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China: Strategic Experts Talk About a Partial Sino-Indian War

D.S.Rajan, C3S Paper No. 230 dated November 24, 2008

Especially since the visit to Arunachal Pradesh in early November by the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, views are being expressed at regular intervals by a section of the strategic community close to the authorities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that a fresh Sino-Indian border conflict may be possible. While the official Chinese response to what was stated during the visit by Mr Mukherjee, has mainly remained confined to reiteration of Beijing’s territorial position and expression of ‘ deep regret’, the studies of the PRC’s experts are in the nature of looking at the boundary issue in a strategic dimension, especially in the context of their perceptions about India’s alleged military reinforcements in the border and counter-measures required for China. What is important is that they are not ruling out the eruption of a ‘partial border war’ between the two nations. At this juncture when Sino-Indian relations are being described officially by China as marking the ‘best period’ in history, it becomes imperative for New Delhi to understand the real meaning of such views, which are being conveyed through Chinese language publications meant for the domestic audience.

First deserving attention is the comment (in Chinese language, China Institute of International Strategic Studies, 20 November 2008) of “Zhan Lue”, believed to be a high level cadre. He visualises ‘two crises’ for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the immediate sense – Situation in North Korea if Kim Jong Il succumbs to his reported illness and India’s border provocation to divert attention from its economic crisis resulting from the global financial meltdown, began in October 2008. Regarding the former, the strategist feels that the PLA cannot afford to remain a silent spectator if the US and South Korea intervene in North Korea once Kim is dead. On India’s provocation, he points out that in recent years, the economic development factor has been responsible for promoting that country’s military and nuclear weapon development programme; this may encourage New Delhi to incite Beijing. Already, since June 2008, India has been intruding into China’s territory in the border many times in an attempt to create incidents. In the opinion of the analyst, New Delhi would like to shift attention from the emerging contradictions in India’s economic structure following the global meltdown, to provoking China, even launching a ‘partial war’ against China.

Zhan Lue also refers to another source of challenge that can contribute to a ‘ new large-scale Sino-Indian military clash’- India’s opposition to China’s proposal to carry out projects aimed at diverting Brahmaputra river waters to its Northeastern parts. Expected to be protracted, such a clash may result in setback for China – damage to Tibet highways and railways. The analyst adds that the PRC should be prepared for India’s projection of its military strength vis-à-vis China in the border including the Western sector, and also in the Indian Ocean; Beijing should also take into account the possible ‘restriction’ at the same time of China by the US and Russia, respectively in Taiwan Straits and Ussuri river border.

It may be worth referring to what another article said two days earlier (zhong hua.net, military section, Chinese language, 18 November 2008). It observed that the border issue is only a symbol of Sino-Indian friction; the basic point concerns New Delhi’s thinking that Beijing is the ‘greatest obstacle’ to India’s rise. Saying that India’s occupation of ‘Southern Tibet’ (China’s name to Arunachal Pradesh) is a security threat to China, it suggests that in counter, the PRC may adopt a strategy aimed at weakening the control of the Indian central government through steps like ‘splitting’ and ‘dismembering’ India. In that way, India, which is inferior to China in terms of comprehensive national strength, cannot challenge the PRC in future.

The subject of another war with India is also figuring in contributions of Chinese analysts, most of them from military, to the Bulletin boards of several strategic research and military websites, all apparently receiving supervision of the government. It is true that by their very nature, they cannot be said to reflect official opinions, but what could be important is that their publication would not have been possible without some sort of patronage from the authorities. Worth mentioning are four such articles. One raises (Global Times net, by a Tibetan cadre, 19 October 2008) a key question as to why some Chinese experts are making references to ‘disputed border ’ with India, whereas the entire Southern Tibet, now under Indian occupation, is a Chinese territory without any dispute (the same theme was discussed in C3S Paper No. 104 of 4 February 2008). It demands that the Central Government should tell the public clearly about its position – whether it would recover Southern Tibet or maintain status quo. A second report alleges (chinaiiss.org, 27 October 2008) that India is building in large-scale, new airports and military installations in the border, for ‘defeating China in a war’. According to a third comment (chinaiiss.org, 15 November 2008), if a war breaks out again with India, the Chinese aim should be to recover Southern Tibet; as such that war would be basically a ‘partial’ one, without affecting other border fronts. In this war, China should make Pakistan as its ally and help the latter in recovering Kashmir.

Catching attention is also a fourth Bulletin Board report authored by a possible high level military analyst, entitled “Tibet Military District is fully prepared to deal with a possible Sino-Indian border clash” (bbs.news.sina.com.cn, 17.November 2008). Alleging that discordant notes regarding the Sino-Indian border have very recently emanated from a ‘certain big power’ in South Asia (unmistakable reference to India, though not by name), it focuses on China’s military preparedness in Tibet in response. Revealing that the 52 and 53 Mountain Brigades and the 149th Mobile Division of the 13th Group Army, act as mainstay in China’s defence of Tibet, it, in an unusual manner, gives out enormous data on the Orbat in Tibet Military District, particularly on the formation of various Brigades. The article further points out that in recent years, facilities for communications and transport could be improved in Tibet; through the newly built Qinghai-Tibet Railway, troops and material can be quickly transported. New highways have been established in the Ali region and the latest building of airports like Linzhi, have contributed to mobility of troops, including that of Second artillery. At the same time a negative factor is that the Air Force is not permanently stationed in Tibet.

Why there is a talk in China now on the possibility of a limited Sino-Indian war? It definitely looks like a scenario building exercise undertaken by the Chinese strategists. However, there seems to be a hidden sense of urgency on the subject among them; explaining this is their rationale that India’s new border infrastructure initiatives are in the nature of provoking China. While it cannot be denied that if another war breaks out, even partial, Sino-Indian relations would undoubtedly suffer much, the question arises – can such a war really erupt? The answer could be no, considering the present comfort level in Sino-Indian ties. It would be pertinent to note in this connection that latest views of Chinese specialists are not in tune with the official line of the PRC, which considers that each country is not a threat to the other and that bilateral relations can be developed looking beyond the complex border dispute, which may take time to solve. India is in agreement with this line. Also, their sentiments run counter to the excellent atmospherics now surrounding the bilateral relations at the moment- mutual economic dependence level has increased, trade volume is going up, joint military exercises have started and the ties are said to have assumed a global character.

At the same time, one does not fail to notice that China is speaking in two voices on Sino-Indian ties. It would, however, be wrong to take them as contradictory to each other; they only go to distinguish the different policy priorities of key agencies in China. To explain, a border war, as conceived by Chinese strategists, may reflect the calculations of the military and security establishment in China for which no compromise is possible on the issue of national sovereignty (for e.g Taiwan and Tibet). On the other hand, in the diplomatic front, Beijing needs to show a benign face, hence its soft line towards India under the ‘harmonious world’ foreign policy concept. But even here, Beijing does not hesitate to admit the existence of ‘cold peace’ with India (PRC Ambassador to New Delhi, Zhang Yan, Ifeng journal, 21 June 2008). In any case, it should be borne in mind that the Chinese policy making mechanism at top levels provides space to integrate such differing priorities.

As far as India is concerned, such talks of war in China, to say the least, may have an ‘unsettling’ effect on it. A partial war with China may look illogical for India at the moment; but prudence demands New Delhi to keep an eye on any surprise Chinese move along the border. In a larger perspective, however, it would be important for India not to over react to signals, howsoever conflicting they may look, emanating from China, taking into account the long term benefits that may accrue to it from a policy of ‘engaging’ China.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is the Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, and India.Email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

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