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The Dragon spews fire at the Elephant

October 18, 2009

The Dragon spews fire at the Elephant
By M K Bhadrakumar
Asia Times
October 15, 2009

The surprise element was almost completely
lacking. The expectation in Delhi for a while has
been that sooner or later Beijing would hit out.
Verbal affronts from India were becoming a daily
occurrence and a nuisance for Being. Not a single
day has passed for the past several months when
either influential sections of the Indian
strategic community or the English-language
media, tied by the umbilical cord of financial
patronage to the Indian establishment, failed to
indulge in some vituperative attack on Chinese
policies and conduct towards India.

Yet, when it finally came on Wednesday, the
timing of the cumulative Chinese reaction was
most curious. Beijing chose a very special day on
its diplomatic calendar to make its point. The
prime ministers of Russia and Pakistan, Vladimir
Putin and Yousuf Raza Gilani, and the United
States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt
Campbell, were on official visits to Beijing.
Indeed, Campbell had come on an important mission
to prepare for the visit by US President Barack Obama to China next month.

Beijing made a big point that its current ruckus
with Delhi was less bilateral and more
geopolitical. Indeed, Wednesday's People's Daily
commentary on India resorted to a colloquium that
hasn't been heard in the dialogue across the Himalayas for very many years.

On the previous day, in two statements the
Chinese Foreign Ministry provided the "curtain
raiser" for the People's Daily commentary. The
first statement focused attention on the recent
Indian media campaign against China and asked
Delhi to be "conducive toward promoting mutual
understanding", rather than publishing false reports on border tensions.

The second statement was substantive and it
conveyed that Beijing was "seriously
dissatisfied" by the visit of the Indian prime
minister 10 days ago to the state of Arunachal
Pradesh (which China claims as its territory).
The Chinese spokesman said, "China and India have
not reached any formal agreement on the border
issue. We demand that the Indian side pay
attention to the serious and just concerns of the
Chinese side and not to provoke incidents in the
disputed region, in order to facilitate the
healthy development of China-India relations."

The Indian reaction came within hours and was at
the highest level of the foreign-policy
establishment. Foreign Minister S M Krishna
brushed off the Chinese statement, saying, "Well,
regardless of what others say, it is the
government of India's stated position that
Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India.
We rest at that." He added that Delhi was
"disappointed and concerned" over China's objection.

The diplomatic backdrop was evidently getting
electrified when the People's Daily struck. It
literally tore into Indian policies. Leaving
aside specifics, it dealt with what Beijing
assessed to be the core issue - India's obsession
with superpower status born out of its rooted
complexes of having "constantly been under
foreign rule ... throughout history" and its
"recklessness and arrogance" towards its
neighbors. "The dream of superpower is mingled
with the thought of hegemony, which places the
South Asian giant in an awkward situation and
results in its repeated failure," the commentary pointed out.

The striking thing about the Chinese commentary
was that it echoed a widespread criticism that is
quite often voiced by India's neighbors. The
commentary sought to establish a commonality of
concerns between China and India's neighbors over
the rising tide of Indian nationalism in the past
decade or so with its disagreeable manifestations
for regional cooperation. "To everyone's
disappointment, India pursues a foreign policy of
'befriend the far and attack the near' ... India,
which vows to be a superpower, needs to have its
eyes on relations with neighbors and abandon its
recklessness and arrogance as the world is
undergoing earthshaking changes," the commentary claimed.

Beijing surely factored in that almost without
exception, India's neighbors voice similar
concerns and are currently seeking friendly and
close ties with China to balance India's
perceived overbearing attitude towards them. In
effect, the Chinese commentary tapped into the
near-total isolation that India faces today in the South Asian region.

Interestingly, the People's Daily followed up by
running a sequel on Thursday, this time harshly
telling Delhi a couple of things. One, it
underlined that Delhi was seriously mistaken if
it estimated that China could be hustled into a
border settlement with India through pressure
tactics. It affirmed categorically that the
border dispute could be settled or a substantial
step forward approaching a final solution could
be taken "only on the condition that both of them
[China and India] are ready to shake off the
traditional and deep-seated misunderstandings".

Two, the commentary alleged that Delhi was
getting "disoriented when making decisions"
because it harbored a notion that the US was
viewing India as a counterweight to China. Delhi
was also becoming susceptible to the US stratagem
to "woo India away from Russia and China and, in
the meantime, feeding India's ambition to match
China force by force by its ever burgeoning arms sales to India".

Most important, the commentary concluded that
although China and India "will never pose a
mortal foe to each other", if the Indian
establishment and a "handful of irresponsible
media institutions" didn't restrain themselves,
"an accidental slip or go-off at the border would
erode into a war", which neither side wanted. It
is very obvious that Beijing sees the Indian
establishment's hand behind the vituperative
media campaign against China in recent months.

How the tensions pan out is another matter. In
immediate terms, a flashpoint arises as the
Indian government has approved a visit by the
exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama,
in November to Arunachal Pradesh. No doubt, if
the visit goes ahead, the Sino-Indian
relationship will nosedive into a corridor of
deep chill from which it may take a long time for the two countries to emerge.

The curious thing is this will be taking place at
a time when the geopolitics of the region and
world development as a whole will be passing
through a transformative period of far-reaching
significance. Given the fact that China's global
power is an established reality, India may be
painting itself into a corner by opting out of a
mutual understanding with Beijing precisely at
this juncture when the agenda of global issues
and regional security is heavily laden.

On the contrary, if Delhi pays heed to Chinese
sensitivities about the Dalai Lama's
peregrinations in November, it will be accused by
the Indian nationalist camp as buckling under
Chinese pressure. An element of grandstanding,
unfortunately, is entering into the Sino-Indian
relationship, which runs against the grain of its
maturing in the recent decade.

Equally, a question mark now envelops the
rationale of India hosting the Russian and
Chinese foreign ministers in the coming weeks
within the framework of the trilateral format. To
be sure, the equilibrium within the format has
been disturbed. Russia and China have been
developing an intense strategic partnership;
India's traditional ties with Moscow have
significantly weakened under the current pro-US
leadership in Delhi; and, now, India's
normalization process with China has suffered a severe setback.

At the same time, Russia has begun a serious
attempt to choreograph a positive trajectory to
its languishing relationship with Pakistan by
taking it out of the trough of benign neglect and
injecting some dynamism into it. China, of
course, enjoys an "all-weather friendship" with Pakistan.

Indian policies are predicated on the assumption
that a Sino-US clash of interests is inevitable
as China's surge as a world power has become
unstoppable, and Washington will have use of
Delhi as a counterweight to Beijing sooner than
most people would think. Surely, there is
disquiet in Delhi about the Barack Obama
administration's regional policies, which no
longer accord India the status of a pre-eminent
power and which place primacy on the US's
alliance with India's arch rival, Pakistan.

But Delhi hopes that Obama will ultimately have
to pay heed to US business interests and
therefore India holds a trump card in the
burgeoning market that it offers to the American
corporate sector - unlike Pakistan, which is a
basket case at best, a can of worms at worst.

Simply put, India is estimated to be the biggest
arms buyer in the world and a market estimated to
be worth US$100 billion is presenting itself to
exploitation by American arms manufacturers -
provided Obama has his wits about him and
realizes on which side his South Asian bread is
buttered. Delhi hopes to incrementally pose an
existential choice to Obama through an idiom that
the US political establishment understands
perfectly well: the business interests of its military-industrial complex.

One thing is clear. Powerful Indian lobbyists
have been at work in whipping up a war hysteria
and xenophobia over China. The Washington Post
recently featured a Delhi-datelined report on the
shenanigans of these Indian fat cats who mainly
comprise retired Indian defense officials and
senior bureaucrats who act as commission agents
for big American arms manufacturers. There was a
time when the Sandhurst-trained Indian military
personnel retired to the cool hill stations and
spent the sunset of their lives playing bridge or
going for long walks and regaling their visitors
with their wartime stories while sipping whisky.

Nowadays, the smart ones among the retired
generals and top bureaucrats take up residence in
Delhi's suburbs and overnight transform
themselves into "strategic thinkers" and begin
networking with some American think-tank or the
other, while probing a new lease on life as
brokers or commission agents for arms manufacturers.

All in all, it is virtually certain that these
lobbyists can expect a windfall out of
Sino-Indian tensions. After all, a case has been
neatly made about the imperatives of a close
Indian tie-up with the US. The current Indian
political elite doesn't really need any prompting
in that direction, but all the same, a degree of
public accountability may at times become
necessary. Transparency International has
bestowed on India the distinction of being one of
the most corrupt countries on the planet and it
is an open secret that India's arms procurement
program provides a vast avenue to siphon off national wealth.

If the Indian market for military hardware is
worth $100 billion, it is quite understandable
that a gravy train is getting ready for the
Indian elites. The People's Daily commentator may
have unwittingly waved off the train from the
platform. And that was exactly what the Indian elites and fat cats wanted.

Now, all eyes will turn toward the visit by
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to
Washington in November. Obama has let it be known
that Manmohan will be the first dignitary to be
honored with a state banquet during his presidency.

The Americans are vastly experienced with the
Indians' Himalayan ego and by now they know well
enough where and how to tickle Indian vanities.
How they pedal fresh dreams to the Indians and
pick up the fruits of their endeavors will be
keenly watched not only by the multitude of
Indians back at home, but also by the Pakistanis, Chinese and the Russians.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat
in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments
included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri
Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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