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Coming to Terms with China's Presence in South Asia

[Extracts of this article were included in a presentation by the author at a seminar “China in the 21st Century” organised by the VK Krishna Menon Study Centre for International Relations, Trivandrum on October 6, 2009.]

China’s recent actions in the disputed India-Tibet border area and the aggressive tone of state controlled media on India related issues have caused a lot of public outcry. The trust deficit on China created in India after debacle in the border war in 1962 continues to colour Indian perceptions. On the other hand, sections of Indians tend to show a touching, but naive, optimism in issues relating to China. Both the attitudes fail to take into consideration the colossal changes that have taken place in both the countries and in the global environment during the last three decades.

China is a complex country just as India is; and it defies interpretation in simplistic terms. China with a 30-year head start over India in introducing economic reforms and liberalisation has already emerged as a major global economic power. It has outpaced India not only in economic growth but also in infrastructure, productivity, foreign exchange reserves, and nuclear and space technology to grow into world’s fourth largest economy with a GDP of Yuan 24.95 trillion in 2007. With $ two trillion in reserves China is becoming the banker to the US, the wealthiest nation in the world.

China’s military modernisation programme is adding military prowess to its growing economic clout. By the end of the next decade, China hopes to emerge as a dominant global military power with its missile and naval forces attaining a world-wide reach.

With its economic and military might, China’s ambition to emerge as a global power has also grown. Its export oriented economy’s ever increasing demand for energy and natural resources have compelled it look beyond its shores. Thus China’s interests relate not only its trade and commerce, but strategically strengthen its global presence to assert its power and protect its enlarging interests. Understandably the multi faceted growth of China has been watched with some concern by other nations.

The emergence of China as a major power has increased its profile in the international arena including the UN. The U.S. has become extremely careful in dealing with China. Countries like Japan, India, Korea, Vietnam and Russia, who have unpleasant historical experiences have become cautious in dealing with China. China’s growing relations with the U.S., EU, Japan and ASEAN region have strategic connotations for India and South Asia.

South Asia has a key role to play in China’s global ambitions as the subcontinent dominates maritime trade routes of Indian Ocean. The region can provide direct access to the warm waters of Indian Ocean, by passing South China Sea and Malacca Strait. The emergence of India as a powerful South Asian regional power bordering China’s troubled regions of Xingjiang and Tibet is of specific concern to China. India has provided refuge for the Dalai Lama and a large number of Tibetans who fled the country following Chinese occupation of Tibet. It has a long simmering unresolved border dispute with India. Both the issues are potentially explosive. Added to this is the growing India-US strategic convergence with its disturbing connotations for China. The growth of terrorism in the Af-Pak region has increased China’s security concerns as Jihadi terrorism has links with Uyghur separatism.

On the other hand growing economies of South Asia, particularly India, offers a huge market. It is a reservoir of natural resources with abundant entrepreneurial talent. This has kindled global interest in the region and it is fast becoming the scene for power play. These developments have made it an attractive destination for China’s export hungry manufacturers.

The global economic downturn triggered by the U.S. has affected China’s economy. China knows it cannot afford to trigger off a war now as it had been a major loser in the global economic downturn due to its export-oriented economy. Moreover, its strong suit is its economic fundamentals buttressed by its continued, but slightly reduced, growth. Globally China appears to have embarked upon a policy of overcoming the impact of economic downslide in the near term, while increasing its economic clout in the long term. At the same time, it has to keep the powder dry to protect its strategic interests.

This is evident from Lt Gen Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Peoples Liberation Army, statement at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2009. He summed up China’s current priorities: “All of the countries in this region share a policy orientation, namely striving for dialogue and cooperation and joining hands to create prosperity and stability. What counts most is confidence, solidarity and cooperation in the face of this rare financial crisis and the unprecedented global challenge.”

At the same time, he also sounded a note of caution to those who might exploit the perils of economic downslide to their own advantage. “Economic depressions throughout history have taught the lesson that the crisis will be only worsened by shifting one’s trouble onto others and launching mutual competition, and some dangerous consequences may even be incurred by transferring domestic troubles on to other countries and confronting each other,” he added.

While these sentiments are logical and wholly admirable, the moot point is how China translates them into action in South Asia. In South Asia, during the last two decades China had adopted a mix of economic, commercial and security strategies in building its relations with India’s neighbours. These were apparently conditioned by China’s national security priorities directly related to India. China’s strategic goals in Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in India’s neighbourhood appear to be –

  1. to cultivate the regime in power regardless of the nature of regime.

  2. Broaden its economic and security relations This would act as a check on India’s increasing strategic influence and soft power in South Asia.

  3. Help build land and coastal infrastructure in these countries with a view to help China’s land and sea access. These would meet China’s strategic needs in times of war and peace. Aid other infrastructure projects that make a visible impact.

  4. Build military relationships with sale of arms and military equipment at subsidised prices. Enrich relationship between PLA and the armed forces of the country.

  5. Strengthen bonding with China by extending political support to countries targeted in the UN and other international forums.

  6. Cultivate political leadership and parties to create a favourable constituency for China.

China’s strategy in India’s neighbourhood over the years has gained it footholds that would come in handy to sustain its influence and in times of any future confrontation with India or its allies. In the long term it could act as change agent in India’s relationship with its neighbours.

Its strategic alliances with India’s neighbours hold the potential to destabilise India. Pakistan had been a mutually beneficial one. Its nuclear cooperation had played a key role in augmenting Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Similarly Pakistan’s enhanced missile capability owes much to China. Chinese fighter aircraft and naval ships add to Pakistan’s military muscle. Its support to the ruling military junta over the years has created a client regime in Myanmar. Myanmar had been lukewarm to the overtures of India in building a productive strategic alliance. It is trying to build a win-win relationship with Sri Lanka and probably would like to curtail Indian influence there.

China’s assistance in the development of ports and allied infrastructure at Gwadar (in Pakistan) and Hambantota (in Sri Lanka) is well known; these would enhance the reach of Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. China’s capability to undermine India-Nepal relations has increased with the ascendancy Maoists as a strong political factor in the country. It had been stoking the latent anti-Indian sentiments in Bangladesh to garner advantage.

In the past, China had been an important source of arms to Indian insurgent groups in the northeast. It still retains the ability to enhance their military capabilities at a time of its choosing. Infrequently, China had been sending strident messages that reiterate its claim over the whole of Arunachal Pradesh (named as South Tibet) by protesting against the visit of even Indian Prime Minister to the Buddhist monastery town of Tawang. Its state controlled media periodically spout anti-Indian sentiments.

However, Indian and South Asian markets are increasingly relevant particularly during global economic stagnation and China would also like to take advantage of India’s growth to build strong trading relations. At the same time, China would like to keep in check India’s strategic presence from spilling over beyond South Asia. As a corollary, we can expect increased assertion of China’s strategic capabilities and influence in India’s neighbourhood in the coming years regardless of the state of India-China relations.

India’s response

Talks on resolving the border dispute that started after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988, has made no tangible progress despite 13 rounds of talks. After the advent of globalisation, the national focus of both countries has shifted to trade and economic development. The visits of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2005 to Delhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Beijing in January 2008 have tried to create a relationship based on mutual respect and avoiding confrontation, rather than resolving contentious issues.

However, the lofty sentiments of “a shared vision for the 21st century” spelled out in the joint declaration of Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao on Jan 14, 2008 are yet to be visibly fleshed out. Although the declaration said the two sides would “continue to build their Strategic and Cooperative Partnership in a positive way,” the confidence levels between the two countries do not appear to have increased.

As long as China stokes anti-Indian forces in India’s neighbourhood and the contentious issues of disputed borders and the presence the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in India remain unresolved, it would be futile to expect any breakthrough in achieving a win-win relationship between India and China.

China appears to be in no hurry to resolve the border issue. The border talks have been through 13 rounds and the Chinese have not handed over their surveyed alignment of border although India had done so last year.Even China’s reiteration of claims over Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh is probably connected with Tibetan question. China is determined not to recognise a successor to the present Dalai Lama originating from outside Tibet. If an incarnation to the present Dalai Lama is identified in Tawang (just as the Sixth Dalai Lama was found) it would place China in a tricky situation. So probably China is preparing ground to escalate the issue now itself by loudly laying claim to Tawang.

As negotiation strategies of border dispute appear to have run out of steam, political will on the part of both countries would be required to resolve the dispute. It may not come through in the near future as both seem to relish status quo in their relations. This suits China as it would like to tide over the economic priorities and avoid any military adventure at present. So we may expect nothing beyond a few trespasses along the McMahon Line particularly in contentious spots.

However, it would be strategic suicide for India not to be prepared for the worst contingency because China is more in readiness at present to wage war than we are.

By developing the road, rail and air infrastructure in Tibet, China is in a position to build up offensive forces that could upset status quo. And every day the Chinese military machine is getting more powerful. On the other hand India had not developed infrastructure to access to our own borders in the northeast, making us strategically more vulnerable. This has also limited our ability to fight only defensive battles. And that could involve sacrificing large chunks of territory.

Given this setting, India would seem to be the overall loser as it has already lost sizeable territory to the Chinese. Its China policy is seen as largely defensive and unsure, rather than confident and cleverly crafted. This is because unlike China, strategically India has not readied itself to militarily challenge the Chinese if required, from a position of strength. So probably it has little choice but to move on the rut of status quo.

More importantly India’s China policy has not given confidence to its people. This is because our policy making suffers from lack of transparency and absence of timely dissemination of information to the public. These have compounded in projecting an India that is apologetic in dealing with China, rather than a proactively spelling out its views in clear terms where it is required.

India’s China policy is only a small part of the overall systemic weakness of the nation’s strategic policy making. National foreign and security policies do not appear to be dovetailed, probably because there is no articulated national vision to serve as a beacon. This has pushed overall national interest to the back rows, while “band aid” decision making has taken its place.

Domestic partisan political considerations have warped existing systems. Outdated bureaucratic approach to resolve critical issues have stymied dynamic action. The tardy and delayed defence procurement strategies are very good examples of this. Lack of transparency and absence of public disclosure have eroded the need for responsible decision making and execution. So accountability is largely becoming out of fashion.

As China appears to be cashing on the weaknesses of our system, it will require leadership dynamism to deal with China on equal terms. There is no other choice.

(The writer, Col R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail:

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