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India’s Soft Response to Chinese Assertiveness

The Government of India  has sought to play down the worrisome implications of China’s new policy on Kashmir favouring Pakistan, its growing strategic presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan-Occupies Kashmir (POK), its disinclination to give up its claims to the Indian territory of ArunachalPradesh and its strengthening of its military-related capabilities in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

2. The strengthening of its military-related capabilities in the TAR has been in the form of a furtherupgradation of its highway network, the  construction of more airports ostensibly to meet civilian needs, the extension of the railway line from Lhasa towards the border with Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh with plans for the ultimate construction of a railway link-up with Nepal and military exercises involving various units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), including the Air Force and strategic artillery units. Among the objectives of these exercises are to fine-tune their capability to fight jointly against an adversary at high altitudes, strategic operations of the Air Force involving long-distance flights with mid-air refueling and the reliability of its strategic missiles at high altitudes.

3. The PLA has been handling the implementation of the projects and exercises for strengthening the military-related capabilities in the TAR and the strategic presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan area by taking advantage of Pakistani needs in the wake of landslides and severe floods in the region twice this year. These projects and exercises will enable the PLA to pose a threat to the Indian Armed Forces from two directions—-from the North and the West.

4. Even while thus enhancing the PLA’s military capabilities, the Chinese political leadership has sought to maintain a reassuring profile  during its interactions with its Indian counterpart. This reassuring profile was evident in the recent cordial meeting on October 30,2010,between Dr. Manmohan Singh and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in the margins  of the ASEAN-sponsored East Asia summit at Hanoi, the announcement made after the meeting of the plans of Wen to visit New Delhi in December  as part of the year-long celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the visit this week to New Delhi by Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and Secretary of the CPC Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, to  attend a seminar on Sino-Indian relations,  co-organized by the CPC and the ruling Indian National Congress as part of the 60th anniversary  celebrations.

5. Commenting on the visit of Zhou, the “Global Times”, the daily of the CPC, wrote on November 1,2010, as follows: “China-India relations have maintained good momentum recently, despite some heated discussions on their relations as rivals. “The argument of the two countries’ rivalry is inappropriate,” said Miao Hongni, a professor from the International Relations Institute at Communication University of China. “Beijing and New Delhi are in the process of learning from each other. India excels at IT and outsourcing areas, while China is better at the manufacturing industry.As two responsible countries, they will cooperate to improve the development of Asia,”

6.It quoted Dr.Manmohan Singh as saying that India and China would look for “practical and pragmatic” measures to solve border issues, calling on the two sides to ensure “peace and tranquillity” in the region.

7. The impression sought to be created by the political leaderships of the two countries is that the bilateral relations are developing satisfactorily and that there is nothing to worry about. The reality is otherwise.India has many reasons to worry about the  Chinese policies and capabilities, but by playing them down and avoiding highlighting them the Government of Dr. Manmohan Singh is repeating the mistake of Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s when he tried to play down Chinese intrusions into Indian territory in theLadakh sector and their construction of the Aksai Chin Road. By the time he realized the seriousness of the Chinese activities and sought to draw international attention to the malign intention and activities of the Chinese, it was too late. When the Sino-Indian military conflict of 1962 broke out, we were caught unprepared and without the support—-not even the moral support—- of the international community.

8.The Chinese leaders are quite happy with the reluctance shown by the Government of Dr.ManmohanSingh to inform the Indian public opinion and the international community about the nature of the activities of the PLA under the cover of friendship. It suits their designs that the international community is given the impression that everything is normal in Sino-Indian relations and that the Government of India is not unduly worried over the Chinese activities.

9. The Chinese assertiveness across the Sino-Indian border and their determination to enforce their territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh have been evident for about two years now. Their virtual military alliance with Pakistan has been a new worrisome factor. It was during the same period that  similar Chinese assertiveness was directed against some ASEAN countries with which  China has disputes over island territories in the South China Sea and against Japan with which China has disputes in the East China Sea. Instead of playing down  their concerns over the Chinese assertiveness, those countries made their concerns evident to the international community thereby inviting statements of support for them from the US. The Chinese are particularly angry with the present Government in Japan because it actively highlighted the Chinese activities which threatened peace and security in the East China Sea area and invoked the support of the US under its security commitments to Japan.

10. As against its anger against Japan and irritation against Vietnam, the Chinese leadership is happy with the lack of an energetic response from the Government of India. This has enabled the Chinese to go ahead with their  activities detrimental to India without having to face adverse attention from the international community.

11. While the keenness  of the Manmohan Singh Government to maintain the seeming cordiality and momentum in the relations with China is understandable, its soft response to Chinese activities which could prove detrimental to Indian interests and security could prove counter-productive and could ultimately lead us to a military confrontation, however much we may want to avoid it. Softness in response has been the defining characteristic of our policies towards Pakistan and China. They are both taking advantage of our reluctance to respond energetically to undermine our security. An energetic response need not necessarily be in the form of a slanging match with Beijing. It  ought to be in the form of a crashprogramme to strengthen our defence capabilities  against  China and building up a network of strategic relationships with countries such as Japan and Vietnam. The hopes entertained by many of us thatDr.Manmohan Singh would avail of his recent visits to Japan and Vietnam for this purpose in a manner that would convey an unmistakable message to Beijing have been belied.

(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group.  The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )

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