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China’s Scary Challenges to India

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 18, 2008

    External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee's recent outburst that China poses a security challenge indicates a dangerous ambiguity in India’s China policy. The fact that Mukherjee has aired such a view after his intense and long diplomatic rapport with the leadership of that country needs to be noted seriously. It is not that China has not been a puzzle to Indian strategic thinkers. Even former Defence Minister George Fernandes considered China as India’s number one enemy, but his views were transformed after he paid an official visit to Beijing.

    Earlier this year, even the most credible Indian newspaper editorials praised the UPA government for its supple and imaginative China policy. The Indian leadership was enthused by the growing bonhomie with China, stimulated by Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s 2007 trip to China. Until January 2008, the rhetoric was “we are partners not rivals. We each have our own strengths. We must learn to respect each other, trust, and understand each other without asking ‘who would outdo whom’.” Among other things, the Chinese were indicating their willingness to support New Delhi's aspirations for membership in the UN Security Council, pledged to support India’s desire to engage in nuclear commerce, expressed the desire to deepen economic and military ties, and even showed commitment for resolving the vexed boundary problem.

    The atmospherics however changed after leaders on both sides described the talks as "constructive" and "forward looking”. As bilateral trade was swelling up to $40 billion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Indian businessmen to warm up to China and took up the case for allowing Chinese companies to develop a stake in India. There was optimism, going by the Chinese expression of interest in civil nuclear commerce with India, that Beijing would not stall India’s case at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Besides, there was a renewed Chinese commitment to abide by the 2005 agreement not to include populated areas within the gambit of any settlement of the boundary dispute. The dramatic turn in relations was construed as a mark of recognition of India's rise as a political and economic power and Beijing's resultant desire for engagement.

    Why is there a dramatic shift in South Block’s threat perception on China? Those tracking India-China relations have noticed that the cracks began to form in the summer when the PLA laid claims to a small tract (2.1 square kilometres) called “Finger Area” in Sikkim. This was at a time when India was busy protecting China’s face, which came under intense international focus in the wake of protests by Tibetans, and was ensuring that the Olympic torch relay went off peacefully in New Delhi. But China surprisingly brought Sikkim on to the table during Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Beijing in July 2008, in contrast to India’s belief that China had implicitly recognised Indian sovereignty over Sikkim in 2003. Mukherjee’s visit was a disappointment as China showed no signs of constructively moving ahead to settle substantive issues. Mukherjee may have got a taste of things when Beijing snubbed him by cancelling his well-in-advance planned meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao.

    China’s last minute effort to introduce a red herring at the NSG in Vienna may have struck deep at Mukherjee’s heart. Beijing’s role, despite assurances from the highest leadership, left bitterness in Indian minds. While the Congress Party may have forgiven the Chinese over the incident, South Block Mandarins have not.

    South Block has been occasionally airing the view that New Delhi and Beijing were “comfortable in their ties with each other”, that they are broad-basing their association through intensive trade and that they are maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border. When Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor raised an alarm about the rising number of Chinese "incursions" across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Government told him that it was not his job to speak on geopolitics. But the seriousness of the situation did make the Prime Minister and the External affairs Minister to accept that incursions have been taking place. Amidst a hardening of China’s posture, the PLA stepped up incursions across the LAC. China’s rigid stance on the long-festering boundary problem may have forced Mukherjee to reassess his perception on China. Reports about China building up pressure on India in the Northeast by supplying arms and explosives to insurgent groups could have acted as a threat multiplier.

    What may have irked Mukherjee the most is China’s renewed bid to thwart India’s chance to find a permanent seat in the UNSC. In fact, soon after the NSG episode, China attended a closed door meeting on September 26 of the ‘Coffee Club’ countries chaired by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini that opposed the UNGA’s efforts to forge a consensus on UNSC expansion. As the UNGA sets February 29, 2009 as the deadline for the negotiations, China is expected to lobby openly against the G4’s (Germany, Brazil, India, and Japan) formula for a consensus on the expansion model. This is yet another proof of China backtracking from its earlier stated position to support India’s aspirations to enter the UNSC.

    Interestingly, Pranab Mukherjee also referred to the Prime Minister’s growing concerns on the future of trans-border rivers during his visit to China last month. In the coming years, China’s surprise actions in the Himalayas could bring fresh shivers in New Delhi. Despite Beijing’s denial, China is likely to go ahead with the project to divert the Brahmaputra as early as next year or by 2010. The Indian media recently missed the news that PLA engineers on October 14 have resumed a major strategic road construction programme to link Tibet’s last road-less Medog County from where the Brahmaputra takes a U-turn at the Great Bend and enters Arunachal Pradesh. The road project is linked to a dam construction plan at the Yalung Tsangpo River, aimed at diverting a major portion of its waters (200 billion cubic metres) to Northern China.

    China’s propensity for big hydro projects to support its hyper economic growth could portend real time and unthinkable catastrophe of water stress for downstream countries. Building the railway to Tibet was clearly meant to resolve China’s water dilemma. Many environmentalists and security experts feel that China is circumspect about Tibet’s hydro resources. The issue is politically sensitive and therefore does not get enough attention, but it is fraught with critical strategic importance. India’s traditional response to trans-border issues has been meek so far, perhaps daunted by the fear of China’s quick mobilization in Tibet. Beijing has been avoiding an agreement on the protection of the trans-Himalayan Rivers and has limited its cooperation with India to sharing of hydrological data. Any intention to extend the velvet glove to Beijing would amount to chopping off the tree branch India is sitting on. The Economist Prime Minister surely understands the implications. As we move ahead into 2009, there would be several such incidents cropping up, which would strike at the core of mutual trust that was supposed to have been built painstakingly over the years between India and China.

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