China adds muscle to its foreign policy

China’s muscle-flexing diplomacy

Beijing is beginning to take its gloves off, says Brahma

India Abroad, January 4, 2008

Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming visit to China, close on the heels of a small anti-terrorist
exercise between Chinese and Indian soldiers, cannot obscure a larger reality:
Rising economic and military power is emboldening Beijing to pursue a more
muscular foreign policy. Having earlier
preached the gospel of
its “peaceful
rise,” China
is now beginning to take the gloves off, confident of the muscle it has

From provocatively seeking
to assert its jurisdiction
over islets claimed by Vietnam in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, to
whipping up diplomatic spats with Germany,
Canada and the United States over their hospitality to the
Dalai Lama, Beijing
is now demonstrating an increasing propensity to flex its muscles.

Other recent
instances of China’s growing assertiveness include its demolition of a few
unmanned Indian forward posts at the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim tri-junction, its
large-scale war game in the South and East China Seas, its public showcasing of
new military hardware like the Jin-class, nuclear-capable submarine, its
strategic moves around India, and its last-minute cancellation of a long-planned
Hong Kong visit by the U.S. carrier, Kitty

Ever since it
surprised the world by successfully carrying out an anti-satellite weapon test
in January 2007, China’s
Communist leadership has been less coy to project national power. It seems
unconcerned that such muscle-flexing has triggered anti-China demonstrations in
Hanoi and Ho
Chi Minh City and spurred unease in other neighboring

            For more than a year, Beijing has been signaling a tougher stance on its
territorial disputes with India.
Examples of China’s increasing
hardline stance on India range from
the Chinese ambassador’s Beijing-supported bellicose public statement on
Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s November 2007 New Delhi visit,
to the Chinese foreign minister’s May 2007 message to his Indian counterpart
that China no longer felt bound by a
2005 agreement that any border-related settlement should not disturb settled
populations. Add to that the October 2007 admission by the chief of India’s
Indo-Tibetan Border Police that there had been 141 Chinese
military incursions in the preceding
12-month period alone.

In that
light, the recent five-day Sino-Indian anti-terrorist maneuver in Yunnan province was
largely symbolic. In fact, barely 100 soldiers from each side were involved in this
practice of urban counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism drills. Yet, given
the new strains in the relationship, the joint exercise was viewed as a welcome

“Hand in Hand,” this exercise was the first between the Indian Army and the
People’s Liberation Army. A Sino-Indian naval maneuver was held last spring, as
part of an Indian effort to placate Beijing over
the first Japan-U.S.-India trilateral naval exercises off the Tokyo Bay.

During Dr. Singh’s
impending visit to Beijing, little progress can
be expected toward resolving the territorial disputes that divide India and China. Yet, if the Sino-Indian
relationship is to become stable, a settlement of those disputes is necessary.

A first step to a settlement of any dispute is clarity on
a line of control or appreciation of
the “no go” areas so that provocative or unfriendly actions can be eschewed.
Protracted India-China negotiations over the past 26 years, however, have
failed to remove the ambiguities plaguing their long line of control. Beijing, seeking to keep India under strategic pressure, has
been loath to clearly define the frontline.

It is often overlooked that India
and China
are old civilizations but new neighbors. It was the 1951 Chinese annexation of the historical buffer, Tibet, that
brought Chinese troops to what is
now the Sino-Indian frontier. Just
11 years later, China
invaded India. Today, both countries have
built a stake in maintaining the peaceful diplomatic environment on which
their economic modernization and security depend. Yet the wounds of the 1962
war have been kept open by China’s publicly
assertive claims to additional Indian territories.

China is not a status quo power, at
least territorially, is evident from the way it has placed Taiwan under a
permanent threat of force and asserted land and maritime claims vis-à-vis other
neighbors. Its claims on India,
however, involve the largest chunks
of territory. Arunachal alone is more than double the size of Taiwan.

Through its forceful claims, Beijing
itself highlights that at the core of its disputes with India is Tibet. Having
gobbled up Tibet, Beijing
now lays claim to Indian territories, on the basis not of any purported Han
connection, but of Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastical influence
or alleged longstanding tutelary
relations with them. Therefore, to focus on Arunachal or even Tawang is not
only to miss the wood for the trees, but also to play into
attempts at incremental territorial

Yet India
has needlessly retreated to a more and more defensive position, bringing
itself under greater Chinese
pressure. Rather than gain leverage
by adopting a nuanced position on Tibet, India
continues to be overcautious in its diplomacy, even when Beijing
acts antagonistically. In recent weeks, for example, New Delhi has bent over backward to play down
aggressive PLA moves along the line of control.

Indeed, New Delhi’s acquiescence to China’s
annexation of Tibet has come to haunt it, as Beijing today seeks to extend the
territorial gains from its Tibet
occupation by pushing a bald principle
in the border negotiations with India: What is ours is ours to keep, but what
is yours must be shared with us. It insists that India
at least cede Tawang, a critical corridor between Lhasa
and the Assam Valley
of immense military import because it overlooks the chicken-neck that connects India with its

reality is that the trans-Himalayan military equations have altered ever since China opened the railway to Lhasa in July 2006. The railway, which is now being extended southward to Xigatse and then beyond to
the Indian border, not only strengthens China’s hold over Tibet, but also arms Beijing with a rapid military deployment
capability against India. It may
not be a coincidence that China’s
growing hardline
approach has followed its infrastructure
advances on the Tibetan plateau, in the form of the railway and new airfields
and highways. It is now building the
world’s highest airport at Ngari, on the southwestern edge of Tibet.

the creeping conventional military
asymmetry, India’s
need for a reliable nuclear-deterrent capability has never been greater. Not
only are conventional weapons far more expensive, but also India is
heavily dependent on their imports. Yet, through the insidious
nuclear deal with the United States,
New Delhi is willing
to accept fetters on the full-fledged development of its indigenous deterrent,
with the external affairs minister
unabashedly telling Parliament
recently that his government and party are a “strong believer in total nuclear disarmament” and “we do not believe
in nuclear weaponization in a massive way.” This assertion comes when India has yet to build and deploy even a barely
minimal deterrent against China. 

fact, in his meandering replies in the two Houses of India’s parliament to the
nuclear-deal debate, Pranab Mukherjee actually castigated the predecessor
government for exercising the
nuclear option, claiming that, “When
in 1974 Shrimati Indira Gandhi went
for the nuclear explosion, it was not for indulging in
weaponization… She categorically mentioned: ‘I wanted to have the
technology.  I wanted to test the
competence of the Indian scientists, Indian technicians and Indian engineers.’ The purpose was the peaceful use of the
civilian nuclear programme.” Further criticizing the exercise of the option, he
said: “We used to have a pledge from 1974 till 1998, almost quarter of a
century, that we shall keep our options open.”

also turned India’s publicly enunciated “credible minimal
deterrent” on its head by calling it
“minimum credible deterrent,” which
implies that the deterrent’s credibility would be kept to a minimum — as it has been. “We want minimum credible deterrent, from our security
perspective,” he declared in the
Rajya Sabha, the upper House, on December 5. 

calculatedly bolsters its political and military leverage, Indian leaders continue to send out counterproductive signals. In his
November 29 reply in the Lok Sabha —
the lower House — to the parliamentary debate on the same subject, Mukherjee
was ecstatic about Sonia Gandhi’s visit to China
in late October: “
During the visit of chairperson of UPA [United Progressive Alliance], the type
of warmth she felt … is envy of anybody, any world statesman… She was the first
person from outside to visit People’s Republic of China”
after the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th National Congress.

            So what if she was the first? The
CPC’s National Congress had no bearing
on Chinese policy toward India. All it
did was to reinforce China’s
totalitarian political system, even as President Hu used the word “democracy”
61 times in his speech to the
Congress. Should she have gone to China at a time when Beijing had
hardened its policy toward India?
After all, she went there not as a private citizen but as the power behind Prime Minister
Singh. The pomp and ceremony with
which she was received reflected her status as India’s most powerful politician. 

            Such a symbolically potent visit to
an adversarial state cannot be undertaken for personal image-building, or other egotistical purposes, or to promote
politically partisan interests.
Criticism of her party and government for being
pro-U.S. may have prodded her to demonstrate balance by visiting China. But given
the visible toughening of the Chinese stance, the visit was ill-timed. Indeed,
through her visit, she only played into
the hands of Beijing,
whose India
diplomacy emphasizes show over substance so as to provide cover for exerting strategic pressure. 

is not just New Delhi’s diffidence that
encourages Beijing
to up the ante. Too often in the
past, the personal image-building of
an Indian leader has taken precedence over the unflinching pursuit of the country’s long-term interests.  

more egregious case than Sonia Gandhi was the sphinx-like
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose June 2003 official visit to Beijing
was designed for Machiavellian partisan interests.
By mid-2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee was getting
ready for early national elections, which he wanted to contest on the “India Shining”
plank of having made peace with both
and Pakistan.
Having turned his Pakistan policy on its head in April 2003 by publicly extending “a hand of friendship” to the very country he
had isolated since the terrorist
attack on India’s parliament,
he set out less than three months later to befriend Beijing.

mollycoddling cost India dear. Beijing wrung
the concession it always wanted from India
— a clear and unambiguous recognition of Tibet
as part of China. To justify
his yielding to the Chinese demand, Vajpayee claimed credit for beginning
“the process by which Sikkim
will cease to be an issue in
India-China relations.” But while he
formally recognized Tibet as
“part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China,” Beijing to this day has not officially
acknowledged Sikkim to be
part of the territory of the Republic
of India. It has only
ceased its cartographic mischief in
depicting Sikkim
as an independent kingdom — a mischief of little consequence for India, as the people of Sikkim, along with the rest of the world, had
accepted Sikkim’s
1975 merger.

            Not only was Vajpayee’s linking of troubled Tibet
with a non-issue, Sikkim, inexcusable, but it also stripped India of leverage on the larger territorial
disputes with China. It is no
wonder that Beijing now presents Arunachal as
an outstanding issue that demands
“give and take,” ingeniously putting
the onus on India
to achieve progress.    

While one can expect to
hear the same empty platitudes on Sino-Indian relations during Singh’s visit, India can
ill-afford another misstep. In fact, the challenge for Indian diplomacy is to
retrieve lost leverage by gently shining a spotlight on the central issue, Tibet, and building a web of strategic
partnerships with other important democracies in Asia
and elsewhere.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for
Policy Research, New Delhi.

(c) India Abroad, New York, 2008


This is an official PRC map, showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of China and historical Tibet gerrymandered:

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