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Three's A Crowd In The India-China Theater

November 22, 2009

By Brahma Chellaney
THE FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW (FEER)
November 6, 2009

The renewed Sino-Indian border tensions arising
from growing Chinese assertiveness raise an
oft-asked question: What has prompted Beijing to
up the ante against New Delhi? Until mid-2005,
China was eschewing anti-India rhetoric and
pursuing a policy of active engagement with
India, even as it continued to expand its
strategic space in southern Asia, to India's
detriment. In fact, when Premier Wen Jiabao
visited New Delhi in April 2005, the two
countries unveiled an important agreement
identifying six broad principles to govern a
settlement of the long-festering Himalayan
frontier dispute that predates their 32-day bloody war in 1962.

But by late 2005, the mood in Beijing had
noticeably changed. That, in turn, gave rise to a
nationalistic streak: Chinese newspapers,
individual bloggers, security think-tanks and
officially-blessed websites ratcheting up an
"India threat" scenario. By early 2006, some
Chinese strategic journals and pro-Beijing Hong
Kong newspapers like Ming Pao had begun
publishing commentaries about a "partial border
war" to "teach India" a 1962-style lesson. And in
the fall of 2006, Beijing publicly raked up an
issue that had remained dormant since the 1962
war-Arunachal Pradesh, India's remote
northeastern state that China claims largely as
its own on the basis of putative historical ties
with Tibet. In fact, the Chinese practice of
describing Arunachal, with 1.3 million residents,
as "southern Tibet" started only in 2006.

The following year, Beijing repudiated the most
important principle it had agreed to during Mr.
Wen's 2005 visit -- "in reaching a boundary
settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due
interests of their settled populations in the
border areas." Since then, China has stepped up
military pressure along the Himalayas through
cross-frontier incursions and border
provocations. New Delhi has been compelled to
urgently enhance Indian defenses, including the
deployment of new forces and a crash program to improve logistics.

Ominously, commentaries in the official Chinese
media now echo the coarse anti-India rhetoric of
the Mao era. The People's Daily, the Chinese
Communist Party's official newspaper, berated
India in an Oct. 14, 2009 editorial for its
"recklessness and arrogance" and for seeking
"hegemony." Even Chinese government statements on
India have taken a harsher, more strident tone;
the foreign ministry has begun using language
such as "we demand" and labeling the Indian prime
minister's recent Arunachal visit a "disturbance."

What happened in the months after Mr. Wen's visit
to prompt such a change of heart? The only major
development in that period was the new U.S.-India
strategic tie-up, as defined by the
defense-framework accord and nuclear deal, but a
U.S.-India military alliance has always been a
strategic nightmare for the Chinese. Thus, the
ballyhooed global strategic partnership triggered
alarm bells in Beijing. Today, the relationship
between the two Asian powers has deteriorated to
the extent that trading verbal blows has become common.

Did Delhi help create the context, however
inadvertently, for the new Chinese
aggressiveness? In June 2005, India agreed to
participate in U.S.-led "multinational
operations," to share intelligence and to build
military-to-military interoperability, all key
elements of the June 2005 defense-framework
accord. Delhi also pledged to become Washington's
partner on a new "Global Democracy Initiative," a
commitment found in the July 2005 nuclear
agreement-in-principle. While Beijing cannot hold
a veto over India's diplomatic or strategic
initiatives, Delhi could have avoided creating an
impression that it was being primed as a new
junior partner in America's hub-and-spoke global alliance system.

India -- with its hallowed traditions of policy
independence -- is an unlikely candidate to be a
U.S. ally in a patron-client framework. The
strategic partnership with the America falls
short of a formal military alliance. But the
high-pitched rhetoric that accompanied the new
partnership represented a tectonic shift in
geopolitical alignments, and apparently Chinese
policy makers began to believe that India was
being groomed as a new Australia to America. This
perception was reinforced by subsequent security
arrangements, defense transactions and an end-use
monitoring agreement. New Delhi failed to foresee
that its rush to forge close strategic bonds with
Washington could provoke greater Chinese pressure
and that the U.S. would be able to offer little
comfort to India in such a situation.

First, Beijing calculatingly has sought to badger
India on three fronts -- border (according to the
Indian government, Chinese cross-frontier
incursions nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008,
with "no significant increase" in 2009);
diplomatic (issuing visas on a separate sheet to
residents of the Indian-administered state of
Jammu and Kashmir so as to set apart that region
from India); and multilateral (launching an
international offensive to undercut Indian
sovereignty over Arunachal; for example, by
successfully blocking the Asian Development Bank
from identifying that region as part of India in
its latest $1.3 billion credit package). As the
resistance to its rule in Tibet has grown since
last year, Beijing has sought to present Tibet as
a core issue to its sovereignty, just like
Taiwan. Tibet now holds as much importance in
Chinese policy as Taiwan. In ratcheting up the
Arunachal issue with India, Beijing seems to be
drawing another analogy: Arunachal is the new
Taiwan that must be "reunified" with the Chinese state.

The Dalai Lama has said that Arunachal was never
part of Tibet, using this to explain why
Arunachal was not included in Tibet in a 1914
agreement that demarcated the borders between the
then-independent Tibet and British-ruled India.
Beijing does not recognize that agreement because
China's acceptance of the 1914 border would be
admission that Tibet was once independent, which
would seriously undercut the legitimacy of its
control over the increasingly restive region.

Beijing originally fashioned its claim to
Arunachal, a territory almost three times larger
than Taiwan, as a bargaining chip to compel India
to recognize the Chinese occupation of the Aksai
Chin, a Switzerland-size plateau once part of the
state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, China withdrew
from the Arunachal areas it invaded in the 1962
war but retained its territorial gains in Aksai
Chin, which provides the only passageway between
its rebellious regions -- Tibet and Xinjiang. The
late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put forth a
package proposal: New Delhi accept the Chinese
control over Aksai Chin and Beijing drop its
claim on Arunachal, subject to "minor readjustments" in the line of control.

But as part of its hardening stance toward India,
China has dredged up its long-dormant claim to
Arunachal. It openly covets Arunachal as a
cultural extension to Tibet -- a classic attempt
at incremental annexation. Because the sixth
Dalai Lama was born in the 17th century in
Arunachal's Tawang district, Beijing claims that
Arunachal belongs to Tibet and thus is part of
China. By the same argument, it can also lay
claim to Mongolia, as the fourth Dalai Lama was
born there in 1589. The traditional
ecclesiastical links between Mongolia and Tibet
indeed have been closer than those between Arunachal and Tibet.

What makes China's claim even more untenable is
that it has hived off the birthplaces of the
seventh, 10th, 11th and the present 14th Dalai
Lamas from Tibet. Before seeking Arunachal,
shouldn't Beijing first return the traditional
Tibetan areas of Amdo and eastern Kham to Tibet?

Second, even though the Indo-U.S. strategic
tie-up has served as the key instigator of
China's more muscular stance toward India,
Washington is more reluctant than ever to take
New Delhi's side in any of its disputes with
Beijing. President Barack Obama's administration
-- far from supporting New Delhi -- has shied
away from even cautioning Beijing against any
attempt to forcibly change the territorial status
quo. Indeed, on a host of issues, from the Dalai
Lama to Arunachal, Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing.

In effect that has left New Delhi on its own at a
time when some in China seem to believe that a
swift, 1962-style victory in a border war with
India is attainable to help cut a potential peer
rival to size and fashion a Sino-centric Asia.
Accusing India of "walking along the old road of
resisting China," an article on the Web site of
the China Institute of International Strategic
Studies -- a think tank run by the PLA General
Staff Department's 2nd Department -- warned India
"not to requite kindness with ingratitude" and
not to "misjudge the situation as it did in
1962." As a result of the bellicose rhetoric on
India, 90% of respondents in a June 2009 online
poll by Global Times-published by the Communist
Party's information department -- cited India as
the No. 1 threat to China's security.

India's current predicament is a far cry from
what former U.S. President George W. Bush had
touted in his valedictory speech as one of his
signal achievements: "We opened a new historic
and strategic partnership with India." The Obama
administration isn't unfriendly to India. It just
doesn't see India as able to make an important
difference to U.S. geopolitical interests.
Another factor is that America's Asia policy is
no longer guided by an overarching geopolitical framework.

Whether one agreed with the Bush foreign policy
or not, at least its Asia component bore a
distinct strategic imprint. By contrast, the best
that can be said about Obama's Asia policy is
that it seeks to nurture key bilateral
relationships -- with China at the core of
Washington's present courtship -- and establish,
where possible, trilateral relationships. The
upshot is that the Obama team has unveiled a new
trilateral security-cooperation framework in Asia
involving the U.S., China and Japan.

In deference to Chinese sensitivities, however,
the Obama administration has so far failed to
even acknowledge another trilateral alliance that
started under President Bush, involving the U.S.,
India and Japan. It is as if this concept has
fallen out of favor with Washington, just as the
broader U.S.-India-Japan-Australia "Quadrilateral
Initiative" -- founded on the concept of
democratic peace -- ran aground after the
late-2007 election of the Mandarin-speaking Kevin
Rudd as the Australian prime minister.

At a time when Asia is in transition, with the
specter of power disequilibrium looming large, it
has become imperative to invest in
institutionalized cooperation and regional
integration in order to help underpin long-term
power stability. After all, not only is Asia
becoming the pivot of global geopolitical change,
but Asian challenges are also playing into
international strategic challenges. But the Obama
administration seems fixated on the very country
whose rapidly accumulating power and
muscle-flexing threaten Asian stability. The new
catchphrase coined by Deputy Secretary of State
James Steinberg in relation to China, "strategic
reassurance," signals an American intent to be
more accommodative of China's ambitions.

China's primacy in the Obama foreign policy has
become unmistakable. Indeed, Obama's Asia tour is
beginning in Japan and ending in China but
skipping India entirely. But playing to India's
well-known weakness for flattery, Obama is
massaging its ego by honoring it with his
presidency's first state dinner. In fact, such a
ritzy event fits well with Washington's current
focus on promoting business interests in India,
including big-ticket export items like nuclear
reactors and conventional weapons.

Obama is committed to a strategic partnership
with India, including developing close military
ties. New Delhi has placed arms-purchase orders,
according to the Indian ambassador to the U.S.,
worth a staggering $3.5 billion just last year.
But he also has signaled that such a relationship
with India will not be at the expense of
Washington's fast-growing ties with Beijing.
America needs Chinese capital inflows as much as
China needs U.S. consumers -- an economic
interdependence of such importance it has been
compared to mutually assured destruction. Even
politically, China, with its permanent seat in
the United Nations Security Council and other
leverage, counts for more in U.S. policy than
India or Japan. As the U.S.-China relationship
acquires a wider and deeper base in the coming
future, the strains in some of America's existing
military or strategic tie-ups in Asia are likely to become pronounced.

Against this background, it is no surprise that
Washington now intends to abjure elements of its
ties with New Delhi that could rile China,
including a joint military drill of any type in
Arunachal or a 2007-style naval exercise
involving the U.S., India, Australia, Japan and
Singapore. Even trilateral U.S. naval maneuvers
with India and Japan now are out so as not to
raise China's hackles. In fact, Washington is
quietly charting a course of tacit neutrality on
the Arunachal dispute, just as its ally Australia has done rather publicly.

Despite the Obama administration bending over
backward to ease its concerns, Beijing remains
suspicious of the likely trajectory of U.S.-India
strategic ties, including pre-1962-style CIA
meddling in Tibet. This distrust found expression
in a recent People's Daily editorial that accused
New Delhi of pursuing a foreign policy of
"befriending the far and attacking the near." But
the mocking newspaper commentaries on India's
power ambitions indicate that Beijing is also
angered by what it sees as its neighbor's audacity in competing with it.

Left to fend for itself, New Delhi has decided to
steer clear of any potential confrontation with
Beijing. But while seeking to publicly tamp down
military tensions with China, the Indian
government -- under attack at home for being
"soft" on China -- has begun asserting itself at
the political level. While Obama declined to meet
the Dalai Lama during his recent Washington
visit, India is allowing the Tibetan leader to go
ahead with his scheduled Arunachal tour -- a red
rag to the Chinese bull. It also has announced an
end to the practice of Chinese companies bringing
thousands of workers from China to work on
projects in India. And in a public riposte to
Beijing's raising of objections to multilateral
funding of any project in Arunachal, India has
asked China to cease its infrastructure and
military projects in another disputed region-Pakistan-held Kashmir.

Diplomatically, however, India cannot afford to
be out on a limb. The vaunted Indo-U.S.
partnership has turned into an opportunity for
Washington to win multibillion-dollar Indian
contracts and co-opt India into strategic
arrangements, without a concomitant obligation to
be on India's side or to extend political help on
regional and international matters. Joint
military exercises, for example, have become a
basis to make India buy increasing quantities of
U.S. arms so as to build compatibility and
interoperability between the two militaries. Even
counterterrorism is emerging as a major area of defense sales to India.

With Obama pursuing a Beijing-oriented Asia
policy, and with China-friendly heads of
government ensconced in Australia, Japan and
Taiwan, New Delhi's diplomatic calculations have
gone awry. Yet the present muscular Chinese
approach paradoxically reinforces the very line
of Indian thinking that has engendered Chinese
belligerence -- that India has little option
other than to align with the U.S. Such thinking
blithely ignores the limitations of the Indo-U.S.
partnership arising from American policy's
vicissitudes and compulsions. Washington is
showing through its growing strategic cooperation
with China and Pakistan that it does not believe
in exclusive strategic partnership in any region.

As was the case before the 1962 war, the
China-India-U.S. triangle today is at the center
of the Himalayan tensions. The Obama team,
however, has yet to propose establishing a
trilateral initiative to help contain growing
Sino-Indian friction. Having declared that
America's "most important bilateral relationship
in the world" is with China, the Obama team must
caution Beijing against crossing well-defined red
lines or going against the self-touted gospel of
its "peaceful rise." The U.S. message should be
that any military adventure -- far from helping
fashion a Sino-centric Asia -- would prove very
costly and counterproductively trigger the rise
of a militaristic, anti-China India.

New Delhi, for its part, has to adroitly manage
its relationships with Beijing and Washington in
a way that it does not lose out. A stable
equation with China is more likely to be realized
if India avoids a trans-Himalayan military
imbalance, as well as security dependency on the
third party that has emerged as the elephant in the India-China theater.

* Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic
studies at the independent, privately funded
Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and the
author of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China,
India and Japan," published by HarperCollins,
with a new U.S. edition scheduled for release in January.
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