The elephant in the India-China theater

Three's A Crowd In The India-China Theater

By Brahma Chellaney 


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 ofAsian 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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