI) and Ministry of Defence (MoD). In addition, this report will also examine the party and the geographical affiliations of the MPs raising questions and assess whether these connections have any bearing on the nature of questions asked.
Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)
Questions that were directed to the MEA were mostly of political and strategic nature. One issue that was raised on many occasions was related to the status of the boundary dispute. Due to the lack of any substantive breakthrough on the dispute, questions on the issue received the standard reply of both parties wanting to ‘seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the boundary question.’ Another long running issue is that of stapled visas. For this, too, the government had a standard reply that China had been asked to treat all Indian passport-holders equally. Apart from this, there were questions that were related to issues of recent developments. These include, among others, India’s position on the South China Sea disputes, ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) and dam-building activities over the Brahmaputra. But the nature of questions was not just dispute-related; rather, queries were also regarding the status of overall bilateral relations and what steps were being taken by the government to enhance cooperation.
Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI)
The issue of the massive trade imbalance between India and China received the most attention. The MoCI was asked not only for the reasons that caused such a deficit for India but also the measures undertaken to reduce the trade gap. The government’s reply to these questions highlighted the superiority of the Chinese industry even as the Ministry pointed out the various actions that were taken to resolve the problem, including the 2014 agreement of ‘Five-Year Development Programme for Economic and Trade Cooperation.’ A natural follow up question to this was the impact of Chinese imports on the domestic industry and the measures taken by the government. The MoCI’s reply of taking ‘appropriate trade remedy measures’ when industries were threatened clearly points to the mismatch in the industrial capacity of the two countries. Apart from these, parliamentarians were also concerned about sub-standard goods entering India from China and the heavy dependence on China for ingredients used to produce critical drugs.
Ministry of Defence (MoD)
The nature of the questions asked to the MoD clearly shows that the MPs perceive China’s growing presence around India as a security threat. A major concern was over China’s arms sales and building of ‘strategic military bases’ in India’s neighbourhood. The MoD’s replies to these questions were balanced and sought to evade making direct accusations against China. For instance, to the question of China building strategic military bases in India’s neighbourhood the MoD replied that ‘there are no reports of strategic military bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar being built by China. However, Government is aware of Chinese involvement in commercial infrastructural projects such as port development, construction of Oil and Gas Pipeline and building of highways in these countries.’ To the question of the measures taken by the government to ensure national security, the government replied that it kept constant watch ‘on all developments concerning our national security and commercial interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them in accordance with the prevailing security and strategic considerations.’ Note that these replies do not provide a detailed answer to questions related to national security. Apart from land-based threats the MPs also showed concern over China’s growing undersea capabilities and its growing presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). There were also questions that overlapped with the MEA, for example, the presence of China in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Indian territory shown as Chinese in maps, and others.
Geography, Party Affiliations and Questions
The issues raised by MPs in the 16th LS can broadly be summed up in three categories – strategic (China’s growing presence in the IOR and India’s neighbourhood and others), political (opposition by MPs to stapled visas, and to Indian territory depicted in Chinese maps and others) and economic (among others, trade deficit and impact on Indian domestic industry because of high imports from China). These questions were asked by members cutting across party and geographical boundaries. However, an overwhelming majority of the questions raised to the above-mentioned ministries were from states in peninsular India; among these, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh clearly dominated the rest.
With regard to the relationship between the number of questions and party affiliations, it is not surprising that the BJP is at the forefront, given that it occupies more than 50 per cent of seats in the 16th LS. The Congress (I) and the AIADMK, having the second- and third-highest number of seats respectively, were also prominent in the list of questioners. Apart from these, the Shiv Sena, a party with only 18 seats, stood out because of its repeated expression of concern on national security matters.
The relationship between party affiliation or geography and the nature of questions asked is, however, fuzzy. For some MPs, a clear link can be discerned in their geographical location and the nature of questions raised by them. For instance, Ninong Ering, an MP from Arunachal Pradesh, raised questions related to the boundary dispute and Indian territory shown on Chinese maps. But for many other questions, it is difficult to find any such relationship as for example in the case of MPs from Maharashtra showing concern over China building dams over the Brahmaputra.
Ministry of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj (MEA-SS), question No. 2841, 11 May 2016; for a more detailed answer see MEA-SS, question No. 645, 26 November 2014.
 MEA-SS, question No. 2841, 11 May 2016.
 MEA-SS, question No. 568, 27 April 2016.
 MEA-SS, question No. 558, 2 December 2015.
 MEA-SS, question No. 3141, 16 March 2016.
 MEA-SS, question No. 3677, 18 March 2015.
 Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman (MoCI-NS), question No. 5, 25 April 2016; MoCI-NS, question No. 2703, 14 March 2016.
 MoCI-NS, question No. 5, 25 April 2016; MoCI-NS, question No. 2703, 14 March 2016
 MoCI-NS, question No. 2600, 14 March, 2016.
 MoCI-NS, question No. 2857, 13 March, 2015.
 MoCI-NS, question No. 618, 8 May 2015.
 MoCI-NS, question No. 3328, 12 December, 2014.
 Ministry of Defence, Manohar Parrikar (MoD-MP), question No. 717, 24 July 2015.
 MoD-MP, question No. 4043, 20 March 2015.
 MoD-MP, question No. 4043, 20 March 2015
 MoD-MP, question No. 4043, 20 March 2015
 MoD-MP, question No. 7033, 8 May 2015.
 MoD-MP, question No. 3196, 7 August 2015; MoD-MP, question No. 2837, 13 March 2015.
 Ministry of Defence, Arun Jaitley (MoD-AJ), question No. 2556, 25 July 2014; MEA-SS, question No. 1771, 4 May 2016.
 MoD-AJ, question No. 2440, 25 July 2014; MEA-SS, question No. 135, 16 July 2014.
 For details on the distribution of seats in the parliament see http://22.214.171.124/Loksabha/Members/PartywiseList.aspx
 MEA-SS, question No. 2841, 11 May 2016; MoD-AJ, question No. 2440, 25 July 2014.
 MEA-SS, question No. 3141, 16 March 2016; MEA-SS, question No. 171, 9 July 2014.