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China: Stand on Arunachal reflects assertive foreign policy

China’s fast and furious reaction to Indian media reports of military reinforcements to counter an increase in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) border incursions along the disputed Sino-Indian frontier, can be attributed to Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy behaviour that has been on display since the middle of 2008, post-Olympics and post-financial crisis, and its concerns about India’s growing power.

While interacting with visiting scholars, the experts of various think tanks in Beijing, run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defence, are no longer mentioning Japan as a major security concern, but India is coming up repeatedly even while the focus is on subjects like the “US-China relations under Obama”. Apparently, India’s growing economic and military strength is being seen as a “major obstacle” in China’s expansion southwards. For, China cannot establish its predominance in Asia without subduing India. While some Chinese interlocutors are critical of the joint US-India-Japan naval exercise in the Pacific Ocean soon after the Qingdao naval show, others want to know “the real strength” of the Indian military now and in the next few years, and the implications for China’s security posture vis-à-vis India. China’s strategists also voice concern over India’s ability to purchase advanced weapons systems from both Russia and the West; some senior Chinese military officers see in India’s Brahmos cruise missile a threat to the Qinghai-Tibet railway. The clear victory of the Congress-led coalition has also come as a surprise to many of China’s India-watchers who were expecting a pro-China Left-dominated weak, unstable coalition to gain power after the recent parliamentary elections.

As far as the future of China-India relations is concerned, there is a great deal of pessimism in China.

Since the 2008 Tibetan unrest, the Chinese government has allowed fierce anti-India rhetoric to rage in closely monitored Chinese Internet chat rooms. Turmoil in Tibet meant a big loss of face for the Chinese leadership as it showed that internal unity was still fragile. More importantly, it weakened Beijing’s negotiating leverage with India over Tawang. It has also brought the People’s Liberation Army back in the driver’s seat in China’s policy towards India. In the aftermath of the widespread Tibetan unrest in 2008, several articles highly critical of India have appeared in the Chinese media and strategic journals. As a consequence, the public opinion in China has turned increasingly critical of India. It is reflected in the Global Times online poll in which 90 per cent participants said they believe India poses a big threat to China.

As the recent Global Times editorial (“India’s unwise military moves”) indicates, the existing asymmetry in international status and power serves Beijing’s interests very well. However, Beijing will strongly resist any attempt by India to undermine China’s power and global influence or to achieve strategic parity (via military modernization and expansion and membership in the UN Security Council) through a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic means. In this context, a pro-US or pro-Japan tilt in India’s security policy—though obviously a reaction to China’s growing power-projection capabilities—is seen as an attempt to close the gap with China, and therefore threatening to Beijing’s grand strategic goals. Many analysts in China contend that “India, which is inferior to China in terms of comprehensive national strength, must not be allowed to challenge China in the future.”

The Chinese also worry about India exploiting the growing instability in Pakistan to bolster its strategic position and therefore have stepped up military assistance to Islamabad.

The PLA seems unwilling to respect the sanctity of the so-called “Line of Actual Control” that has maintained peace for decades since the 1962 war. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons argue that “there are no incursions because the border has never been demarcated between India and China.” Hence the PLA troops are free to go into disputed areas. This would amount to repudiation of the 1993 agreement on “maintaining peace and tranquility along the disputed frontier.

Many in China’s strategic circles feel that unless India hands over a large chunk of territory in Arunachal Pradesh to Beijing, there will be no settlement. They now seem to regret giving up the “resource-rich territory” of Arunachal Pradesh that the PLA had captured during the 1962 war, and signal a new determination not to repeat “the mistakes of the past” (“show magnanimity by vacating conquered territory”) in the event of another border war with India. In the meantime, an unsettled border also provides China the strategic leverage to keep India uncertain about its intentions and nervous about its capabilities, while exposing India’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses and ensuring New Delhi’s “good behaviour” on issues of vital concern to China.

The criticisms and arguments that the Chinese make of India’s poor relations with its South Asian neighbours or asymmetry in capabilities and influence with China are equally applicable to the India-Pakistan relationship and the Sino-US relationship. However, Beijing does not accept those criticisms or comparisons. China equates itself with the United States and Pakistan with India – despite significant power differential in international influence, economic and military capabilities. While commenting on India’s poor relations with its neighbours (reflective of “small state versus big state syndrome”), Chinese policymakers and strategic analysts conveniently gloss over the state of Beijing’s fragile relations with its Southeast and East Asian neighbours: Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or the Philippines.

In the absence of mutual accommodation of each other’s security interests and concerns, the power rivalry between Asia’s rising giants is intensifying. If anything, developments in Sino-Indian relations over the last few years confirm the validity of the following analysis published in the ‘Power & Interest News Report’ in late 2007:

“Although the probability of an all-out conflict is low, the prospect that some of India’s road building projects in disputed areas could lead to tensions, clashes and skirmishes with Chinese border patrols cannot be completely ruled out. Should a conflict break out, the PLA’s contingency plans emphasize a ‘short and swift localised’ conflict (confined to the Tawang region, along the lines of the 1999 Kargil conflict initiated by Pakistan) with the following objectives in mind: (i) capture the Tawang tract; (ii) give India’s military a bloody nose; and (iii) deliver a knockout punch that punctures India’s ambitions to be China’s equal or peer competitor once and for all. The ultra-modern civilian and military infrastructure in Tibet is expected to enable Beijing to exercise the military option to achieve the above-mentioned objectives should that become necessary at some stage in the future.”

In short, as in the past, so in the future, China’s failure to pacify Tibet and the looming battle over the next Dalai Lama’s selection coupled with Beijing’s strategic imperative to preempt India’s rise as a peer competitor could bring about a clash. Some in Beijing’s policy establishment believe that the day of reckoning with India is not far. Chinese defence planners are preparing for the possibility of a renewed confrontation with India.

( Written by a long time observer of China, in response to the article by Mr B.Raman entitled ” Chinese Media Fury Over Arunachal Pradesh”, www.c3sindia.org, paper No.289 dated 12 June 2009).

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