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China-India border talks highlight rising tensions

August 17, 2009

By John Chan
August 15, 2009

The 13th round of border negotiations between
China and India, held in New Delhi from August 7
to 8, became a focus of mounting tensions between the two regional rivals.

China sent its special representative State
Councilor Dai Bingguo to meet with an Indian
delegation led by National Security Adviser M. K.
Narayanan. According to the Hindu newspaper,
citing "informed sources," the immediate aim of
the talks was to agree on an outline for a final
stage of negotiations, in which "both sides could
get down to the actual nuts and bolts of the
whole issue--negotiating the demarcation and delineation of the border."

In other words, nothing concrete has even begun
to be discussed since the talks were established
in 2003. The only reported achievement of the
latest round was an agreement to establish a
hotline between the two prime ministers. India
has only established such a hotline previously
with Russia, so this is regarded as friendly gesture toward China.

China has shared a 4,000-kilometre-long "Line of
Actual Control" with India since 1959, stretching
from northwest Kashmir to Burma. In 1914, Britain
drew the "McMahon Line" between India and Tibet,
sowing the seeds of the future conflict between
the two countries. China claims about 90,000
square kilometres in northeast India, mainly in
the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing
regards as "South Tibet." India claims 43,180
square kilometres in China’s Aksai Chin region in eastern Kashmir.

Following conflicts over Tibet, the two countries
fought a border war in 1962, in which the Indian
forces were overrun. However, the Chinese army
withdrew and unilaterally declared a ceasefire.
The US had threatened to intervene to support
India. With growing Sino-Soviet tensions, and
Moscow refusing to back China against India,
Beijing was in no position for a full-scale war with India.

Since the early 1990s, unresolved border disputes
have once again become a potential flashpoint
between the two aspiring powers. Although China
is now India’s largest trade partner, tensions
between the two further intensified with the
global financial crisis. India banned imports of a series of Chinese goods.

In April, in an unprecedented move, Beijing
attempted to block a $US2.9 billion Asian
Development Bank (ADB) loan to India that
included $US60 million for a flood control
project in Arunachal Pradesh. India’s project
rekindled a controversy that erupted in 2006,
when the Chinese ambassador to India declared
that the "whole state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory."

India obtained the ADB funding in June,
apparently with the support of the US and Japan,
after a vote by the ADB broad. China strongly protested the ADB's approval.

Also in June, New Delhi announced the deployment
of an additional 60,000 soldiers, along with
tanks and two squadrons of advanced SU-30MKI
strike aircraft, to the northeast state of Assam
(near Arunachal Pradesh), bringing the total
troop numbers in the area to 100,000.

In response, China’s official Global Times
published an editorial on June 9 warning India
"to consider whether or not it can afford the
consequences of a potential confrontation with
China." The editorial reminded New Delhi that
China had established close relations with
Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal and declared:
"China won’t make any compromises in its border disputes with India."

An unnamed Chinese official told the South China
Morning Post on August 7 that India had
intensified the border row with China by
obtaining the ADB funding through the support of
the US and Japan. "India has enough money to
develop Arunachal Pradesh," he declared. "But it
wanted to test the Chinese. China opposed the
loan application tooth and nail but India had its
way. We lost face. And we don’t like losing face.
We disgrace anyone who disgraces us."

Indian officials meanwhile complained that
Beijing had rejected their proposal for India to
retain Arunachal Pradesh in exchange for
accepting China’s control over Aksai Chin. An
Indian foreign ministry official told the South
China Morning Post: "China has developed a big
superiority complex. It thinks that any
give-and-take vis-à-vis India will dent its
self-projected image as the predominant power in Asia."

China’s ambassador to India, Zhang Yan, urged
both sides to resolve their disputes "with the
utmost political wisdom." Brahma Chellaney, a
strategic analyst at the New Delhi-based Centre
for Policy Research, told the Indian Express:
"Mr. Zhang’s syrupy words are designed to salvage
the [border] negotiations from the damage
inflicted by vituperative attacks on India in
China’s state-run media. China’s objective is to
keep India engaged in endless and fruitless
border talks so that Beijing, in the meantime,
can change the Himalayan balance decisively in
its favour through development of military power and infrastructure."

In 2006, China built a major railway into the
Tibetan plateau, a project widely regarded by
Indian officials and defence analysts as designed
for the rapid deployment of troops to attack
India, if need be. China has also expanded its
influence in a number of South Asian countries,
including the construction of a "string of
pearls" of ports and other facilities for
deploying warships in the Indian Ocean. These
developments have raised concerns in New Delhi
about China’s intrusion into India’s "backyard."

The bitter exchanges spilled into the open after
the chauvinist China International Strategy Net
web site urged the encouragement of communal
divisions in India in order to break it up into
20-30 small states. "There cannot be two suns in
the sky," the web site declared, arguing that
Asia could have only one dominant power. The
Financial Times noted that the web site was run
by Kang Lingyi, "who took part in hacking into
the US government websites in 1999 following US
bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Sites
such as his are part of the Communist Party’s
strategy to allow nationalism to grow to strengthen its political legitimacy."

An outcry in the Indian media forced the Indian
foreign ministry to issue a statement on August
10. It stated that the article "appears to be an
expression of individual opinion and does not
accord with the officially stated position of
China on India-China relations conveyed to us on
several occasions," such as the previous week’s border talks.

India is seeking to become a "world power" by
aligning with the US, which is actively seeking
to woo New Delhi through a series of nuclear,
economic and military agreements. China attempted
to block India’s access to the Nuclear Supplies
Group after the former Bush administration
pursued a civil nuclear deal with India in order
to make it a strategic counterweight against
Beijing. China has also assisted India’s rival
Pakistan to build nuclear reactors and supplied it with arms.

The China-India rivalry has extended well into
the Indian Ocean. In the name of fighting piracy,
China recently sent warships to Somali waters to
escort its merchant fleet, which is vital for the
Chinese economy. The deployment is part of
Beijing’s development of a blue-water navy. India
is even more concerned by China’s growing
influence in Sri Lanka. Beijing provided arms and
diplomatic support to Colombo, helping its
military crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in May.

A week before the China-India talks, the Indian
defence ministry’s naval planner, Alok Bhatnagar,
announced that it would build 107 warships over
the next decade, including aircraft carriers,
destroyers, frigates and nuclear submarines, to
rival China’s fleet. "China is developing its
navy at a great rate. Its ambitions in the Indian
Ocean are quite clear," Bhatnagar declared.

At present, India is a lesser power than China.
According to an article written by India’s former
chief economic adviser, Shankar Acharya, and
published in the Financial Times on July 29,
China’s economy is three times the size of
India’s, with per capita income 2.5 times that of
India. China’s share of the world’s merchandise
exports is almost nine times India’s. "Despite
the rapid growth of India’s information
technology-based service exports since 1995,"
Acharya wrote, "in 2007, China’s total service
exports exceed India’s by 40 percent."

India’s chairman of the chiefs of staff, Admiral
Sureesh Mehta, admitted on August 10 that India
was no match for China militarily. "In military
terms, both conventionally and unconventionally,
we can neither have the capability nor the
intention to match China force for force," he
said. Mehta said India’s annual defence budget of
$US30 billion was much smaller than China’s $70
billion. He proposed avoiding conflict with
China, "as it would be foolhardy to compare India and China as equals."

However, the US is tipping the balance, seeking
to woo India away from Russia and China. This is
bound up with the Obama administration’s strategy
to focus on the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and
surrounding Central Asian areas, aiming to
control the energy-rich heartland of the Eurasian
continent. During US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton’s trip to India in July, she signed a key
defence pact, laying the basis to expand the
already burgeoning US arms sales to India,
including fighters and high-tech weapons.

The Wall Street Journal noted: "With their
companies jockeying for market share abroad and
their militaries modernising at home, China and
India have been regarding each other less as
friendly neighbours and more as future rivals."
The newspaper cited Brajesh Mishra, a former
Indian national security adviser who headed the
previous border talks with China. He urged India
to deepen its ties with the US and other
countries. "The Chinese must know that if they
create something on the border, there would be an
instant reaction far beyond what happened in 1962," he said.

The US nuclear accord with India not only
provides New Delhi with advanced nuclear
technology but also effectively accepts India as
a nuclear weapons power. In July, India unveiled
its first nuclear-powered submarine armed with
nuclear missiles, making it the sixth country in
the world to acquire such weapons systems. This
only underscores the dangers presented by the
sharpening rivalry between the two regional
powers that is being encouraged by Washington.
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