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Chinese Perception of India in the frame of Sino-US Strategic Game

The “China threat” theory which emanated from the west, and China’s strategic understanding that the West co-opted India are coming into increasing conflict especially in the Asian frame work. It would not help the stability of this vast and expanding map including the Asia-Pacific region especially when mixed with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sponsored ultra-nationalism campaign.

There is no doubt several theories of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the foreign policy area are being seriously questioned. One of them is Deng’s advice to avoid conflict in the neighbourhood. Looking at developments on the ground, it appears that China’s foreign policy in the neighbourhood is being increasingly influenced by the hard line ambitious theories of equally influential senior strategists who advise the government and the CCP. One theory that emanated in 2004 was China’s writ should run from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. The other is a more recent, 2009, theory that Asia is China’s backyard and the country’s prime priority. This has to be achieved at any cost with both soft and hard approach.

A recent (June 23, 2009) commentary in the official newspaper, the Global Times, analysing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s observation (June 17, 2009) that the new administration looks at India as one of its few global partners and raises the relationship to level-3, again saw a US move to co-opt a willing India into a China containment strategy. The writer, Zhang Jie, is the Director of the study cell on security and diplomacy in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Assessing level-3 relationship coined by Ms. Clinton in preparation for her India visit in July, Zhang Jie opines this was because of India’s high status in “global strategies”. He noted two characteristics India has which are important to the US: one was India’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, highly significant in the USA’s energy transhipment; the other is India’s huge Muslim population which President Barack Obama could use in his effort to reach out to the Muslim world. But Zhang put an anti-China alliance between the USA and India as the highest priority in USA’s India alliance strategy.

China may have reasons to be apprehensive of an US led coalition to limit China’s challenge to eventually emerge as the world’s leading power if not in 50 years, then in a 100 years. The Chinese sense of history today is seamless through centuries. They have self-hypnotised themselves as the bearers of the mandate of heaven. This has been driven into the minds of the Chinese people through Communist propaganda. Another is the Chinese people have two brains whereas the rest have only one. A third was to teach children in primary schools not to trust foreigners, and foreigners were evil. These and many other psychological manipulations were done to unite people into a dedicated force of nationalists. Today, the country has opened to the outside world, but the basic sense of the Chinese emperor as the son of heaven is still very much there. The Party Central Committee is today’s emperor. While the emperor’s ruling method is beginning to be questioned inside the country, in external issues there will be little change in the foreseeable future.

China is a large country with a population which should be at least 1.4 billion or more and still growing, with natural resources not commensurate to sustain this burden especially when its global ambition is what it now emphatically projects. Hence, it has to depend on external resources, especially for energy and minerals like iron ore, nickel and aluminium. Hence, building China has to be at the cost of others, and the CCP’s view is that the world owes them. Here may lie the roots of the conflict.

The George W. Bush administration from 2001 started with discussions on engaging China economically, and countering China militarily. One of these propositions was a quadrangular co-operative arrangement between the USA, Japan, Australia and India to counter China’s aggressive power projection with military backing. Beijing’s Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) to create an information and computer based offensive force was taken into consideration. Japan articulated the proposition obliquely, but it never took off. It never would. The cold war era is past. But alarm bells rang in China. Therefore, a new proposal from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, considered Beijing’s close friend, to create an Asian arrangement of China, India, Japan, Australia and the USA is suspect in China’s eyes. Apparently, Beijing feels its inclusion in the arrangement would hinder its independent control of the smaller countries of South East Asia. Inclusion of India in the arrangement is another concern for China, as it is watching the growing interactions between India and Japan as a new inimical development. The recent Indian interest in the potential instability in the Korean peninsula during the South Korean Foreign Minister’s visit to India would add to China’s calculations about India. When India signed the 20-year Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1970 just ahead of the Bangladesh liberation war, the US and its allies saw New Delhi as firmly in the Soviet camp. India’s position in the Afghan war further strengthened this. Following US-China breakthrough in 1972 a strong China-Pakistan-US axis emerged to counter the Indo-Soviet partnership.

But the end of the cold war, the 1989 Tien An Men massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing and the break-up of the Soviet Union reorganized the global equations, but also the above axis. Unfortunately, many cold warriors in the USA live on with the same old myopic vision of India.

India’s self-propelled development under successive governments brought about a change in India’s regional and global profile making a rising player which the international community could not ignore. This upset Beijing’s calculations to keep India squeezed inside South Asia through its policy of encircling India. With Chinese assistance, Pakistan became its frontline nuclear power state. But there was no stopping India. This is why Prof. Zhang Jie notes that India got a higher status in the US global strategies.

The May 1998 nuclear tests by India forced open de facto the nuclear boundary. India’s nuclear status is still not acceptable to Beijing. And it blames the US primarily for it, and sees in it a US-led western agenda to strengthen India against China. The new India-US military and high technology co-operation, the ground, air and sea exercises between the two countries, and the Indo-US nuclear deal are perceived as new steps in an Indo-US alliance. This, in Beijing’s strategic perspective would increasingly challenge its domination of an extended Asia. Added to this is the new relationship with Japan especially Japan sidestepping voting against India at Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meet in Vienna in 2008 despite its nuclear policy constraints.

In recent times, in spite of vastly improved bilateral relations, China took two initiatives trying to strike at India’s strategic and development efforts. First was its last ditch effort at the NSG meeting to block the Indo-US nuclear deal, knowing very well India’s dire need for nuclear energy. The next was the very recent event at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) trying to block a tranche from the bank for some development projects in Arunachal Pradesh. China took the position that the state was a disputed territory between the two countries. China is clearly trying to persuade or force India to accept Arunachal Pradesh as disputed territory, while India has clear sovereignty and control over the region.At both NSG and the ADB the US played critical roles to counter China. This has made China anxious about the US-India strategic partnership and how it would affect them.

Sino-US relations is a virtual moveable feast, much like Ernest Hemingway’s novel based on the literary society in Paris. Neither can give up the relationship nor stay away from conflicts. But there is one difference. China wants a close relationship with the only super power at the exclusion of others. They have always tried to promote a situation of conflict between the US and others to create a situation where Washington may have to opt for non-confrontational and compromising relationship with Beijing. This was successful during the cold war. Increasingly, however, most major powers especially Russia are seeing what is in their respective interests. Moscow has restarted its military sales relation with Vietnam including kilo-class submarines and SU-30 multi-role aircraft. China has already signalled it is not comfortable with such developments.

Therefore, India with its large size, geostrategic location, a comparable knowledge based population can take quantum leaps with US co-operation. Failure to block the ADB loan to India has serious implications on China’s territorial claims against India and border negotiations. Recently, there has been a sharp barrage of Chinese official and semi-official opinion through their state and party controlled media on the border issue. This, particularly, is a development of concern for India. And that India is no longer willing to roll over to China’s intransigence is also worrying for China. It may ratchet up more bullying media and official attacks. But if India stands firm as Russian President Vladimir Putin did in the boundary issue in the Eastern Sector with China, especially in the Maritime Region, Beijing may see sense. The encirclement of India geographically and more is not likely to cease in the foreseeable future.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a long time observer of China, based in New Delhi)

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