India’s China problem

Lest we are caught napping, 1962-style

Brahma Chellaney

Covert magazine, October 1-14, 2009

Recent developments are a sharp reminder that China is muscling up to India. The
rising number of Chinese military incursions and other border incidents, the
hardening of China’s
political stance and the vicious anti-India attacks in the Chinese
state-controlled media underscore that. So, even as China
has emerged as India’s
largest trading partner, the Sino-Indian strategic dissonance and border
disputes have become more pronounced. Beijing
seems intent on strategically encircling and squeezing India by employing its rising clout in Pakistan, Burma,
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The Chinese border provocations have resulted both from India’s
political pusillanimity and the withdrawal of army divisions from China-related
duty. For example, the 8th Mountain Division, tasked with defending Sikkim, was moved from northern Bengal to Jammu and Kashmir and
took part in the Kargil War. Similarly, a mountain division was moved from
Nagaland/Arunachal area to J&K for counterinsurgency operations. Tank
forces also were moved out from Sikkim.
All those force withdrawals seem to have emboldened the Chinese. The current
Indian moves to beef up defences against China largely involve the return of
the forces that were withdrawn a decade or more ago.

Diplomatically, India is unable to get its act
together. In the face of growing Chinese cross-border forays, the foreign
minister claimed in public the Himalayan border was “most peaceful.”

The External Affairs Ministry (MEA) reacted to the
provocative “dismember India”
essay posted on a quasi-official Chinese website. But the MEA kept mum when the
authoritative People’s Daily taunted India
for lagging behind China in
all indices of power and asked New Delhi to
consider “the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.”
Criticizing the Indian moves to strengthen defences, the paper peremptorily
declared: “China won’t make
any compromises in its border disputes with India.” A subsequent commentary in
that paper warned India to
stop playing into the hands of “some Western powers” by raising the bogey of a

Dismember India
is an old failed project China
launched in the Mao years when it trained and armed Naga, Mizo and other
guerrillas. Although such assistance ceased after Mao’s 1976 death, China seems to be coming full circle today, with
Chinese-made arms increasingly flowing to guerrilla ranks in northeast India, including via Burma. India
last year raised this matter with Beijing
at the foreign minister level. Indeed, Pakistan-based terrorists targeting India now carry
Chinese-made grenades and assault rifles.

Like Pakistan,
China has long believed that
the best way to contain India
is to keep it internally preoccupied. In initiating its proxy war against India, Pakistan merely took a leaf out of
the Chinese book. But as Pakistan
has sunk deeper into a jihadist dungeon, China’s
surrogate card against India
has weakened. This, coupled with China’s
economic success going to its head, has helped spawn direct Chinese pressure on

As a power rising faster than India,
sees no need to compromise. But even if it is weaker side, India does not need to blur the line between
diplomacy and appeasement, or give greater weight to show than to substance in
its interactions with Beijing.
Power asymmetry in interstate relations does not mean the weaker side must bend
to the dictates of the stronger or seek to propitiate it. Wise strategy is the
art of offsetting or neutralizing power imbalance with another state.

But while Beijing’s
strategy and tactics are apparent, India has had difficulty to define
a game-plan. It has stayed stuck in increasingly meaningless border talks that
have been going on for nearly three decades. To compound matters, India is to observe 2010 — the 60th anniversary
of China becoming India’s neighbour by gobbling up Tibet — as the “Year of Friendship with China.”

We know China
is seeking to constrict India’s
strategic space and stunt its rise. Indeed, China’s
intermittent cyberwarfare and cross-border military forays are nothing but
crude attempts to intimidate India.
Yet the more China acts
aggressively, the more India
assumes an air of injured innocence.

If India is not to be caught napping in 1962 style, 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

 (c) Covert, 2009.

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