Is China itching to wage war on India?

India’s Growing China Angst
Largely unknown to the rest of the world, China-India border tensions have escalated in recent months, raising the specter of armed conflict along the Himalayas
By Brahma Chellaney

Far Eastern Economic Review (September 2009)

At a time when the global power structure is qualitatively being transformed, the economic rise of China and India draws ever more attention. But the world has taken little notice of the rising border tensions and sharpening geopolitical rivalry between the two giants that represent competing political and social models of development.

China and India have had little political experience historically in dealing with each other. After all, China became India’s neighbor not owing to geography but guns — by forcibly occupying buffer Tibet in 1950. As new neighbors, India and China have been on a learning curve. Their 32-day war in 1962 did not settle matters because China’s dramatic triumph only sowed the seeds of greater rivalry.

In recent months, hopes of a politically negotiated settlement of the lingering territorial disputes have dissipated amid muscle-flexing along the long, 4,057-kilometer Himalayan frontier. A clear indication that the 28-year-old border talks now are deadlocked came when the most-recent round in August turned into a sweeping strategic dialogue on regional and international issues. The escalation in border tensions, though, has prompted an agreement to set up a direct hotline between the two prime ministers. A hotline, however welcome, may not be enough to defuse a situation marked by rising military incursions and other border-related incidents as well as by new force deployments.

A perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward India is at the hub of the bilateral tensions. This hardening became apparent almost three years ago when the Chinese ambassador to India publicly raked up the issue of Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern Indian state that Beijing calls “Southern Tibet” and claims as its own. For his undiplomatic act on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s New Delhi visit, the ambassador actually received Beijing’s public support. Since then, the Indian army has seen Chinese military incursions increase in frequency across the post-1962 line of control. According to Indian defense officials, there were 270 line-of-control violations by the People’s Liberation Army and 2,285 instances of “aggressive border patrolling” by it last year alone. Other border incidents also are being reported, such as the PLA demolition of some unmanned Indian forward posts at the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim trijunction and Chinese attempts to encroach on Indian-held land in Ladakh.

As a result, the India-China frontier has become more “hot” than the India-Pakistan border, but without rival troops trading fire. Indeed, Sino-Indian border tensions now are at their worst since 1986-87, when local military skirmishes broke out after PLA troops moved south of a rivulet marking the line of control in the Sumdorong Chu sector in Arunachal Pradesh. Those skirmishes brought war clouds over the horizon before the two countries moved quickly to defuse the crisis. Today, PLA forays into Indian-held territory are occurring even in the only area where Beijing does not dispute the frontier — Sikkim’s 206-kilometer border with Tibet. Chinese troops repeatedly have attempted to gain control of Sikkim’s evocatively named Finger Area, a tiny but key strategic location.

In response, India has been beefing up its defensive deployments in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh to prevent any Chinese land-grab. Besides bringing in tanks to reinforce its defenses in mountainous Sikkim, it is deploying two additional army mountain divisions and two squadrons of the advanced Sukhoi-30 MKI bomber-aircraft in its northeastern state of Assam, backed by three airborne warning and control systems. To improve its logistical capabilities, it has launched a crash program involving new roads, airstrips and advanced landing stations along the Himalayas. None of these steps, however, can materially alter the fact that China holds the military advantage on the ground. Its forces control the heights along the frontier, with the Indian troops perched largely on the lower levels. Furthermore, by building modern railroads, airports and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move large additional forces to the border to potentially strike at India at a time of Beijing’s choosing.

Diplomatically, China is content, long having occupied land at will — principally the Aksai Chin plateau, which is almost the size of Switzerland. Aksai Chin, an integral part of Kashmir long before Xinjiang became a province of China under Manchu rule, provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang route through the Karakoram passes of the Kunlun Mountains. Yet Beijing chooses to press claims on additional Indian territories as part of a grand strategy to keep India under military and diplomatic pressure.

Since ancient times, the Himalayas have universally been regarded as the northern frontiers of India. But having annexed Tibet, China has laid claim to areas far to the south of this Himalayan watershed, as underscored by its claim to Arunachal Pradesh — a state nearly three times the size of Taiwan. That Tibet remains at the core of the India-China divide is being underlined by Beijing itself as its claim to additional Indian territories is based on alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links to them, not any professed Han connection. Such attempts at incremental annexation actually draw encouragement from India’s self-injurious acceptance of Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.

At the center of the Chinese strategy is an overt refusal to accept the territorial status quo. In not hiding its intent to further redraw the frontiers, Beijing only highlights the futility of political negotiations. After all, the status quo can be changed not through political talks but by further military conquest. Yet, paradoxically, the political process remains important for Beijing to provide the façade of engagement while trying to change the realities on the ground. Keeping India engaged in endless, fruitless border talks while stepping up direct and surrogate pressure also chimes with China’s projection of its “peaceful rise.”

But as border tensions have escalated, vituperative attacks on India in the Chinese media have mounted. The Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, taunted India in a June editorial for lagging behind China in all indices of power and asked it to consider “the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.” Criticizing the Indian moves to strengthen defenses, it peremptorily declared: “China won’t make any compromises in its border disputes with India.” A subsequent commentary in the paper warned India to stop playing into the hands of “some Western powers” by raising the bogey of a “China threat.”

The most-provocative Chinese essay, however, appeared on China International Strategy Net, a quasi-official Web site that enjoys the Communist Party’s backing and is run by an individual who made his name by hacking into United States” government Web sites in retaliation to the 1999 American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Posted on August 8, the essay called for a Chinese strategy to dismember multiethnic India into 20 to 30 fragments. This is an old, failed project China launched in the Mao years when it trained and armed Naga, Mizo and other tribal guerrillas in India’s restive northeast.

The strains in Sino-Indian relations also have resulted from sharpening geopolitical rivalry. This was evident from China’s botched 2008 effort to stymie the U.S.-India nuclear deal by blocking the Nuclear Suppliers Group from opening civilian nuclear trade with New Delhi. In the NSG, China landed itself in a position it avoids in any international body — as the last holdout. Recently, there has been an outcry in India over attempts to undermine the Indian brand through exports from China of fake pharmaceutical products labeled “Made in India.”

The unsettled border, however, remains at the core of the bilateral tensions. Indeed, 47 years later, the wounds of the 1962 war have been kept open by China’s aggressive claims to additional Indian territories. Even as China has emerged as India’s largest trading partner, the Sino-Indian strategic dissonance and border disputes have become more pronounced. New Delhi has sought to retaliate against Beijing’s growing antagonism by banning Chinese toys and cell phones that do not meet international standards. But such modest trade actions can do little to persuade Beijing to abandon its moves to strategically encircle and squeeze India by employing China’s rising clout in Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

In fact, the question that needs to be asked is whether New Delhi helped create the context to embolden Beijing to be assertive and bellicose. For long, New Delhi has indulged in ritualized happy talk about the state of its relationship with Beijing, brushing under the rug both long-standing and new problems and hyping the outcome of any bilateral summit meeting. New Delhi now is staring at the harvest of a mismanagement of relations with China over the past two decades by successive governments that chose propitiation to leverage building. New Delhi is so slow to correct its course that mistakes only get compounded. For example: India is to observe 2010 — the 60th anniversary of China becoming India’s neighbor by gobbling up Tibet — as the “Year of Friendship with China.”

Yet another question relates to China’s intention. In muscling up to India, is China seeking to intimidate India or actually fashion an option to wage war on India? In other words, are China’s present-day autocrats itching to see a repeat of 1962? The present situation, in several key aspects, is no different from the one that prevailed in the run-up to the 1962 invasion of India, which then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai declared was designed “to teach India a lesson.” Consider the numerous parallels:

First, like ike in the pre-1962 war period, it has become commonplace internationally to speak of India and China in the same breadth. The aim of “Mao’s India war,” as Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has called it, was large political: To cut India to size by demolishing what it represented — a democratic alternative to the Chinese autocracy. The swiftness and force with which Mao Zedong defeated India helped discredit the Indian model, boost China’s international image and consolidate Mao’s internal power. The return of the China-India pairing decades later is something Beijing viscerally detests.

The Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 — and the ready sanctuary he got there — paved the way for the Chinese military attack. Today, 50 years after his escape, the exiled Tibetan leader stands as a bigger challenge than ever for China, as underscored by Beijing’s stepped-up vilification campaign against him and its admission that it is now locked in a “life and death struggle” over Tibet. With Beijing now treating the Dalai Lama as its Enemy No. 1, India has come under greater Chinese pressure to curb his activities and those of his government-in-exile. The continuing security clampdown in Tibet since the March 2008 Tibetan uprising parallels the harsh Chinese crackdown in Tibet during 1959-62.

In addition, the present pattern of crossfrontier incursions and other border incidents, as well as new force deployments and mutual recriminations, is redolent of the situation that prevailed before the 1962 war. When the PLA marched hundreds of miles south to occupy the then-independent Tibet and later nibble at Indian territories, this supposedly was neither an expansionist strategy nor a forward policy. But when the ill-equipped and short-staffed Indian army belatedly sought to set up posts along India’s unmanned Himalayan frontier to try and stop further Chinese encroachments, Beijing and its friends dubbed it a provocative “forward policy.” In the same vein, the present Indian efforts to beef up defenses in the face of growing PLA crossborder forays are being labeled “new forward policy” by Beijing.

Moreover, the 1962 war occurred against the backdrop of China instigating and arming insurgents in India’s northeast. Though such activities ceased after Mao’s 1976 death, China seems to be coming full circle today, with Chinese-made arms increasingly flowing into guerrilla ranks in northeastern India, including via Burmese front organizations. India says it has taken up this matter with Beijing at the foreign minister-level. While a continuing 12-year-old ceasefire has brought peace to Nagaland, some other Indian states like Assam and Manipur are racked by multiple insurgencies, allowing Beijing to fish in troubled waters.

Finally, just as India had retreated to a defensive position in the border negotiations with Beijing in the early 1960s after having undermined its leverage through a formal acceptance of the “Tibet region of China,” New Delhi similarly has been left in the unenviable position today of having to fend off Chinese territorial demands. Whatever leverage India still had on the Tibet issue was surrendered in 2003 when it shifted its position from Tibet being an “autonomous” region within China to it being “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” Little surprise the spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet’s status itself.

This is why Beijing invested so much political capital over the years in getting India to gradually accept Tibet as part of China. Its success on that score has helped narrow the dispute to what it claims. That neatly meshes with China’s long-standing negotiating stance: What it occupies is Chinese territory, and what it claims must be shared — or as it puts it in reasonably sounding terms, though a settlement based on “mutual accommodation and mutual understanding.” So, while publicly laying claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, China in private is asking India to cede at least that state’s strategic Tawang Valley — a critical corridor between Lhasa and Assam of immense military import because it overlooks the chicken-neck that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country.

In fact, with the Dalai Lama having publicly repudiated Chinese claims that Arunachal Pradesh, or even just Tawang, was part of Tibet, a discomfited Beijing sought to impress upon his representatives in the now-suspended dialogue process that for any larger political deal to emerge, the Tibetan government-in-exile must support China’s position that Arunachal has been part of traditional Tibet. The plain fact is that with China’s own claim to Tibet being historically dubious, its claims to Indian territories are doubly suspect.

Today, as India gets sucked into a pre-1962-style trap, history is in danger of repeating itself. The issue then was Aksai Chin; the issue now is Arunachal. But India is still reluctant to shine a spotlight on Tibet as the lingering core issue. Even though Tibet has ceased to be the political buffer between India and China, it needs to become the political bridge between the world’s two most-populous countries. For that to happen, Beijing has to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet.

Internationally, there are several factors contributing to China’s greater assertiveness toward India as part of an apparent strategy to prevent the rise of a peer rival in Asia. First, India’s growing strategic ties with the United States are more than offset by America’s own rising interdependence with China, to the extent that U.S. policy now gives Beijing a pass on its human-rights abuses, frenetic military buildup at home and reckless strategic opportunism abroad. America’s Asia policy is no longer guided by an overarching geopolitical framework as it had been under President George W. Bush, a fact reflected by the Obama administration’s silence on the China-India border tensions.

In addition, the significant improvement in China’s own relations with Taiwan and Japan since last year has given Beijing more space against India. A third factor is the weakening of China’s Pakistan card against India. Pakistan’s descent into chaos has robbed China of its premier surrogate instrument against India, necessitating the exercise of direct pressure.

Against this background, India can expect no respite from Chinese pressure. Whether Beijing actually sets out to teach India “the final lesson” by launching a 1962-style surprise war will depend on several calculations, including India’s defense preparedness to repel such an attack, domestic factors within China and the availability of a propitious international timing of the type the Cuban missile crisis provided 47 years ago. But if India is not to be caught napping again, it has to inject greater realism into its China policy by shedding self-deluding shibboleths, shoring up its deterrent capabilities and putting premium on leveraged diplomacy.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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