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China: Back to Containing India?

Containing, encircling and destabilizing India by a variety of alliances is not new. The United States was in it till at least the end of the cold war. Even now, there are influential Americans who continue to wear the blindfold, though much has changed in the last decade. But the Pakistan – China alliance has been the most persistent and determined, co-opting some other South Asian countries periodically in this pursuit.

Currently, Nepal appears to have become the top prize to win for the China-Pak alliance, followed by Sri Lanka. Suddenly these developments have begun to pick up pace. Significantly, both governments seem confident of having done enough ground work, especially in Nepal, to show their intentions almost in the open.

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir paid an official visit to China end of June to ostensibly discuss counter-terrorism. The declared agenda was rather lame. There has been no terrorist attack or planning centered in Nepal against Pakistan. In fact, Pakistani terrorists with the help of the Pakistani Embassy officials, have conducted several operations in India. One most notable one was the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight No.IC-814 from King Tribuvan Airport in Kathamndu, which resulted in the release of Jaish-e-Mohammad founder Maulana Masud Azhar and three other Pakistani terrorists, from an Indian jail. Pakistani diplomats and officials have been expelled from Nepal after the incident because of their complicity in anti-India terrorist activities.

The latest case, a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) leader, Mohammad Omar Madani was arrested in Kathmandu and brought to India. In his ongoing interrogations, Madani has confessed to the Indian agencies that he was to recruit Indian Maoists/Naxalites to train in terrorism in Pakistan. Did Foreign Secretary Bashir try to work with the anti-India and pro-China politicians and bureaucrats in Nepal to go easy on Pakistan sponsored terrorists making Nepal a staging post? Not impossible.

On the top of Mr. Bashir’s agenda, as reported by the Nepali media, he tried, apparently with some success, to convince some of his interlocutors that enhanced cordial relations between Nepal, China and Pakistan would help the three countries to safeguard their interests at the regional level. Bashir also advised that Nepal should pursue a policy towards China on the lines of Pakistan – basically become a trusted ally and frontline state of China particularly against India.

It is, therefore, no coincidence, that a former Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Zhang Jiuhuang, followed Bashir on a “consultation” visit to Kathmandu. Mr. Zhang, now an elevated member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), was responsible for putting into action Beijing’s assurance to Nepal that China would safeguard its security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. China’s support to Nepal in these words came emphatically when the Nepali Maoists, now the Unified Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist (UNCP-M) came to lead the Central Government.

With the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) now leading a rather fragile coalition government, China appears to have begun aggressive moves after an initial quiet policy of readjustment period. Stand-by-Pakistan has been brought in, and the internal pot in Nepal is being stirred.

First, the CPN (UML) has been split. MJF leader Upendra Yadav, an ex-Maoist leader, is opposed to UML leader and the current Prime Minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal who is perceived as India friendly, though by no means is he anti-China. Madhav Nepal believes in a balanced relationship between the two large neighbours, but this is not acceptable to Maoist hardliners led by senior ideologue Mohan Baidya Kiran.

Looking at the recent surge in Beijing’s hard line approach towards India which includes the boundary issue and goes much further into international fora like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and opposing declaration of LET Chief Hafeez Saeed as a terrorist in the UN, China apparently feels it is time to squeeze India at all possible levels.

Therefore, clearly a very serious effort at forming a China – Nepal – Pakistan trilateral is in the offing. This alliance covers India from the North-West to the East at the Eastern sector of the Sino-Indian border. During the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) government in Bangladesh from 2001-2006, the China-Pakistan-Bangladesh nexus against India started flourishing. With the debacle of the BNP-JEI alliance at the 2008 December elections, the anti-India agenda has been broken with the Awami League in power. But that is not the last word. Beijing continues to worm its way into Bangladesh. During the BNP-JEI government China, Bangladesh and Pakistan entered into an agreement to coordinate their intelligence operations in India.

In spite of some differences between the governments of India and Sri Lanka over the issue of Tamils, the historical bond between the two countries is still believed to be sound. But with Sinhala nationalism and the influence of the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lankan politics, it is unlikely that the Tamil problem and discrimination of the Tamil Sri Lankans will go away peacefully.

A reorientation in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is, however, becoming visible. The refusal by most of the international community to provide the Sri Lankan government with offensive weapons has opened the door to China and Pakistan. The decision not to support the Sri Lankan army with lethal weapons by India and others was to seek a peaceful political resolution to the struggle between the LTTE and the government. It took into account the possible humanitarian disaster and further alienation between the Sinhala and the Tamil communities. But President Mahinda Rajapakse, in his sagacity, chose a military solution. He won the war for the government but at a tremendous cost to Tamil civilians.

The LTTE under Prabhakaran deserved to be decimated. Towards the end of the war they used the civilians as human shields. But the government did not shed a tear for the civilians either. The government won their battle, but they have to fight a more difficult war. That is, the trust of the Tamils. Will the government of Sri Lanka give all Tamils the same rights and privileges as the Sinhalese?

China and Pakistan took advantage of the situation. They became the main military suppliers to the Sri Lanka armed forces. In the last two years China emerged as the biggest aid donor to Sri Lanka. Pakistan provided arms and military experts, especially for the air force, tremendously improving the striking capability of the Sri Lankan air force.

Now cash-strapped Myanmar, which is a Chinese captive ally and protected by China against international opprobrium, has provided assistance in foreign exchange to Colombo for the resettlement of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). That is saying a lot. Three other developments in quick succession need to be minutely analysed and plotted in a “game theory” matrix.

The first was the surprise visit of President Rajapakse to Myanmar after the defeat of the LTTE. This was his first visit overseas after the LTTE war. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rahitha Bogollagama described the visit as highly significant. Sri Lanka does not have such close relations with Naypitaw. How did the military junta of Myanmar help Sri Lanka so critically? Was it at the behest of Myanmar’s protector, China?

Immediately following Rajapakse’s visit, Myanmar’s No.2 Gen. Maung Aye visited China, and Beijing announced the long pending agreement to build an oil and gas pipe line from Myanmar’s Indian Ocean coast to China’s Yunnan province. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice President Xi Jinping also assured Maung Aye of China’s support to Myanmar resolving international issues of the government and the people of the country without outside interference.

The third point to note is that following his Myanmar visit, President Rajapakse visited China in the first week of July where he described Sri Lanka-China relations as a “friend in need” and “has stood the test of time”. These phrases are very important in China’s relationship with any ally. The question is, is Sri Lanka turning into a quasi-military ally of China in the way of Myanmar?

China has had an enduring interest in Sri Lanka, especially in its Indian Ocean strategy and containment of India. In the early 1990s, the Chinese gave Sri Lanka a plan to completely rearm the Sri Lankan army with assured “friendship prices” for Chinese supplies. The Chinese offer was to refit the entire Sri Lankan navy with Chinese ships fitted with Chinese equipment. The Chinese now are building the Hambantota port on the Indian Ocean, and entering the infrastructure and power production areas.

An informed speculation can be made about the initial steps of close integration, if not an alliance, stretching from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China. The encirclement of India blueprint is complete along an “India threat” theory to India’s South Asian neighbours.

India has to respond with appropriate foreign policy and military diplomacy. The recent initiative to refurbish the Maldives’ air force is a good beginning. But apart from Pakistan, where some amount of hard line is necessary, diplomacy with most other SAARC countries calls for greater maturity. No country should be lectured publicly as to what is good for them. This is not a supercilious observation.

(The author, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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