Image Courtesy: Defencexp
According to Mao Zedong, Tibet was the palm and Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and Ladakh were its five fingers and they all belonged to China! This is the root cause for occupation by China because these five fingers are indispensable for the security of Tibet. In order to suppress the fissiparous tendencies in both Tibet and Xinjiang, to have an easy connectivity between the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and the Xinjiang province, it is very important for China to have access to the Highway connecting these two through Ladakh. That is another reason for aggression. Another reason for occupation of the entire Ladakh province is to provide a buffer zone for the security of this Highway. Yet another reason is the fact that the Dalai Lama and the other monks have been granted asylum by India.
The fissures in the India-China relationship are not merely limited to irredentism by China. There are multiple dimensions to them. Before we look into the aspects of friction between the other members of the Quad and China, let us dive into the various facets of our own issues. Even then, these friction points are only superficial because, as we saw in Part one, these are the manifestations of the fundamental Chinese belief systems which have such concepts as ‘Middle Kingdom’ and ‘Son of the Heaven’.
Tibet is one of the largest swathes of land occupied by China. It constitutes one-eighth of the entire Chinese land mass. Like Xinjiang, Tibet was also a separate country that was occupied by the Chinese military seventy years back. As we saw in Part One, China needs the natural resources of Tibet. Tibet has the potential to solve almost one-fourth of the water requirements of entire China. Further, China is the upper riparian state of many transboundary riverine systems of great rivers. The ability to manipulate the water flows to the lower riparian states is another reason for China to occupy Tibet. We, the upper riparian of the Indus system of six rivers, concluded the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) in 1960 with Pakistan and generously gave away 80% of the waters of the Indus river to Pakistan. Further, we gave away complete rights on two of the five Punjab rivers (Jhelum and Chenab) to Pakistan. We adhere strictly to provisions of the IWT even when that country imposes wars and skirmishes on us. If it is a facet of the naive international relationship of us, China’s refusal to equitable distribution of water or its dominance of these rivers is the ‘Realpolitik’-face of its foreign policy. Red China refuses to have transboundary water agreements with any country, including India, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. China’s many dams are the cause for the alternate drought and floods in these lower riparian states.
China also has been mulling a long-term plan to divert the waters of Brahmaputra to its arid North. Even though, nearly 50% of Chinese population lives there, it has only 20% of water resources. Therefore, it has decided to divert 45 Billion Cubic Feet of water from the Brahmaputra there. If we express our fears over this project, all that China says in response is “China is a responsible country”. It has been with great difficulty that China agreed only in c. 2006 to give us flood levels in the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet). But, during the Doka La standoff in c. 2017, it refused to do so leading to flash floods in Assam with the loss of 130 lives and displacement of 3 million people. At the same time, China also banned the Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrimage through Sikkim citing damaged roads, a falsehood. It has been China’s long-standing foreign policy to dispense immediate punishment to any country that does not agree with it. This is the distilled practice of a 3000-year-old imperialism. The 15th Century Ming Emperor Zhu Di (also known as ‘Yongle’) ordered his naval commander Zheng He, during his several sea voyages, to drag to his imperial court any foreign ruler who disobeyed the Emperor. One of those who suffered this ignominious ‘Immediate Punishment’ was the king of Ceylon. We can see such imperious Chinese behaviour even today whenever China has disputes with Japan, Korea, Australia, Canada, Norway, England, the Philippines and Mongolia. China has been unable to do so only with the very powerful USA, at least for now.
Our armed forces drove away the Chinese PLA who tried to occupy lands in the Nathu La area (1967)in Sikkim and Sumdorong Chu (1986-87) in Arunachal Pradesh. This redeemed our confidence that had been dented severely after 1962. In the meantime, Sikkim united with us. In 1987, in the face of Chinese opposition, Arunachal Pradesh, which was until then known as North East Frontier Agency or NEFA, was formally merged with the Union of India. It is only after these determined Indian moves that the India-China relationship began to improve. What it shows to us is that China respects only strength. But, still, China will never give up its antagonism against us because a Chinese proverb says, “No two tigers can live peacefully in the same mountain”.
Red China’s Nuclear Duplicities
During this time, China and Pakistan had come close. Pakistan, which as a member of SEATO which was founded with the principal aim of stopping the spread of Communism in Asia had acquired huge arms and ammunition from the US for this very purpose, but, it had simultaneously established a close relationship with Red China ! This is the ‘smoking differently from both corners of the mouth’ approach that Pakistan is famous for. But, today some of us are afraid that if we get closer to the USA, we would damage our relationship with others or our foreign policies would be compromised ! Of course, duplicitous Pakistan is no touchstone in these matters but it has exploited the art of Realpolitik for its benefits very easily and for so long.
When Pakistan attacked us in c. 1965 and 1971, China troubled us in our borders with aggressive statements, postures and deadlines with the intention of helping its friend. The China-Pakistan relationship strengthened further after Pakistan acted as the intermediary in the thawing of relationship between the US and China in c. 1971. China had conducted a successful nuclear explosion in 1964. We could also have done a similar test at that time because we were more advanced than China in nuclear technology at that time. But we procrastinated testing for fear of economic sanctions. When we first tested a ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE)’ in c. 1974, the western nations, particularly the USA, embargoed technology transfers on us as we had anticipated. The ‘London Group’, which later became the ‘Nuclear Suppliers Group, NSG’, was formed only to target us with technology denials. But, today, when the rest of the world has accepted us a ‘de-facto’ Nuclear Weapon State, it is only China which steadfastly prevents us from joining the NSG. We shall see this issue later.
In his book ‘If I am Assassinated. . .’, written from his death-cell in prison, the former Pakistani President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto has explained how China had agreed, as far back as c. 1965, to help Pakistan with nuclear weapons, if required. Agha Shahi, who was Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary for long, has also confirmed this. What was Pakistan’s requirement for nuclear weapons? Only to attack or threaten India with it! So, China had agreed to help Pakistan in that task. It was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who laid the foundation for Pakistan’s nuclear weapon arsenal by determinedly proclaiming “we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own”. Knowing fully well that Pakistan would use the nuclear weapons only against us, China had given to Pakistan some nukes and their blueprints in exchange for the centrifuge design for Uranium separation/extraction that the notorious Pakistani scientist A.Q.Khan had spirited away from Holland. It was thus China had made Pakistan a nuclear weapon state by the 1980s. It was by c. 1979 that China had built the Karakoram Highway connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang with Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass in our Gilgit province which is currently under Pakistani occupation. China had used this Highway for secret exchange of nuclear weapons and missiles.
It is this Karakoram Highway that is the backbone of the China-Pakistan Friendship and nexus. China is constructing roads, rail and oil and gas pipelines from Kashgar to the Gwadar port in the far away Makran coast of Pakistan along this Highway. The Chinese aims are two fold in this project; one, to escape the harsh ‘Malacca Straits Dilemma’ and two, to increase industrialization and job opportunities in the restive Xinjiang province and thereby overcome the fissiparous tendencies there. Yet, it is only a guise to appropriate the Gwadar port for the PLAN.. If Pakistan had not possessed Gilgit-Baltistan province, there would have been no Pakistan-China border, there would have been no China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and we would not have faced most of the serious issues we face today. China has supplied Pakistan with missiles and missile technologies both directly and through its cat’s paw, North Korea. This ruse was resorted to by China to pretend its non-involvement in such transfers and to avoid attracting MTCR-related sanctions. These have been accepted by none other than the former Pakistani President Ms. Benazir Bhutto. China had even allowed Pakistan to do a cold test at its Lop Nor facility in Xinjiang. There cannot be a display of greater animosity towards us by China because nuclear weapons and their launch platforms are not like other conventional war-fighting arms and ammunitions. We cannot but consider China as our prime enemy, therefore.
Be that as it may, we successfully conducted a series of successful nuclear weapon tests in 1998, termed Shakti-II, in which we demonstrated weapons designed using nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. This was opposed very strongly by the USA. In order to explain the necessity for our nuclear weapons, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee wrote a secret letter to the American President Bill Clinton in which he highlighted the nuclear threat faced by India from China. The US promptly turned this letter over to China which caused a greater rift in the India-China relationship. In c. 2008, India and the USA signed the ‘123 Nuclear Agreement’. The US accepted us as a de-facto nuclear weapon state and agreed to the arrangement of bifurcating our nuclear reactors as military and civilian. According to this, those reactors in the second group would come under IAEA’s full-scope safeguards while those in the first group would be exempted from IAEA oversight. This is an arrangement similar to what pertains in the P-5 Permanent States of the UN who are the only recognized Nuclear Weapon States. Red China opposed this scheme and the American President Bush Jr. had to make a phone call to the Chinese President Hu Jintao to force him fall in line. In those days, China was new to international diplomacy and international organizations and did not have the heft that it has today. This agreement eventually led to the lifting of sanctions against us in the NSG, for obtaining Uranium supplies and technologies. These restrictions had been in place since c. 1974. China did not like this development because it did not want a competitor emerging in Asia and that too a big neighbour.
It has been China’s aim to confine us within the quagmire of South Asia. It uses Pakistan cunningly against us just in the same way it uses North Korea similarly against South Korea, Japan and the USA. Therefore, it claimed, after our 2008 Nuclear Agreement, that it too had ‘grandfathered’ an agreement to supply Pakistan with nuclear reactors before it joined the NSG in 2004. Since the by-laws of the NSG prevent such a transfer, China resorted to the cheap lie of ‘grandfathering’ to help its friend.
In the list of troubles China poses to us through Pakistan the second spot, after the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles, goes to its support for terrorism. China’s contribution here is in two parts: one, its direct involvement in terror in India and the other its support for Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism. Since the 1960s, China had encouraged separatism and terrorism in the ‘Seven Sister’ states in our North East, namely Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur. The then existing East Pakistan came very handy for China in this effort. One of the important separatists/terrorists of India, Paresh Baruah of ULFA lives in Ruili in the Yunnan border state of Myanmar. In c. 2004, China sent a ship-load of arms and ammunition through the Chittagong port of Bangladesh to the militants of North East. They were confiscated by Bangladesh itself.
China has been providing an all-out support in the UN for Pakistan’s terrorism. It helped the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Emir, Hafiz Saeed, who had conducted several big terror attacks against us, escape the UNSC 1267 declaration by using its veto power. China caused us a bigger harm by continuously helping Masood Azhar, the Emir of Jaish-e-Muhammad escape the UNSC 1267 sanctions for several years by once again using its veto power. Every time the matter came up at the UNSC, it claimed that India had not produced significant evidence. It is because of this unholy support for JeM by China that we suffered the Uri terror attack in c. 2016 and the Pulwama terror attack in c. 2019. It is China’s aim that by supporting these two vicious jihadi terrorist organizations and earning their gratefulness, China can avoid their support for terrorism in Xinjiang while keeping them focused on India and letting India suffer in the process.
Red China’s Other Issues
China attempted to prevent us from joining the four important international agreements namely, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the group to ban the use of dual-use technologies, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the one that bans chemical and biological weapons, the Australia Group. Even though we could join the other three, China is the sole hurdle for us to join the NSG and would continue to be so in the medium term. It had earlier tried to stop us from entering the ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (EAS). These were overcome with support from countries such as Japan and Singapore. China has been consistently opposing our aspirations to be a permanent member in the UNSC. It also wanted to convene the UN Security Council to discuss the announcements we made regarding Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019. Even though all the other members of the UNSC refused to discuss the issue, the Chinese Permanent Representative to the UNSC tried childishly to create a false impression to the Press reporters later as though the issue was discussed within closed doors. It tries the same childish technique in the NSG too to create a false impression as though there is a huge opposition to us joining the organization. This betrays China’s cunningness, arrogance and immaturity, clearly proving that a country which aspires to rule the world by c. 2050 has none of the stellar qualities required to do so.
Since 2013, China has launched a massive initiative called the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) which encompasses multiple aims. It has always been a Chinese strategy to aim for multiple goals since even if one or two succeed, it would still be beneficial. The aims of BRI include converting its massive and under-utilized manufacturing capacity in certain sectors into a foreign-exchange earning proposition, invest in foreign countries, enhance China’s prestige and influence in these countries, reduce the influence of rival countries, and most importantly extract strategic concessions from these countries by making them debt-laden with Chinese loans with steep interest rates. Two of our neighbours Sri Lanka and Maldives are caught in this BRI trap. Sri Lanka had to concede the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease to China. The Tamil Epic ‘Kamba Ramayanam’ says that the then Sri Lankan King, Ravana, was so much distressed like a man in deep debts when he was let go mercifully by Lord Ram to come back the next day to continue the fight. After that episode several millennia back, it has probably again happened to that island now in the form of BRI loans.
We have been opposing this BRI project since its inception. We are the only major economic power that has consistently and from the very beginning opposed this project because its most important project under BRI is the CPEC which goes through our Gilgit area impacting our sovereignty. Answering our concern, China said that BRI was a mere economic project not taking sides on territorial disputes and it is for India and Pakistan to resolve the dispute. This is a hollow argument. China indulges in double-speak when it comes to South China Sea where some littoral states try to explore for oil and gas in their own Exclusive Economic Zones. There it opposes their efforts which are also legitimate economic projects, more so within their own territories. Secondly, China is planning to build mega hydroelectric power stations and dams in the Gilgit area in a project called ‘Northern Cascades’. We oppose this as well. We have refused to join the BRI in spite of many persuasions by China. Our joining the BRI would have been a major scoop for China and they would have also entered in a big way in our huge market. These are also reasons for China to be angry with us. The trade imbalance between our two countries is already Rs. 3500 Lakh Crores in favour of China but it continues to block many of our exports to that country under one pretext or another. But, if we ban Chinese mobile Apps that gather personal details of Indians and send them to Chinese servers, China becomes angry with us!
Why Should we Join the Triad
The reasons for which China attacked us in c. 1962 do not hold water anymore. Today, China is a 15 Trillion USD economy while we struggle at a mere 3 Trillion USD. It is many times more powerful than us in military strength. It is big force in international diplomatic relations. It is a big challenge for even the most powerful USA. It leads the world in diverse cutting-edge fields such as Science, Technology, Computing, Artificial Intelligence, and Space exploration. The ecosystems for development in these areas are well established in China while we are comparative laggards in all these areas. China uses various techniques to strengthen its lead in these technological areas. The Chinese had never hesitated to acquire knowledge from other sources. They are also undeniably brilliant. They are also experts in stealing intellectual property rights from others using any which means such as either directly or by hacking computing systems. Many technologies have been stolen from such countries as the USA by the Chinese. If this trajectory continues, many expect China to surpass the USA before c. 2050. We, as a nation, do not indulge in such unethical means. A plural democratic country like ours with multifarious thoughts and ideas cannot see the kind of extraordinary growth that authoritarian China has been able to sustain. Just because we cannot challenge it, we cannot resign ourselves to it becoming a hegemon and ruling us as a vassal. China’s aggressive outlook, especially when the rest of the world is suffering from the pandemic that originated from their country, where it expects other nations to behave as its tributes are ideas that cannot be accepted in today’s age. We cannot dismiss these as the outlook of the Chinese Communist Party alone because they reflect an idea that is ingrained in the millennia old system. It is just that Xi Jinping has aggressively started implementing these ideas after he became the President.
About 2500 years ago, an emerging nation-state Athens challenged an established power, Sparta in Greece. The Greek historian of those times Thucydides has analyzed this historical event. Conflicts such as these are known as Thucydides Trap nowadays. Every hegemon opposes a challenger and every country that achieves a certain level of growth would like to challenge the hegemon too. These are the basic truths of the Thucydides Trap. In recent history, we have seen the Thucydides Trap hold forth in the conflicts between France and England, England and the USA and the USA and the Soviet Union. The current conflict between the USA and China is a continuation of these very same. China’s attempt to curtail us now itself before we become a threatening power to its hegemony is also a form of Thucydides Trap. It also wants to isolate us from joining any group that opposes China in the on-going shadow war. With our relatively meagre resources today, we cannot take on China all by ourselves. The two nuclear powers of China and Pakistan have joined hands against us. Pakistan is today China’s unannounced 24th province. It is therefore imperative for us to have a mutually understanding relationship with like-minded democratic countries.
We have always had a friendly relationship with the other three members of the Quad. We do not have land or maritime disputes with them. All the three nations are plural democracies, most especially the USA and Australia. We have enhanced trade relationship with them as well. These linkages are likely to grow even more. Lakhs of Indians live in the USA and Australia. All the four members of the Quad want to abide by rules and conventions created by international bodies, especially in the global commons of the South China Sea. We even have a close military relationship with the USA and Japan now for many years.
Therefore, the Quad is not only ideal for us but also necessary.
We will see in the succeeding parts of this series about the issues that plague the relationship of the other three members of the Quad with China.
(Mr. Subramanyam Sridharan is a Computer Scientist by profession and a member, C3S. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, analysis of Indian Foreign Policy and has expertise on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Views expressed are personal)