Growing Chinese assertiveness against India

China’s next India war

Brahma Chellaney

Covert magazine, July 16-31, 2008


China’s rapidly accumulating power is emboldening Beijing to pursue a more muscular foreign policy. After having touted its “peaceful rise”, it has shown a creeping propensity to flex its muscles — a tendency that has become more pronounced since it surprised the world with an anti-satellite weapon test in January 2007. Once the Beijing Olympics are over, it may not be long before China takes its gloves off. In fact, over the past year, its actions have ranged from provocatively seeking to assert its jurisdiction over islets claimed by Vietnam and staging large-scale war games in the South and East China Seas, to showcasing its new nuclear submarine capability and whipping up diplomatic spats with countries that grant official hospitality to the Dalai Lama.

What stands out the most is the perceptible hardening of China’s stance towards India. This is manifest from the Chinese military assertiveness on the ground (reflected in rising cross-border incursions), the supply of Chinese arms to rebels in India’s northeast, the instigation of the Gorkhaland agitation via Nepal connections, and the waging of intermittent cyberwarfare by targeting official Indian Web sites. From Chinese forces in November 2007 destroying some makeshift Indian army bunkers near Doka La, at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction, to the Chinese foreign minister’s May 2007 message that Beijing no longer was bound by a 2005 agreement that any border-related settlement should not disturb settled populations, bellicosity has been writ large.

Recent unfriendly actions include the post-midnight summoning of the Indian ambassador in Beijing, slighting visiting External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee by cancelling his scheduled meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao, and deputing a junior functionary to receive earthquake-related relief from Mukherjee. These and other actions run counter to the stated aim of the high-level visits between the two countries to build a stable Sino-Indian relationship based on equilibrium and forward thinking. The public statements coming out from such visits, of course, are deceptively all sweetness and light.

The big question is: What objectives is China seeking to achieve by hardening its position? Indeed, it has gone to the extent of warning India of another 1962-style invasion through one of its state-run institutes. In a recent Mandarin-language commentary posted on the Web site of the International Institute of Strategic Studies of China,, the author, using an assumed name, cautioned an “arrogant India” not “to be evil” or else Chinese forces in war “will not pull back 30 kilometres” like in 1962. Such belligerence, which has led to more than three dozen Chinese military forays into Sikkim alone this year, has prompted India to redeploy forces by beefing up defences in the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor, stationing Sukhoi-30s in Tezpur and initiating moves to reactivate seven abandoned airstrips along the Himalayas.

China’s motives remain a puzzle. Yet there are several disturbing parallels between what is happening now and the events between 1959 and 1962 that led to the Chinese invasion. That aggression had been cleverly timed to coincide with the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. Consider the following parallels:

■ Like in the pre-war period, it has now again become commonplace internationally to speak of India and China in the same breadth. The aim of “Mao’s India war” in 1962, as Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar has called it, was mainly political: to cut India to size by demolishing what it represented — a pluralistic, democratic model to China’s totalitarian political system. As Premier Zhou Enlai publicly admitted then, the war was intended “to teach India a lesson”. The swiftness and force with which Mao Zedong managed to teach India a lesson not only discredited the Indian model in the eyes of the world, but boosted China’s international image and consolidated the Chinese strongman’s internal power to the extent that he could go from his disastrous 1957-61 Great Leap Forward — the greatest genocide in modern history, surpassing even the Holocaust — to wreaking more damage in the name of the Cultural Revolution.

It has taken India more than 45 years to again be paired with China — a comparison Beijing viscerally loathes.

■ In the Mao years, China instigated and armed major insurgencies in India’s northeast. That included the Naga rebels, with the China-trained Thuingaleng Muivah still the military chief of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction); the Mizo guerrilla movement whose leader Laldenga was openly embraced by Chinese leaders; and Manipur’s so-called People’s Liberation Army. Such assistance ceased after Mao’s death. But today, China may be coming full circle, with Chinese-made arms increasingly flowing into guerrilla ranks in the northeast. Although an 11-year-old ceasefire between Naga militants and New Delhi has brought peace to Nagaland, several other parts of the northeast are today wracked by insurgencies, allowing Beijing to fish in troubled waters.

■ Like in the period up to 1962, there is a mismatch today between Indian talk and capability, offering a potential incentive to China to try and put India in its place. India’s power pretensions today are such that it believes it can punch above its weight. Yet the gaps in its defences make the parallel with the pre-1962 period glaring.

More than a decade after it went overtly nuclear, the country still lacks a barely minimal deterrent against China. To have peace with China, India needs to be able to defend peace. The advantages China has over India in military infrastructure and logistics, size of conventional forces and being on the upper heights can be neutralized only through an effective nuclear-missile capability. But India has still to deploy its first Beijing-reachable missile. Three decades after China tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, India doesn’t have an ICBM programme even in the pipeline, although it is spending a staggering $3.4 billion on a lunar project bereft of security benefits. While Jawaharlal Nehru made the mistake of chasing romantic goals, the present prime minister has consciously chosen deal-making over deterrent-building.

■ Mirroring the confusion in New Delhi’s Beijing policy from the mid-1950s to 1962, India today lacks clarity on the ends and means of its strategy vis-à-vis China. Just as there was a propensity in the pre-war period to take Chinese statements at face value and condone furtive Chinese moves, including the nibbling at Indian territory, the Indian establishment today willingly makes allowances for China’s assertiveness. Nothing better illustrates this than army chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor’s public assertion that India is as culpable as China in committing cross-border intrusions. His shocking statement not only made light of the increasing number of Chinese incursions, but also implicitly condoned China’s calculated refusal to clarify the frontline. To say the “Chinese have a different perception” of the frontline, as he did, is to disregard the fact that it suits China not to clarify the line of control and keep India under military pressure.

Such wanton indulgence — reminiscent of India’s pre-war miscalculations — can only embolden China to step up intrusions. In another reminder of that era, New Delhi first sought to sweep under the rug the November 2007 Chinese military action near Doka La, only to sheepishly admit the truth four months later, with Pranab Mukherjee telling Parliament last March that although Beijing accepts the Sikkim-Tibet border “as settled in the Anglo-Sikkim Convention of 1890”, “some bunkers have been destroyed and some activities have taken place”.

■ Just as India retreated to a defensive position in the border negotiations with Beijing at the beginning of the 1960s after having undermined its leverage through its formal acceptance of the “Tibet region of China”, New Delhi today has drawn back to an untenable negotiating position. Instead of gently shining the spotlight on the core issue of Tibet and China’s continuing occupation of Aksai Chin, India is willing to discuss the newly assertive Chinese claim on Tawang. By contrast, Beijing sticks to its tested old line that what it occupies is Chinese territory and what it claims is also Chinese territory. So what it claims has to on the negotiating table — a cynical stance India meekly countenances.

As a consequence, the wounds of that 32-day war have been kept open by China’s claims to additional Indian areas even as it holds on to the territorial gains of that conflict.

The reality is that the trans-Himalayan military equations have been significantly changed by China’s July 2006 opening of the new railway to Lhasa. The railway, which is now being extended southward to Xigatse and then beyond to Nepal and to two separate points along the Indian border, arms Beijing with a rapid military deployment capability. It may not be a coincidence that China’s growing hardline approach has followed its infrastructure advances on the vast but sparsely populated Tibetan plateau, including the building of the railway and new airfields and highways. It is now constructing the world’s highest airport at Ngari, on the southwestern edge of Tibet.

India can expect little respite from the direct and surrogate pressure China is mounting. Through Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal, it will seek to destabilize the northeast. It will continue to prop up Pakistan militarily to help keep India boxed in on the subcontinent. In fact, it is now seeking to do a Burma in Sri Lanka by emerging as a key arms supplier to Colombo and building a billion-dollar port at Hambantota. More broadly, China has aggressively pursued port-related projects in the Indian Ocean rim countries. The symbols of such Chinese activity include Hambantota, Chittagong and Gwadar, now being expanded into a deepwater naval base.

China’s ravenous pursuit of resources, including in India’s periphery, is another factor New Delhi cannot ignore. Constraints on resources are likely to become pronounced as more and more Indians and Chinese gain income to embrace modern comforts. The global demand for resources is set to soar, along with their prices. Beijing’s energy-import needs have come handy to expand Chinese maritime presence along vital sea-lanes.

An imperial energy age indeed appears to be dawning as a result of China’s aggressive resources-related diplomacy. Consider the following developments:

● The emergence of a 21st-century, energy-related Great Game, with China outmanoeuvring India. Beijing has used its rising energy imports as justification for openly advancing military objectives. While conserving its own oil-and-gas reserves, it has stepped up imports — a strategy it is also pursuing on key minerals. For example, it has more iron-ore reserves than India, yet 52 per cent of Indian exports to China now consist of just one item — iron ore.

● Determined efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes, including mercantilist moves to lock up long-term supplies. Such is China’s emphasis on legal ownership that it has been buying energy assets in faraway lands often at inflated prices.

The popular perception is that Chinese and Indian energy companies are engaged in fierce bidding wars to acquire overseas assets. But the cash-rich Chinese companies have easily beaten Indian competition everywhere. The only exception was the Akpo deepwater oil field in Nigeria, where India’s ONGC won the right to buy South Atlantic Petroleum’s 45 per cent stake. The irony, however, is that New Delhi blocked ONGC from picking up that stake on grounds that the $2-billion investment entailed unacceptable risks as the Nigerian majority stakeholder was a dubious, politically manipulated shell company. But no sooner had ONGC backed out from the deal than the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) Ltd., China’s largest offshore oil producer, signed an accord on January 9, 2006, to pay $2.27 billion for the same 45 per cent stake.

● China is actively pursuing access-gaining projects along the major trade arteries in the Indian Ocean rim. Consequently, it is beginning to position itself along the sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

With an increasingly assertive China to the north, a China-allied Pakistan on the west, a Chinese-influenced Burma to the east, and growing Chinese naval interest in the Indian Ocean, India has to foil its strategic encirclement. India’s energy-security interests, in fact, demand that its navy play a greater role in the Indian Ocean, a crucial international passageway for oil deliveries. In addition to safeguarding the sea-lanes, the navy has to protect the country’s large energy infrastructure of onshore and offshore oil and gas wells, liquefied natural gas terminals, refineries, pipeline grids and oil-exploration work within the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

● The establishment of interstate energy corridors (which also double up as strategic corridors) through the planned construction of pipelines to transport oil or gas sourced from third countries. China is busily fashioning two such corridors on either side of India through which it would transfer Gulf and African oil for its consumption, reducing its reliance on U.S.-policed shipping lanes through the Malacca and Taiwan Straits and also cutting freight costs and supply time in the process.

One corridor extends northwards from the Chinese-built Pakistani port of Gwadar, which represents China’s first strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea. Located at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, Gwadar is to link up with the Trans-Karakoram Strategic Corridor to western China.

The second is the Irrawaddy Corridor designed to connect Chinese-aided Burmese ports with China’s Yunnan, Sichuan and Chongqing provinces through road, river, rail and energy links.

● Strategic plans to assemble a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along the Indian Ocean sea-lanes. With its new blue-water navy and access arrangements around peninsula India, China is threatening to turn the Indian Ocean into the Chinese Ocean one day. As navy chief Adm. Suresh Mehta said in a speech last January, “Each pearl in the string is a link in the chain of Chinese maritime presence”. That presence is now being extended all the way to Mauritius, where China is opening a trade development zone at a cost of some $730 million, making it the largest foreign direct investment in that island-nation.

Add to this picture another resource issue, the one with the greatest strategic bearing on the long-term interests of India and China — water. Although India’s usable arable land is larger than China’s — 160.5 million hectares compared to 137.1 million hectares — the source of all the major Indian rivers except the Ganges is the Chinese-held Tibetan plateau. But even the two main tributaries of the Ganges flow in from the Tibetan plateau — the source of the great river systems of China, South-East and South Asia, including the Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong, Salween, Yangzi and Yellow. These rivers, fed by Himalayan snowmelt, are a lifeline to the 1.4 billion people living in their basins.

Given China’s ambitious inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects in the Tibetan plateau and its upstream damming of the Brahmaputra, Sutlej and other rivers, water is likely to become a cause of Sino-Indian tensions. If President Hu Jintao — a hydrologist by training who has served as party secretary in Tibet — begins China’s long-pending project to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra northwards to the parched Yellow River, it would constitute the declaration of a water war on lower-riparian India and Bangladesh. Climate change, in any event, will have a significant impact on the availability and flow of river waters from the Himalayas and Tibetan highlands, making water a key element in the national-security calculus of China and India.

The centrality of the Tibet issue has been highlighted both by China’s Tibet-linked territorial claim to Arunachal Pradesh and by its hydro projects on the plateau. Through its water-transfer projects, Beijing is threatening to fashion water into a weapon against India. Also, given the clear link between Tibet’s fragile ecosystem and the climatic stability of the Indian subcontinent, China’s reckless exploitation of Tibet’s vast mineral resources and its large engineering works there are already playing havoc with the ecology.

India and China may be 5,000-year-old civilizations, but it is often forgotten that the two have been neighbours for only the past 58 years. After all, it wasn’t geography but guns — the sudden occupation of the traditional buffer, Tibet, soon after the communists came to power in Beijing — that made China India’s neighbour. Nehru later admitted he had not anticipated the swiftness and callousness with which China forcibly absorbed Tibet because he had been “led to believe by the Chinese foreign office that the Chinese would settle the future of Tibet in a peaceful manner by direct negotiation with the representatives of Tibet”.

Latest developments are a reminder that the 1962 war did not fully slake China’s geopolitical or territorial ambitions. In fact, instead of building a win-win relationship with India based on a constructive, forward-looking approach, China still harks back to the past, to the unfinished business of 1962, by assertively laying claim to additional Indian territories while blocking progress on defining the long line of control separating the two countries. Such intransigence and expansionist intent come even as it continues to occupy one-fifth of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir and steps up its cross-border incursions into India.

It is against this background that a key question emerges: what if China sets out to “teach India a lesson” again? This is a question that can no longer be brushed aside, considering China’s growing proclivity to up the ante against India. Henry Kissinger once said China is a closed society with an open mind, while India is an open society with a closed mind and a know-all attitude. It was that attitude — and the refusal to heed the warning signs — that caught India by surprise when the Chinese army poured in from two separate fronts in 1962.

Today, two words define India’s China policy: confusion and forbearance. Caution with prudence is desirable. But can India afford to be overcautious, clueless and indulgent? In the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, those who fail to learn from history are sure to repeat history. Whatever India learned from 1962 seems to have been forgotten, with the country now torn by internal squabbling and policy disarray.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s