Tuesday, July 07, 2009

China is India's Most Important Challenge

There has been a blithe assumption, based on the official dialogue and sharp increase in trade turnover, that the rise of India and China will be peaceful and will not destabilise either the region, or the world. But there has been increasing evidence of truculence in the ties between the two Asian giants.

Exhibit A is Beijing’s March effort — unsuccessful as it turned out to be — to block a $2.9 billion loan to India at the Asian Development Bank because part of the loan would be used for flood development projects in Arunachal Pradesh, a province claimed in entirety by China.
Exhibit B is India’s June 8 announcement that it would deploy two additional mountain divisions in the region and the publicised stationing of advanced Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters at Tezpur. Exhibit C is somewhat more difficult to pin down. It is China’s efforts to use the civil wars in Nepal and Sri Lanka to develop relationships that are aimed at displacing New Delhi as the most influential South Asian power.


On June 11, Global Times, the world affairs daily of the Communist Party of China, editorialised against what it said were “unwise military moves” in Arunachal and described India’s alleged military build-up there as “dangerous.” It said that India should consider whether or not it could afford “the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.” The editorial had an unpleasant taunting tone and spoke of Beijing’s friends in the South Asian region —Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal — implying their less than friendly attitude towards India.
The editorial also frontally confronted the issue of India’s friendship with the US as based on a desire to “balance” China’s rise. It declared, “Indian politicians these days seem to think their country would be doing China a huge favour simply by not joining the ‘ring around China’ established by the US and Japan”.
Not many Indians know that Indian military activity in Arunachal — leave aside for the moment the issue of the Chinese claim — is based on the fact that we are playing catch up. Indian military construction plans are decades behind schedule. More important, most of the forces that are supposed to be facing China, are actually involved in counter-insurgency duties in the plains of Assam.

In 1993, India and China signed a path-breaking agreement on maintaining tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The key portion of the agreement was a decision to define the location of the LAC precisely on maps. The LAC as it exists is a notional line which both sides observe. Since it overlaps in some areas, there was need to define it to prevent inadvertent confrontation. The idea was that once a mutually acceptable line was created, the two sides could thin out their forces on the border on the basis of “mutual and equal security”. Mind you, this was without prejudice to their respective claims on the border. The aim of the exercise was precisely what it stated — to maintain peace and tranquility on the LAC.
The agreement was never quite implemented. The two sides have exchanged maps of the least disputed central sector with a view to arriving at a commonly acceptable LAC, but they have not yet done so for the other two “difficult” sectors. Worse, as is often its wont, New Delhi took the agreement at face value. Caught up with insurgencies and rebellions in Jammu & Kashmir and Assam, it began thinning its forces in Arunachal. The thinning was supposed to be part of a carefully worked out protocol, but New Delhi decided it could live with the risk.
In the years thereafter, Beijing put in a vast infrastructural development effort in Tibet and constructed a network of highways, railways, airbases and military cantonments. By 2004 New Delhi realised it had to respond to these capabilities, even if there was no imminent threat. So, in the recent years, India is trying to shore up its defences by raising additional forces (actually it is not clear whether these would be additional, or they would be scavenged back from the bloated divisions in Jammu & Kashmir) and deploying some effective air power in the region. The announcement that 2 divisions would be raised was actually made first in 2006 and the June 2009 announcement was just a


The military confidence building process between India and China, manifested in the 1993 agreement and its companion 1996 agreement, led to an even more path-breaking 2005 agreement that actually set down the political parameters and guidelines that should underlie the boundary settlement. At the time, it appeared that the two countries would settle their vexed boundary dispute within a matter of a year
or two.
But strangely, that did not happen. And we are none the wiser as to why, except that we know that the block has been applied in Beijing and not New Delhi. Some officials say that the Chinese were miffed by what they saw as India’s efforts to “encircle” China by tying up with Japan, Australia and the United States. Others say that inner party dissension in Beijing has led to a progressive hardening of Beijing’s attitude towards New Delhi. Because the two countries had advanced so far down the road towards resolving their more complex border problem, the hiatus appears greater than it probably is. But as of now there is no answer as to what should be done.
There should be no doubt that China is India’s greatest single challenge. The Global Times editorial may have reflected the views of only some top Chinese officials, but even so, it does tell us something of how an important segment of Chinese officialdom is thinking.


The Chinese challenge is not just military, though we must not neglect its military aspects. The challenge, as the Global Times editorial put it, is basically developmental because the Chinese “miracle” makes it appear so much more attractive than us. There are many who say that China’s economic might rests on shaky foundations. But that is little comfort. The persistence of deep pockets of poverty, the poor health-care and educational system in India makes us appear weaker than we probably are as compared to China.
This matters to our neighbourhood and gives rise to the Chinese geopolitical challenge in our own neighbourhood with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and, of course, Pakistan. Despite our geographical advantages, China is able to unbalance us in our own region.
In today’s world, meeting a challenge should not give rise to a confrontation, though there is no need to shy away from one, if it is forced on you. India should compete with China, in the development field, as well as for diplomatic influence, even while retaining an effective military deterrent capability, both nuclear and conventional.
But we can also cooperate in many areas — peacekeeping, controlling the prices of commodities and natural resources, ensuring a level playing field in the world trading system, etc.
We must think through our relations with China in a coherent and calm manner. A strong and confident India is the best response to Beijing’s bluster. India has its inherent strengths, some of which are becoming apparent by the day.
The article appeared in Mail Today July 1, 2009

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