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Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

How Real is the China Threat to India?

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by Amitava Mukherjee

It is now high time to admit that a terrible confusion has gripped the corridors of power in Delhi so far as India’s China policy is concerned. While the top brass of the Army has been cautioning the political leadership against China’s ultimate design, a powerful section of the bureaucracy that includes the National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon now openly main-tains an obsequious attitude towards China. [Recently in a public lecture the NSA was heard saying: “Why create self-fulfilling prophesies of conflict with powerful neighbours like China?” And he added thereafter: “For me that is one of the lessons of the fifties that some of us are in danger of forgetting.”] In addition there are the strategic experts who are afraid that anytime there might be Chinese invasion from across the border. Discussions and doubts have reached such a proportion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been forced to clarify by saying that “our government does not share the view that China plans to attack India”.

Manmohan Sigh is half-right. An outright invasion by China may not be imminent in the changed strategic/political scenario of the present-day world. But that does not change the ground realities in South Asia. China’s meteoric rise as a world power always puts India at a disadvantage and since 1962 it has continued to browbeat India in a big brotherly fashion. In doing so China has its own reasons and New Delhi’s recent endeavours to genuflect in front of the USA has failed to put any break on Chinese designs.

Manmohan Singh sounds optimistic but some recent decisions of his government indicate that New Delhi is not very sure about Chinese intentions. India has recently stationed a full squadron of Sukhoi-30 aircraft in Tezpur and another squadron is now positioned in Chabua in Upper Assam. The Prime Minister recently sanctioned a Rs 24,000 crore package for development of roads in Arunachal Pradesh, a militarily important State which China frequently claims to be her own area.

A repeat of the 1962-like scenario may be unlikely but so far as military preparedness is concerned China has perhaps stolen a march over India. That is perhaps the reason why New Delhi is still trying to soft-pedal Chinese threats in spite of the presence of PLA personnel in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). However, provocative Chinese activities have been going on in different sectors.

A dangerous portent, so far as Indian strategic interests are concerned, is China’s policy of the ‘string of pearls’, a euphemism for setting up a chain of commands in the subcontinent to encircle India. In line with this, China has been gradually pushing its outposts nearer to the Indian border, the most important example being Xigatse, the second most important city of Tibet which has been put on the Golmud-Lhasa extended railway line. Xigatse has now become a bustling centre of not only trade and commerce but Chinese espionage activity as well.

It is better to admit that foreign policy experts predicting Chinese invasion, are perhaps wrong. In spite of its continuous roars over Arunachal Pradesh, China will not possibly dare to attack India but instead try to put New Delhi in an extremely disadvantageous position in conducting her foreign policy. Right now Beijing’s equations with Baburam Bhattarai, the Prime Minister of Nepal, may not be good but it has already entrenched itself firmly in Nepal. In addition to the Kodari highway, which was built with Chinese assistance in 1960, a second highway connecting Nepal and Tibet has come up. The majority section of the Maoists of Nepal looks upon China as a more trustworthy and closer ally than India and Beijing has an excellent equation with Prachanda.

But India has real causes of worry so far as China’s growing influence on Bangladesh and Myanmar is concerned, not to speak of its relations with Pakistan. While New Delhi has been successful in striking a personal chord with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, yet it should not be forgotten than China has a very good understanding with the Taliban which is now almost certain to have a comfortable share in any future Afghan dispensation after the NATO forces pull out. China is now busy in securing safe corridors for her energy supplies and it is quite natural that through the Karakoram Highway she will build connecting roads for an easy access to the Indian Ocean.

Conduct of foreign policy needs vision and a sense of purpose, an area where India falters and China excels. Except for a bright period under Jawaharlal Nehru and a brief interregnum during the time of Indira Gandhi, this has been India’s track record. Even for Jawaharlal Nehru the ignominious defeat of 1962 pathetically exposed his verbose nature and lack of preparation. There is a common joke prevalent among the car drivers of Arunachal Pradesh who ply their vehicles on the messiest possible road from Bhalukpong to Tawang. It is that the Government of India deliberately keeps the road in an awful condition as that might prove to be the only factor discouraging the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China from swooping down upon Tawang and further downwards.

Nobody, not even any tourist, puts any premium on the words of these hilarious drivers. But to the strategic analysts the difference in activities on the two sides of the border is important. The Chinese have launched many mega projects, for which they are known all over the world, quite near the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) which give them strategic initiatives. It is quite natural that personnel from the PLA will be present in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as Pakistan has allowed Beijing to open at least four link roads from the Karakoram Highway one of which will connect the Gwadar deep sea port which China has built for Pakistan. In the world energy market Beijing is now in brisk business of securing energy supplies most of which pass through the Persian Gulf. By using the Gwadar port China would get an automatic access to the Gulf where it has substantially increased its naval strength in recent times.

CHINA is working on a policy of securing control of sea lanes from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea. This is quite natural. Every nation-state may try to increase its sphere of influence. That India has failed to do so is entirely due to the worthlessness of its policy-makers. Bangladesh has developed the Chittagong port with Chinese financial and technical support and another deep sea port is coming up in the Sonadih island under a similar arrangement. Direct road links between Bangla-desh and China passing through Myanmar are also being established.

It may be fair to conclude that in the race for influence over the subcontinent India has already lost Bangladesh to China although history demands that it should have been the other way round. It is a sad and long story of indecisiveness and procrastination which started from the assassination of Mujibur Rahman when Indira Gandhi wanted to send the Indian Army to Dhaka but backtracked in the face of opposition from some of her Cabinet colleagues. It ultimately reached a ludicrous level when India started giving patronage to the Khaleda Zia-led BNP Government in spite of its Islamic fundamentalist connections and anti-India stance. Even a senior Cabinet Secretariat official having an undercover posting in Dhaka had once accompanied a son of a top BNP leader to secure ONGC contracts for the latter.

As a result Awami League lost the confidence it once reposed on India and it gradually started to move towards the powerful gravitational pull of China whose involvement in the military and infrastructure sectors of Bangladesh and Myanmar is too deep. Not only is Beijing now one of the principal suppliers of military hardwares to Bangladesh, it will also build a nuclear power plant in Pabna. For Myanmar, it has developed the Irrawady corridor thereby creating a network of roads, rails and waterways. This corridor is extremely important for China as it would give its landlocked areas an access to the Bay of Bengal where Beijing is rapidly increasing its naval strength. In competition India has also agreed to invest $100 million for upgrading the Sittwe port and developing the Kaladan river system of Myanmar. But China has already proved itself to be a closer and more reliable ally of Burma’s military junta which is in fact the controlling authority of the sham democratic government there. Beijing has already secured rights for free use of Myanmar’s river systems and as a result it has been able to build surveillance stations on the Coco Island near the Andamans. That India has recognised the probable Chinese threat from the sea becomes clear from New Delhi’s decision to upgrade its naval station in the Andamans.

The Manmohan Singh-led dispensation in New Delhi thinks, not wholly without reason, that keeping the United States in good humour might provide a shield against the expansionist China though such an approach may ultimately prove to be harmful for the country in future. Already the USA is trying to build an axis with Japan and Australia to checkmate China while Beijing is leaving no stone unturned in seeing that Washington does not get any space in the Asia-Pacific region; and thus establish its own hegemony in the area. As far back as in 2005, China had tried to exclude the USA from the Pacific regional forums when Beijing had tried to elbow out the USA from the East Asia summit held in Kuala Lumpur. That Beijing had warned New Delhi to keep out of the South China Sea is a natural corollary of this approach. In order to secure energy for her fast-paced capitalist development China is rushing everywhere and this is likely to bring her into conflict with many regional states, notably Japan and Vietnam. Each year its defence spending is growing steadily by around 17 per cent. Although percentage-wise it still forms a very small part China’s GDP, yet it has to be kept in mind that Beijing’s GDP has been growing by more than 10 per cent per annum and inflation in China is low.

Policy-makers in New Delhi must realise that China is no more content with any regional profile and wants to be a global player. In order to assume such a role it looks upon India as its first prey knowing fully well that governments in India excel in non-performance. In recent times China has committed many provocative acts against India. Intrusion of the PLA in Ladakh and painting the word China on boulders near the Chushul mountains, showing Arunachal Pradesh as part of China in maps, giving stapled visas to people from Jammu and Kashmir, barging into Indian vessels in the Pangong Tso Lake are just a few instances. Each time India has tried to sweep the Chinese provocations under the carpet.

There is a difference of opinion between the Government of India and its Army. The political leadership in India is weak-kneed. But the Army thinks that the threat from Beijing is real. The terrain favours China as, at least in the eastern and central sectors of the LoAC, there is a plateau on the Chinese side while the Indian side has inhospitable steep mountains. Taking advantage of this China has stationed a good number of missiles in Tibet some of which carry nuclear warheads. If the boundary with China is really one of the most peaceful, as claimed by Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, then what really necessitated stationing of such missiles by China or what prompted India to move full squadrons of Sukhoi-30 to the North-East?

Some experts have predicted that there might be a Chinese invasion in June-July next. According to their opinion, if that apprehension really materialises, then Arunachal Pradesh might be the first target. But another area, so far ignored by our political leadership, but considered highly strategic by the Indian Army, is north Bengal. Although the contentious issue of Sikkim now stands resolved, yet more than 70 incursions have taken place in last three years in the Cho La and Batang La areas of Sikkim. More ominously China often flexes her muscles near the tri-junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Even now there is a concentration of Chinese forces near the Jhamperi ridge which falls within Bhutan. Just below this ridge is the Dolam plateau. If China can capture this plateau at the time of any aggression, then it can easily come down to Jaldhaka and thereafter capture India’s Chicken’s Neck or the Siliguri corridor. In any such event the entire North-Eastern India will be cut off.

So, most probably, Arunachal Pradesh may not experience Chinese invasion even if any war takes place in spite of the fact that Beijing has maintained a consistent belligerent posture about that State. Instead the Chinese Army might make a push into Bhutan first and then proceed towards the Siliguri corridor. In the west the Leh sector is likely to bear the brunt of Chinese attacks. According to sources, the Indian policy-makers in South Block are pinning great hopes on the burgeoning Sino-Indian trade relations as a shield against Chinese attacks. Unfortunately expanding trade has come as a boon, both economically and militarily, to China and not to India. For instance, China’s Yunnan province has now become a major centre of trade and transportation which has not only integrated the economic activities of Indian border regions to its web but those of Bangladesh and Burma as well. It is to be noted that China is building a road which will take off from Bangladesh, pass through Burma and ultimately one of its branches will connect Yunnan.

However, discontents are now brewing up against Chinese presence in different countries of the subcontinent. Recently the Burma Government has been forced to cancel a mega dam project in the Irrawady region in the face of stiff opposition from the common people. This project was scheduled to be built with the help of Chinese funds and technology and was slated to supply huge amount of power to China. In Bangladesh too murmurs of protests against China are being heard. Baburam Bhattarai, the Prime Minister of Nepal, has already left hints that he may not be at China’s beck and call. New Delhi must reorient its China policy taking note of all these developments.

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