Himalayan Cauldron on Boil Again

By Rekha Bhattacharjee

Thanks to a renewed assertiveness in Beijing, the relatively dormant strategic tensions between India and China are reaching the point of boiling over once

What has precipitated the fire under the simmering cauldron is denial of visa by China to Lt. Gen. B S Jaswal who is based in the disputed region of Kashmir. While India was still smarting over the reference to Kashmir as “Northern Pakistan” by a Chinese spokeswoman, the visa row has come as an insult to injury.

Reports of thousands of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have not helped cooling down the Indian tempers. The geo-political observers in India and elsewhere also have on their radars what is being perceived in New Delhi as encirclement by the larger neighbour across the Himalayas.

Even though the rivalry between the two Asian economic powerhouses is yet to start in the right earnest, the ”˜pre-emptive’ encirclement of India has already been completed by her communist-controlled neighbour. As even an apprentice Sino-India commentator would point out, India is lagging far behind China in this race to grab bases in South Asia and elsewhere. Defence strategists are mapping the activities in India’s immediate neighbourhood as Chinese warships have visited Burma for the first time. Beijing has also been participating in port construction and other infrastructure development projects in Pakistan.

There have also been headlines suggesting Chinese forces are building roads to connect China mainland with Arabian Sea through Karakoram Ranges in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. China has also been involved in building port in Sri Lanka.

The Chinese treatment of India is not going down very well even with soft spoken Prime Minister of India. Manmohan Singh, lately, has been openly expressing his frustration over the Chinese stratagem.

On Chinese postures on Kashmir, Manmohan Singh is of the opinion that Beijing could be tempted to use India’s “soft underbelly”, Kashmir, and Pakistan “to keep India in low-level equilibrium”.

“There is a new assertiveness among the Chinese. It is difficult to tell which way it will go. So, it’s important to be prepared,” the Indian PM reportedly said. While China is primarily to be blamed for the latest deterioration in bilateral relationship, India is being advised to rethink her strategy in this uneven contest and to manage the resources for this purpose sensibly.

The media reports could be responsible for little belligerence in the Indian attitude towards the northern bully as the recent Chinese actions were the lead item at a meeting of the Prime Minister’s National Security Committee.
The unpredictability of the Chinese policy-making mechanism has baffled international observers for really long and was articulated by the former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal recently: “Nobody has a clear answer when it comes to explaining China’s action. One can’t get into the mechanics of its decision-making process.”

The ease with which Chinese strategists have continued to humiliate and create hurdles at every conceivable opportunity for India must be surprising the Chinese mandarins. What may be seen as a yardstick of failure of the Indian foreign policy-making mechanics is the fact that in spite of being the second most populous country in the world and also growing economic clout, India has failed to secure a seat on the UN Security Council.

China has played a significant role in blocking the Indian progression to perhaps the most elitist political grouping in the world. The Chinese opposition is ironical in more than one way as it was the then Indian Prime Minister
Jawahar Lal Nehru who had turned down US invitation to become a Permanent SC Member in 1954 and suggested that India’s “brotherly neighbour” China be given the seat.

While there may be confusion over the policy making by Chinese mandarins, the message from Beijing is very clear as far as the tone is concerned. The message one deciphers from the Chinese media reports and frequent diktats by the ruling Communist Party chiefs is clear ”“ there could be only one superpower in Asia and that is China.

The Chinese arrogance could easily be gauged from the way Beijing has manipulated the bilateral negotiations over the disputed border. While India has failed spectacularly to get even one inch of thousands of square kilometres of the territory annexed by China (e.g. Akshai Chin) back, Beijing has laid claim to Arunachal Pradesh. China has rekindled territorial claim over the Indian state it insist on calling ”˜Southern Tibet’.

Even while China is actively engaged in numerous infrastructure projects in the disputed region of Kashmir (PoK), it blames India for supposedly ”˜hegemonic designs’. When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Arunachal Pradesh in February this year, the Chinese officialdom went ballistic. The reaction over exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama’s visit was even more furious.

In recent years, Beijing has stepped back from earlier indications that it was willing to negotiate the disputed border, over which the countries fought a war in 1962. The state-run media have begun to attack India for supposedly hegemonic designs, with some publications hinting at the merits of a confrontation.

While castigating the Indian political leadership past and present, it would be an interesting exercise to ponder over feasible options available to New Delhi to counter an overtly assertive China.

One option as pointed out by the former Indian Naval Chief Suresh Mehta (and Australian analyst Rory Medcalf recently) is to follow ”˜asymmetry’ vis a` vis China. The idea is to utilise a mix of development, deterrence and diplomacy to make India ready for rivalry instead of trying to match the world’s second largest economy weapon-for-weapon and dollar-for-dollar.

Exposed to Chinese presence all around her political borders, India can return the compliment by reinventing ties with two developed Asian countries similarly opposed to Chinese hegemonic designs – Japan and South Korea. Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia are the other regional powers which are not feeling comfortable over Chinese assertiveness to establish unchallenged hegemony over the whole Asia-pacific region.

India can also do well by reviving the talks to form a regional organisation of democracies including US, Japan, Australia, and Korea. The former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is believed to have thrown a spanner when the proposal for such organisation came up for talks last year.

The third option one can contemplate is India characteristically ”˜accommodating’ itself to a robustly-expanding Chinese presence in South Asia. Of course, the Indian decision to play deputy sheriff to China would depend upon New Delhi’s equation with US, Russia and other regional economic powerhouses.

As former Indian diplomat G Parthasarathy has suggested in a recent article:
“But would it not be worthwhile to equip Vietnam with Cruise and ballistic missiles, together with the supply of safe-guarded nuclear power and research reactors and reprocessing facilities? Can we not, like the ASEAN countries, commence Minister-level economic exchanges with Taiwan? Should we not suggest that since China and the Dalai Lama signed a 17-Point Agreement in 1951 and that we hope both sides agree to abide by and implement that agreement in letter and spirit? Measured and calculated responses are the best answers to Chinese ”˜assertiveness’.”

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