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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Dalai Lama at apex of Sino-Indian tensions

November 11, 2009

By Peter Lee
Asia Times
November 10, 2009

India has engaged in high-profile hand wringing
over the Barack Obama administration's renewed
focus on developing the United States'
relationship with China, as New Delhi perceives a
pattern of diplomatic, economic and military encirclement by Beijing.

A Chinese threat is seen in the "string of
pearls" - China's access to maritime facilities
in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and
the Maldives - and in the military buildup on
India's eastern border that threatens to sever
the "chicken's neck", the narrow Siliguri
Corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh that
connects India's landlocked eastern boondock to the national heartland.

In July 2009, one pundit predicted war with China
"by 2012", in the article "'Nervous China may
attack India by 2012'" [1], published by the
Times of India: "China will launch an attack on
India before 2012. There are multiple reasons for
a desperate Beijing to teach India the final
lesson, thereby ensuring Chinese supremacy in
Asia in this century," Bharat Verma, editor of
the Indian Defense Review, wrote in the article.

But a look at prevailing trends in South Asia
indicates that China's adventurism will be
moderated by its own vulnerabilities. The fate of
Tibet could emerge as Asia's defining security
issue - to Beijing's detriment - if China and
India can't manage their differences.

An adjustment of the special Indo-American
relationship consummated under president George W
Bush was inevitable once the Obama administration
entered office in January 2009.

One of the most erratic and destabilizing
initiatives of Bush's erratic and destabilizing
presidency was his opening to India. Bush and his
national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice,
entered office determined to upgrade relations
with Delhi. To do so, a key diplomatic and legal
impediment to intimate security cooperation had
to be swept aside: India's development of its
civilian and military nuclear programs outside of
the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
structure. This initiative was not popular, even
inside the Bush administration.

Robert Blackwill, the abrasive, arm-twisting
(literally - he left government in 2004, shortly
after he allegedly yanked the arm of a female
embassy functionary in a rage over a missing
airline reservation) US ambassador to India was a
mentor to Rice and one of the most aggressive
advocates of the new relationship.

He described his struggles with non-proliferation
types and the pro-Pakistan former secretary of
state, Colin Powell, and his deputy, Richard
Armitage, in colorful terms in the article: "What
are the origins of the transformation of US-Indian relations?" [2]

"... [T]he non-proliferation "ayatollahs", as the
Indians call them, who despite the fact that the
White House was intent on redefining the
relationship, sought to maintain without
essential change all of the non-proliferation
approaches toward India that had been pursued in
the [Bill] Clinton administration. It was as if
they had not digested the fact that George W Bush
was now president. During the first year of the
Bush presidency, I vividly recall receiving
routine instructions in New Delhi from the State
Department that contained all the
counterproductive language from the Clinton
administration's approach to India's nuclear
weapons program. These nagging nannies were alive
and well in that State Department labyrinth. I,
of course, did not implement those instructions.
It took me months and many calls to the White
House to finally cut off the head of this snake back home."

Assisted by Blackwill's persistent
insubordination and the determination of India's
foreign secretary at the time, Shyam Saran, Bush
cut the Gordian knot in a manner that suited his
world view of the US and its allies unconstrained
by the international system and its network of
treaties and instead dispensing instruction to it.

The US unilaterally concluded a nuclear deal with
India that made a mockery of the NPT and logic by
exempting eight Indian reactors capable of
generating fissile weapons material from
inspection. Then the United States orchestrated
acceptance of the deal by the International
Atomic Energy Agency and, after considerable arm
twisting, the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. The deal
was ratified and signed by the US and Indian
governments in late 2008, in one of the last acts of the Bush presidency.

The deal, enshrined in US law as the United
States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and
Non-proliferation Enhancement Act, was sold as a
reward for India's good record as a democracy and
as a non-proliferator as it developed its nuclear
program outside the NPT. India's
less-than-stellar record as contributor to
nuclear tensions in South Asia - it had danced to
the brink of a nuclear exchange with Pakistan as
recently as 2002 over Kashmir - was pointedly ignored.

India was overjoyed at its good fortune, having
gained an undeserved pass for its nuclear program
and recognition of a privileged role as an
American security partner at the expense of its detested rival, Pakistan.

Bush remains a popular figure to the Indian
establishment. Tellingly, after he emerged from
the traditional one-year hiatus of presidents who
have left office, one of his first stops was the
hospitable venue of the Hindustan Times-sponsored
Leadership Initiative Conference in New Delhi.

The Hindustan Times concluded its interview with
Bush, "India's voice on the global stage very
important: Bush" [3] with the following
question/statement: There are some who believe
you have been the best US president for India.

In his reply to the newspaper, Bush - while
modestly stating that he would await history's
verdict - did not presume to disagree.

When asked what the United States got out of the
nuclear deal, Bush jocularly cited reduced import
barriers for India's luscious mangoes in the US market as justification.

A more realistic case was made that US suppliers
of nuclear gear would benefit from India's entry
into the global market for plants and equipment,
though Russian and French suppliers, with their
proven export records, would be expected to fare
better selling to India than America's civilian nuclear plant builders.

Beyond its shortage of unambiguous benefits, the
deal brought a number of negatives with it.

The Indian transaction - and the inescapable
conclusion that the United States had
institutionalized a double standard of
forgiveness for its allies and selective
enforcement against its enemies - has created
inevitable problems for the United States in its
attempts to create a united front against Iran.

When the Bush administration declined to extend
similar nuclear privileges to the (admittedly,
undemocratic, serial-proliferating) government of
Pakistan, it contributed to the sense of anxiety
and suspicion of the US within the Pakistani
military that dogs American efforts to gain
Islamabad's wholehearted participation in its
bloody AfPak strategy to this day.

It also brought the security tensions implicit in
the Sino-Indian relationship to the surface.
China vigorously if fruitlessly opposed the
Nuclear Suppliers' Group waiver to India, earning
considerable resentment from India in the process.

The primary significance of the Sino-American
relationship was, apparently, geostrategic. In
its official statements, the Bush administration
never alluded to a significant rationale for the Indo-American alliance: China.

After he left government, Blackwill was
considerably less circumspect. While he
acknowledged that there was no sense of immediate
existential threat underlying from Beijing
underpinning the relationship between Washington
and New Delhi, he went on to say:

"Like some in Washington, India is enormously
attentive to the rise of Chinese power ... as the
Indian military thinks strategically, its
contingency planning concentrates on China. It is
partially in this context (as well as energy
security) that India plans a blue-water navy with
as many as four aircraft carriers. India will
also eventually have longer-range combat aircraft
and is working on extending the range of its
missile forces. What other US ally, except Japan,
thinks about China in this prudent way? On the
contrary, witness the current widespread
eagerness within the European Union to lift its
arms embargo against China. As a Chinese general
said to me a few years ago, European policy
toward China can be summed up in a six-letter word: Airbus."

The American conservative's platonic ideal of
confrontational Sino-Indian relations driven by
border disputes (and a unique interpretation of
the phrase "honest broker") was supplied in a
Wall Street Journal op-ed: "The China-India
Border Brawl" [4] by Jeff Smith of the right-wing
American Foreign Policy Council in June 2009:

"What is Washington's role in this Asian rivalry?
... Washington should leverage its friendly
relations with both capitals to promote bilateral
dialogue and act as an honest broker where
invited. But it should also continue to build
upon the strategic partnership with India
initiated by former president George W Bush, and
support its ally, as it did at the Nuclear
Suppliers' group and the ADB [Asian Development
Bank], where necessary. Washington must also make
clear that it considers the established,
decades-old border between the two to be permanent.

Most importantly, though, the Sino-Indian border
dispute should be viewed as a test for proponents
of China's "peaceful rise" theory. If China
becomes adventurous enough to challenge India's
sovereignty or cross well-defined red lines,
Washington must be willing to recognize the signal and respond appropriately."

Alas for India, its privileged position near the
heart of American security calculations did not
survive the global financial crisis, the
deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration.

Obama, who won his Nobel Peace Prize in part for
his efforts towards world nuclear disarmament,
not the granting of deals to ostensibly
right-minded and responsible nuclear democracies,
pledged during his presidential campaign to
obtain ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Indian experts promptly announced that India's
first hydrogen bomb test had been a dud, implying
that enmeshing India in international nuclear
agreements would be an unacceptable compromise of
India's ability to perfect its weapons and ensure
its security. (See India reels under explosive
nuclear charge, Asia Times Online)

More significantly, the Obama administration has
embarked on a policy of "strategic reassurance"
towards China, intended to obtain China's active
assistance in resuscitating the global economy
and to ensure it will not dump its massive holdings of US public debt.

The US-India relationship remains, but for the
time being it is stripped of the China-pushback
elements that imbued the Bush administration's
initiative with its appeal, sense of urgency, and bilateral recklessness.

In South Asia, the US no longer has the Bush
administration's luxury of cultivating relations
with India while a medium-intensity conflict
festers in Afghanistan. Instead, the US has found
itself desperate for effective cooperation from
Pakistan as it attempts to forestall a political
and military collapse in Afghanistan that, aside
from its strategic implications, would be a
considerable embarrassment for the current US president.

The Obama administration made an effort in good
faith to square the US/Afghanistan/Pakistan/India
circle by promoting a grand bargain involving the
disputed region of Kashmir. In an attempt to win
the support and gratitude of the Pakistan
military - and enable the shift of resources to
the Afghanistan border - the US tried to put
negotiation of Kashmir on the regional agenda and
revealed the first conspicuous fissures in the Sino-American relationship.

The Indian government is resolutely opposed to
internationalization of the Kashmir issue, since
the demographics are against it. The area is
overwhelmingly Muslim - even more so now that a
terror campaign has uprooted almost 300,000 Hindu
residents and turned them into internally
displaced persons - and the inevitable
destination of a good faith negotiation would
appear to be the alienation of a large part of
India's current holding of Jammu and Kashmir.

At New Delhi's vociferous insistence, Kashmir was
deleted from US special envoy for Afghanistan and
Pakistan (AfPak), Richard Holbrooke's portfolio,
and the US State Department sent him off to try
to solve the AfPak mess without explicit
reference to the central preoccupation of Pakistan's army.

Beyond assuring that the desperately distracted
Pakistan government would be deprived of the good
offices of any third party to overcome the
entrenched Indian position on Kashmir, the
decoupling of Pakistan from India's geopolitical
concerns also confirmed a more subtle shift: the
near-total marginalization of Pakistan as a
Chinese asset in South Asian affairs.

Although the Pakistan security establishment
retains its loyalty and appreciation of China as
a genuine ally, it is enmeshed in a bloody,
distracting struggle with the Taliban while its
civilian leadership finds itself desperately
reliant on US arms, aid, and diplomatic good offices.

The Obama administration has also provided signal
assistance to India in dealing with another
nettlesome ally of Beijing on its border: Myanmar.

Myanmar has been courted by India for years, even
as persistent US advocacy of democracy in Myanmar
and the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi pushed the
junta deeper into Beijing's embrace. Now, the
United States has adopted a policy of engagement
marked this week by the visit of US
Undersecretary of State Kurt Campbell - whose
primary objective appears to be to help India wean Myanmar away from China.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that India now
finds - with its western and eastern headaches
reduced if not eliminated - that it has the
leisure to involve itself in a border spat with
China on the matter of Beijing's claim on a
remote ethnic-Tibetan enclave in the Indian state
of Arunachal Pradesh and, specifically, the
little town of Tawang, the town that the Dalai
Lama - to considerable Chinese tooth-gnashing and
with the full-throated support of the Indian
government - arrived in on Sunday for a five-day visit.

Although Western observers tend to dismiss the
Sino-Indian border dispute as a matter of
juvenile posturing by two aspiring superpowers
who ought to know better, there is a deadly
serious element to the dispute over these remote
areas - the destabilizing and, to Beijing,
profoundly threatening problem of the hostile
Tibetan diaspora on the People's Republic of
China's (PRC) borders with India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Beijing's top Indian affairs boffin, Ma Jiali,
has identified the border dispute, not economic
competition or maritime security, as the central
problem of Sino-Indian relations.

As demonstrated by the unrest in 2008 throughout
the vast ethnic-Tibetan areas of China and South
Asia, the PRC has been unable to get a grip on
its Tibetan problem, despite 60 years of
assiduously working the military, security,
political, economic and diplomatic levers at its disposal.

Over the past four decades, China has profited in
its clumsy grappling with the Tibetan issue from
forbearance by the international community,
especially its neighbor to the south, India.

Despite hosting the exiled Tibetan spiritual
leader, the Dalai Lama, since his flight from
Lhasa in 1959, the Indian government has refused
to allow the Tibetan diaspora to engage in
activities that directly attack PRC rule in the
Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan.

China has exploited the Dalai Lama's commitment
to a "Middle Way" of negotiated autonomy, to
entangle the Tibetan government-in-exile in
endless, fruitless and seemingly insincere negotiations.

However, it appears that generational changes
within the Tibetan movement, the evolving
geopolitical and economic stature of India, and
Washington's willingness to partner with New
Delhi are converging to introduce elements of
instability and dangerous unpredictability into
China's relationship with India.

To forestall Chinese interference in the
selection process, the Dalai Lama has indicated
that his successor may be found outside of China,
and may even be selected before his death.

Whoever succeeds the Dalai Lama, and however he
is chosen, increased militancy by proponents of
Tibetan independence within the diaspora is
virtually assured. Explicit independence
activists like the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC)
have historically respected the desires of the
Dalai Lama and moderated their activities. They
are unlikely to show the same deference to the
young man who is rumored to be the Dalai Lama's
preferred successor, Ugyen Thinley Dorjee, the 17th Karmapa.

The Karmapa, a charismatic 22-year-old who
escaped Tibet dramatically in 1999, may serve his
people well as as telegenic, intelligent and
pious face of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, but
he is unlikely to command authority within the
movement. He comes from the competing Black Hat
sect and has been locked into an embarrassing
struggle with a powerful leader within his own
sect who has recognized a competing Karmapa. He
has been locked out of the sect's monastery and
denied access to his customary regalia. Instead,
he resides at Dharamsala in India with the Dalai
Lama and is seen as little more than his protege.

In the context of the South Asian status quo, in
which all nations subscribe to the "One China"
policy, as well as discourage Tibetan political
activity and monitor and suppress Tibetan
militancy with various degrees of enthusiasm, the
loss of the Dalai Lama's moderating influence and
an uptick in rhetoric and violence by angry
Tibetan emigres would not concern Beijing overmuch.

What concerns the PRC is the possibility that
India, flush with economic development and US
backing, would be willing to confront China and
roll back its influence in South Asia by choosing
to play "the Tibet card" with the help of Tibetan
militants operating from havens located in the
cross-border territories of India and its allies.

The Christian Science Monitor in "Rivals China,
India in escalating war of words" [5], sought out
Chinese and Indian pundits in the context of the
Dalai Lama's visit this week to Tawang:

The fierce People's Daily editorial was "a
message showing Beijing's intention", says Han.
"They don't want the Indian side to do anything to play the Tibet card."

New Delhi, however, "has no bargaining leverage
with China except the Dalai Lama", says Dr Pant.
"He is the last thing they can use against China ..."

The Times of India, in the article "India and the
Tibet card" [6] provided some additional
background information by recounting the result
of China's continual fishing in the troubled
waters of India's increasingly disgruntled and
independent-minded satellite state on the Tibet border, Nepal:

"India has also played the Tibet card, at least
twice in recent times. Kondapalli [of Jawaharlal
Nehru University] points out that "in 1987 and
2003, when China began supplying arms to the
Royal Nepalese Army, India did play the Tibet
card. In 2003, foreign secretary Shyam Sharan
went to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama. It was
a message to China: Don't interfere in our backyard."

The desire to display and deter on their
contested border in the area of Tibet has led
both China and India to develop and militarize
the remote communities there even beyond the
expected investments of two burgeoning regional
powers that wish to secure and integrate their most remote territories.

The Sino-Indian border has never been fixed by
mutual agreement between the two nations. In the
1950s, China proposed a swap in which China would
keep a desolate stretch in western India called
the Aksai Chin, claimed by India, over which the
Chinese had constructed a strategic road linking
Xinjiang and Tibet. In return, China would
recognize Indian control of a piece of land in
what was then known as India's North East
Frontier Agency (NEFA) nestled against the Myanmar border and China.

Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru,
miscalculating China's willingness to go to war,
refused the deal and instead sent troops into Aksai Chin to expel the Chinese.

Disagreement escalated into a full-scale war in
1962. China's People's Liberation Army (PLA)
administered a thorough drubbing to the
unprepared Indian army, expelling Indian units
from Aksai Chin, and occupying contested areas in the NEFA.

The Chinese leadership, wary of becoming
embroiled in a prolonged war with India on top of
problems with the Soviet Union, the US and
Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, fatefully
decided to withdraw unilaterally from the
territory it had taken in NEFA, instead of
continuing military operations and occupation to
bargain the border dispute towards a final conclusion.

Today, the swap - actually, the acknowledgement
of de facto control of territories each side
already occupies - is still on the table. The PRC
has the (virtually) uninhabited Aksai Chin
tightly in its grasp, while India has reorganized
the NEFA and created the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the land China claimed.

There's one wrinkle. For several years, China has
indicated that it would surrender its claims over
all of Arunachal Pradesh except Tawang - the same
Tawang that the Dalai Lama visited on November 8.
That is the same Tawang that the Dalai Lama - in
2008, in a statement that possibly reflected
frustration at serving as a punching bag for
duplicitous Chinese negotiators and aggrieved
Tibetan militants in the aftermath of the bloody
unrest inside China - stepped into the political
arena and identified not as "Tibetan" (as he had
done previously in an acknowledgment of its
cultural character while sidestepping the
political issue of whose territory it should belong to) but as "part of India".

To be fair to the Chinese, Tawang is indisputably Tibetan.

In a twist that probably accounts for Tawang's
existence as a Chinese negotiating point, in
1947, the Tibetan government asked for only one
modification to the border arrangements that the
British had made (and China has consistently
refused to recognize): it explicitly asked that
India acknowledge Tibetan authority in Tawang.
That is a persuasive indication that the district
- which protrudes into the president-day Tibetan
Autonomous Region like an inconveniently extended
thumb - falls outside what India might construe
as its natural Himalayan boundary.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that the
Chinese are serious about recovering Tawang.
Tawang is the site of the Tawang Monastery, known
as Galden Namgyal Lhatse, founded in the 17th
century. It calls itself the "second-oldest
Buddhist monastery in the world after Lhasa",
hosted the Dalai Lama when he fled the Chinese
occupation in 1959, and the Tibetan spiritual
leader has visited it four times since then. The
Dalai Lama has chosen at least one of Tawang's
abbots and provides financial support to the
monastery, which provides political as well as
religious leadership for a community of 20,000
Monpa tribespeople of Tibetan extraction.

Turning Tawang over to the tender mercies of the
PRC in the face of the horror, outrage and
resistance of a large, powerful Buddhist
monastery, an aggrieved population, the global
Tibetan community, and a large swath of Indian
and world opinion would appear to be a political
impossibility for New Delhi and utter folly for Beijing.

Given Beijing's current anxieties over the future
direction of the Tibetan independence movement
and India's increased assertiveness, it will
probably persist in its claim to Tawang simply to
have a convenient casus belli at hand if and when
it wants to escalate tensions in a relatively
controlled manner and lay claim to the Indian government's attention.

In an indication to Chinese, Tibetan and world
opinion that the contested border is not a place
where China can provoke India at little
diplomatic and military cost, the Indian
government announced in June the stationing of a
squadron of nuclear-capable Sukhoi 30 MKI
fighters within striking distance of Arunachal
Pradesh, and has mooted raising another two
divisions of mountain troops to serve there.

To emphasize the state's status as an integrated
and inalienable part of India, Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh made a campaign visit to
Arunachal Pradesh in October 2008 during the
run-up to the parliamentary elections. The
Chinese retaliated with an unsuccessful attempt
to block an Asian Development Bank loan to India
that included flood control in the state.

The Tawang situation benefits from the fact that
each side has occupied and fortified its
positions for decades and not too much can happen
there that can surprise and threaten. More
importantly, as India's ability to project power
into its border areas improves, the situation has
benefited from the discrete restraint of the
Congress Party's Manmohan and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao.

Manmohan characterized the Dalai Lama's trip as a
response to a local invitation extended to the
Dalai Lama that he wasn't involved in, an
absurdity considering the close attention New
Delhi pays to every issue surrounding the Tibetans.

In an apparent attempt to diffuse or redirect
tensions as the date of the trip approached, the
Chinese government cannily noted Manmohan's bland
statement, and decided to construe and condemn
the trip as the Dalai Lama's affront to
Sino-Indian ties instead of an insult to Beijing by New Delhi.

For India's part, in order to lower the
temperature for the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang
- which had already received in-depth coverage in
the New York Times, Time magazine, the Christian
Science Monitor and a host of other media
outlets, its Foreign Ministry canceled visas for
foreign journalists looking to cover the trip.

Disappointed foreign journalists - deprived of
the opportunity to observe the Dalai Lama sipping
butter tea in calm defiance of the Chinese dragon
- might as well instead journey a mere 640
kilometers westward to find the true epicenter of
Sino-Indian tension: Kathmandu.

The burgeoning crisis in Nepal - and the frantic
competition between New Delhi and Beijing for
influence in this volatile, nascent democracy cum
impending failed state - has attracted remarkably
little international attention.

Nepal is an independent country stretching across
the Himalayas between India and China.
Predominantly Hindu, it is a major destination
for Tibetans fleeing China. How many Tibetans
reside in Nepal is unknown. While 30,000 are
officially registered, thousands more entered the
country after 1989 illegally. At the same time,
the Nepalese government has bowed to Chinese
pressure and began to refuse asylum to Tibetan refugees.

The Tibetans -- and the Nepalese government --
aroused China's displeasure in 2008 when Nepal's
capital of Kathmandu was rocked by angry
anti-Chinese demonstrations in the aftermath of
the June unrest. An unexpected turn of political
events provided China with a much more
enthusiastic Nepalese partner just in time to
harass Tibetan anti-Olympic demonstrators in August of the same year.

India's Foreign Minister, Shyam Saran - the same
Saran who was architect of India's alliance with
the Bush administration - decided to do something
about Nepal's independent-minded but ineffective
monarchy, which was not only floundering in its
attempts to suppress an extensive Maoist
insurgency but also buying arms from China in the
process. Saran midwifed an alliance of the Maoist
insurgents and disaffected Kathmandu insiders
that toppled the king and brought Nepal's 240-year old monarchy to an end.

But then, in a shocking development that neither
Saran nor Nepal's self-styled revolutionary
vanguard likely expected, the Unified Communist
Party of Nepal (Maoist) - instead of becoming a
marginalized junior partner destined for
disarmament and irrelevance in a pro-Indian
regime of cooperative Kathmandu fat cats -
carried the day in the parliamentary elections
and won enough seats to form the government with
its chairman, Prachanda as prime minister.

The Nepalese Maoists, despite their name, are not
allies of the CCP. They are ideologically closer
to US Marxist Robert Avakian and Peru's Shining
Path than Hu Jintao and the CCP (which had been
supplying Nepal's King Gyanendra with weapons to
fight them and which they describe as "revisionist").

Nevertheless, the Maoists recognized India's
fundamental hostility toward their movement and
extended a hand of friendship to China. Prachanda
rejected the traditional pilgrimage to New Delhi
for his first overseas trip and went to Beijing
instead to attend the closing of the Beijing
Summer Olympics. He also announced that his
government intended to renegotiate the friendship
treaty between Nepal and India, which he termed unequal.

China accepted with alacrity. During Prachanda's
one-year tenure as prime minister, China
dispatched a dozen delegations to Kathmandu,
including two PLA delegations bringing security
assistance and a visit by China's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi.

A think-tank funded by the Indian Ministry of
Defense, the Institute for Defense Studies and
Analysis, highlighted in "Nepal: New 'Strategic
Partner' of China?" [7] a series of Chinese
statements that were qualitatively different from
the usual barrage of flattery and economic aid
that China concentrates on impoverished potential
junior allies, and which undoubtedly set alarm
bells ringing in New Delhi - Beijing seems to
have provided something that sounds very much
like a security guarantee to Nepal.

The increasing level of bilateral engagement also
indicates that China is wooing Nepal as a new
strategic partner. This has been confirmed by the
statements made by various Chinese officials. For
example, on 16 February 2009, Chinese Foreign
Minister Yang Jiechi said in Beijing that China
would prefer to work with Nepal on the basis of a
strategic partnership. In fact, Vice Minister of
International Department of the Central Committee
of Communist Party of China, Liu Hongcai said in
Kathmandu in February 2009 that 'we oppose any
move to interfere in the internal affairs of
Nepal by any force.' Similarly, on November 4,
2008, Liu Hong Chai, International Bureau Chief
of the Chinese Communist Party, stated that
'China will not tolerate any meddling from any
other country in the internal affairs of Nepal-
our traditional and ancient neighbor.

Prachanda reaffirmed Nepal's One China policy,
declared his government would not permit Nepal to
be used as a base for anti-China activity,
vigorously suppressed Tibetan demonstrations,
harassed Tibetan residents, and apparently turned
a blind eye when ten Chinese security personnel
crossed the border into Nepal to demand that a
photographer from the Agence France Presse news
agency erase his camera's memory chip.

It was too good to last.

Through an unknown combination of domestic
incompatibility and foreign interference, the
Maoists were frozen out of the Nepalese
government in May 2009 as the result of a scuffle
over removal of the pro-Indian army chief of
staff, and an unpopular but pro-Indian moderate
communist took over. (See Maoists isolated over
army chief, Asia Times Online, April 28)

The Maoists went into opposition and have carried
out their threat to gridlock all government
business - through a parliamentary boycott -
until matters are ordered to their satisfaction.

The small and incestuous world of Kathmandu
politics has been diverted by the non-stop bustle
of Nepalese politicians to New Delhi and Beijing to consult with their patrons.

The Maoist leadership visited China for an
eight-day visit in October 2009, obtaining a
statement from Beijing stating that the Maoists
should not be frozen out of the
constitution-writing and peace process activities
that the Nepalese Constituent Assembly is
supposed to be pursuing, despite their absence from the ruling coalition.

At the beginning of November, the Maoists
announced their push for power, albeit within the
context of Nepal's murky combination of
post-insurgency power-sharing and democracy.

They have promised to bring the current
government to its knees and return to power
through a program of mass action conducted over
the next two weeks, ostensibly non-violent but
undoubtedly accompanied by intimidation and
harassment courtesy of the bullyboys of the Maoists' Young Communists League.

Signs are that they will succeed.

The Nepalese government, which unwisely exhausted
its budget several months ahead of schedule
despite the knowledge that the Maoists had
gridlocked the budgetary process, rather abjectly
requested the Maoists not to engage in their mass
action. Prachanda also rather magnanimously
agreed not to shut down Kathmandu's international
airport at the urging of the Western embassies,
and predicted he would shortly be back in power.

As Nepal threatened to descend into chaos, the
Chinese government threw another $200 million
dollars at the mess, in the form of a credit from
its Export Import Bank for hydropower and
infrastructure projects at a concessionary interest rate of 1.75%.

The Maoists are keenly aware that they cannot
push things too far and Nepal will not become a
Chinese satrapy or a communist paradise.

The implicit shadow over all Nepalese actions
that displease New Delhi is the memory of what
India did to Sikkim in the 1970s: destabilization
of the regime of an inconvenient monarch,
followed by riots, request for assistance by
pro-Indian local politicians, the arrival of
Indian troops in the capital, and a plebiscite in
which, by a margin of 97.5% to 2.5%, voters chose to join the Indian Union.

In a tribute to the instincts of moderation and
business as usual, India's Congress Party, China,
and the US administration appear jointly
determined to keep a lid on things in Nepal - and in South Asia.

In an exercise in political triage that provided
hostile advocates with opportunities for outraged
posturing but reflected a sober understanding of
geopolitical realities and US interests,
President Obama postponed his meeting with the
Dalai Lama until after his visit to Beijing, and
allocated the first state visit by a foreign
leader to Washington to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan.

For its part, China knows that India holds the
cards - especially the Tibet card - in South
Asia. It is looking for a modus vivendi that
keeps the focus on economic growth instead of
military adventurism. The successful continuation
of the current regional security regime in South
Asia - based on denial of Tibetan aspirations
avoiding destabilizing actions at the Sino-Indian
border - relies to a significant extent on New Delhi.

The current system will be put to a more
stringent test if the bellicosely nationalistic
Bharatiya Janata Party were to replace the
relatively lamblike Congress party as the
majority party in India's parliament. By entering
into an equal alliance with the US and obtaining
international validation of India's treasured
nuclear program, the Congress party effectively
stole the BJP's national security thunder and
trounced it in the most recent elections.

Unable to score political points against the
Congress party at this date for its closeness to
the US, the aggrieved BJP has directed its fire
at the ruling party's sensible and moderate China
policy as insufficiently protective of India's security and honor.

The Chinese ambassador paid a formal call on the
head of the BJP, no doubt hoping for reassurance
that the BJP's outbursts were mere cynical
posturing and Beijing could expect the usual
pragmatism if and when the BJP regained power.
What he received instead was a detailed rehashing
of India's security grievances against China.

If the BJP takes power and decides to exploit
China's vulnerabilities in South Asia, the world
might indeed get that 2012 war that Bharat Verma was talking about.

1. China may attack India by 2012, Times of India, July 12, 2009
2. What are the origins of the transformation of
U.S.-Indian relations?, Article in "The National
Interest" by former United States ambassador to
India Robert D Blackwill, Summer 2005
3. India's voice on the global stage very
important: Bush Hindustan Times, October 30, 2009
4. The China-India Border Brawl, Wall Street Journal Asia, June 24, 2009
5. Rivals China, India in escalating war of
words, Christian Science Monitor, October 20, 2009
6. India and the Tibet card, Times of India, November 23 2008
7.) Nepal: New 'Strategic Partner' of China?,
Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, March 30, 2009

* Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian
affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.
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