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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 44, October 23, 2010

Growing Chinese Assertiveness: Love Thy Neighbour?

Sunday 24 October 2010

by Vaishnavi Tannir

Many feel that the recent Chinese activity in the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan spells trouble. At this point, fully comprehending the critical implications this move has, and will have, on the region and its participants, we have to carve a way forward. Moreover, an under-standing of the underlying motives and perceptions of China, India and Pakistan is most significant. This particular manoeuvre affects these countries most directly, and the US in an indirect way. What could China’s “grand strategy” be? Considering China’s “Western Development Campaign” that seeks to boost development in peripheral regions like Xinjiang, this claim does hold some truth. However, as Dr Srikanth Kondapalli puts it, “Giving the devil its due does raise eyebrows. Infrastructure need not be an innocent move.” Thus, while the Chinese stand firm on their stance of economics being the primary motivator, it would be useful to inspect some of the unsaid reasons for their clearly long-term stay in the area.

For one, the construction of the ‘Karakoram Corridor’, and all that it entails, indicates very obviously that they have profound and enduring interests in the area. The plan to link Gwadar in Balochistan (Pakistan) to Kashgar in Xinjiang (China) means that the time taken for trans-shipment through internal lines of communication would be reduced drastically to two days, a quantum leap from the 25 days it now takes. A consequence of this is that this route will provide China with access to Central Asia and the Gulf as well as the North Arabian Sea, allowing it to expand its reaches more effectively. This will further help China continue its quest for economic supremacy and international prestige.

Dr Subhash Kapila, writing for the South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), notes that the military implications of such a move are tremendous. More so in the light of the China-India military standoff along the border between India and China-occupied Tibet. Perhaps an attempt is being made to disperse the Indian response, forcing India to focus on separate issues (areas), namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin and Tibet with China and Kashmir, as usual, with Pakistan (now with Chinese backing). This would leave China free to pursue its other national aspirations, while India is forced to deal with these imminent security threats. This could also mean that the Chinese and Pakistani Armies would be free to further cooperate, and maybe join their forces, if ever need be.

This is obviously problematic for India which will not be able to withstand a joint attack. All these fears can become a reality very easily once China develops the aforementioned infrastructure. It could then open a direct route to Leh along the Indus Valley without having to fight India’s main defensive deployments opposite the Tibetan border, jeopardising in the process India’s military posture in Ladakh. Prior to this, India enjoyed military superiority vis-à-vis China along the Ladakh border, as the Chinese military paraphernalia was difficult to sustain logistically. The Karakoram Corridor and the number of oil and gas pipelines that have been constructed now, allows this sustainability that was previously lacking. This move also enhances China’s military postures in Western Tibet and Xinjiang against both India and NATO. In addition, Chinese assistance in building feeder roads and bridges in Pakistan can, and probably will, aid the Pakistani Army further in its initiatives in Ladakh against India.

Additionally, China has built a number of dams in Pakistan. This is important given that water is increasingly becoming yet another source of friction between India and Pakistan.

All these steps, taken to ‘strengthen and solidify Sino-Pak relations’, seem to send multiple political messages expressed in their undertones. By entering the region, the Chinese are perhaps trying to assert the influence they know they wield over their friend and neighbour, Pakistan. It also seems likely that they are taking a stand on the Indo-Pak Kashmir dispute, demonstrating that they agree with Pakistan in the matter. The area they are stationed in means they can interfere in the internal politics of the Valley, if they so wish. It is also known that they side with the secessionists. Considering their internal problem stemming from the Xinjiang unrest, this does appear slightly puzzling, because one would expect them to be more sympathetic towards us since we are suffering from a similar malaise. But again, this is a declaration of their close relationship with Pakistan. It seems that this strategic obtrusiveness is also a way for them to apply pressure on India to lay off Tibet, signalling that if they wanted to, they could make the Kashmir situation worse for New Delhi.

However, there are still growing concerns in Beijing regarding their assets and workers on account of Pakistan’s security threats. Chinese investments in Pakistan are bound to suffer if domestic problems intensify. Because of this, China stands to gain by supporting Pakistan, and it is suspected that China might ignore international obligations for nonproliferation in order to ensure that Pakistan is happy, thereby protecting their assets in the country.

This assumes renewed significance in the light of recent tensions in India-China relations. Beijing’s denial of a visa to a top Army General, B.S. Jaswal, because he was in charge of military operations in Kashmir, was dismissed as a baseless rumour, insisting that China has no intention of involving itself in the Kashmir issue. China maintained that it is a problem that needs to be sorted out between India and Pakistan through comprehensive bilateral dialogues. However, in this new context, China’s political clout could easily alter the fallouts of this dispute. Regardless, China continues to plead being a victim of a conspiracy out to ruin India-China-Pakistan relations, and affirms that this conspiracy will not succeed.

Why is Pakistan accepting, and allowing, this dominant Chinese role? Earlier this month, Pakistan publicly denied that 11,000 Chinese soldiers were deployed in PoK, claiming that the Chinese “humanitarian” teams were there to help with post-flood operations. This follows reports in the US (New York Times) that China ceded control of Gilgit-Baltistan, causing quite a stir in India thereafter. Regardless, many in Pakistan are happy over this development, explaining that the Chinese have only good intentions towards them and therefore anything Beijing doing in the area must be beneficial to them. This is understandable given their terrible state of the Pakistani economy and its steadily increasing energy requirements. So far, China has been one of the few major contributors facilitating infrastructural needs related to these fields.

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What does this mean for the USA and its own interests in the area? Growing Chinese assertiveness in Asia has been on the rise. The South China Sea conflict and the Karakoram Corridor are only two latest developments of this nature. Against this backdrop, US officials said that for the moment, they were seeking to take the US-China military-to-military relations forward, while keeping a watchful eye on the expansionist tendency of the Chinese Navy. The US has gone on to say that they are trying to comprehend Chinese objectives and aims, and their overall desire is to see assist regional stability. India and the US are also engaging in a joint amphibious exercise at the US Marine base in Okinawa, Japan, after Washington pul out of the same last year. Although no reason was provided as to why they pulled out, regional conside-rations were understood to be the cause. It appears that the United States might be uncomfortable with the obvious shift of power in Afghanistan in particular, and the South Asian region and world in general. This has been enhanced by China’s plans in PoK which upsets American strategic interests in all three contexts. Public opinion in the country is also encouraging a redefinition of US policy towards Pakistan.

At the same time, the ongoing US-China competition reveals many dimensions in the light of Islamabad relations with both. US-Pakistan relations have been strained for some time, more so in the aftermath of the US-led campaign against terror earlier this decade. Pakistan’s perceived threat of America which is felt to be eyeing Pakistan through the Afghan prism has been strengthened with the latest NATO aerial attacks on Pakistan (September 25-26, 2010). This, coupled with the simultaneous growth of Indo-US relations, has undeniably encouraged these sentiments. Further, by allowing extensive Chinese ventures in Pakistan- occupied Kashmir, Islamabad has hinted that its relationship with America is no longer too important, offsetting US “maritime superiority” in the region till the Gulf. China has established a meaningful and substantial strategic foothold in proximity to the Straits of Hormuz, an area that is vital for American entrenchment in the Gulf region. Pakistan has, in effect, given China ”force-multipliers” (a factor that increases the existing forces to make a greater impact) against the United States, when the Karakoram Corridor is joined with the under-construction Gwadar port and Pakistani Navy bases on the Makran coast. The reality of these decisions could manifest themselves most unpleasantly as long as India-China and US-China competitions continue to evolve alongside these developments, punctuated by a prominent Pakistani role. It has now become clear that the Sino-Pak friendship is at a level where America no longer exerts much influence over Pakistan, and this is a a matter of serious concern for India. Also, American interests in Kabul could now be challenged with improved Chinese military presence near Afghanistan and implies that Pakistan could use this phonemonon as a leverage against America.

As India and the US seek greater cooperation with each other, and together are considering what to do about the Chinese “threat”, China and Pakistan are doing everything to counter this engagement. Shortly after the signing of the landmark Indo-US civil nuclear deal, Pakistan and China followed suit with one of their own. Chinese and Pakistani threat perceptions see India as the biggest problem in the region, more so for Pakistan than China. However, the Chinese have reassured Pakistan and made clear which side they are on.

As against this, what would America’s strategic response be? The dynamics of the US-China relationship will determine this response. The idea of a ‘G-2’ world, wherein the United States and China will strive to solve certain global issues like terrorism, nuclearisation in the Korean peninsula, as well as non-traditional security problems, have taken shape. Dr Kondapalli analyses, however, that friction is caused by American’s relationships with India, Japan and South Korea. Another crucial factor is that in the context of recession, China has been heavily subsidising the American economy, and in this situation, any Chinese economic ventures make perfect sense. At the same time, where US-China relations are headed is unclear. The subtle sentiment that the US regards China as the new-age Soviet Union sometimes becomes clear from the US policy towards China. China is America’s “strategic adversary”, and hence, there exists suspicions at the strategic level. But, they require each other economically, and are therefore indispensable to one another. This makes it a zero-sum game between Washington and Beijing for at least another five-six years.

So, what is India’s regional response going to be? And what should India’s overall strategy be? Given Chinese perceptions that echo the same fears as India, that India is ‘encircling’ China rather than the other way round, India should look outside the South Asian region. The Indian policy has been indicative of the fact that New Delhi cannot be encircled and, so to that extent, India has been successful in competing with China. Perhaps India should look at a similar strategy in another strategic area, and not waste too much time by being obsessed over this issue. Admittedly, this does prove to be a crucial irritant in terms of security. However, a similar strategy to link India with Asia-Pacific countries, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. till Australia (if not further), would be wise. And it would be more advantageous to forge those relationships right away, so that India may engage in proactive diplomacy rather than pressurised diplomacy. Joining the extended G-8, and India’s Look East policy may give it some leverage in East Asia. International relations take years to solidify; therefore, the sooner this process begins, the faster New Delhi can take herself forward, regardless of Beijing’s endeavours.

The author is a Research Intern Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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