China’s New Himalayan Thrust
Recent views of some Indian experts studying China are persuading the strategic community that China is very likely to attack India in 2012. This view has apparently begun to influence some in the government, too. The underlined some is to emphasise that this is not the dominant view. But the importance of the view is to keep those in charge alert and awake.
Various reasons or evidence have been quoted to bolster this thesis. These include rapid Chinese infrastructures construction and upgradation in Tibet which support military efficiency, high grade People’s Liberation Army (PLA) exercises in Tibet, possible missile back up and even the likelihood of a hardline commander or a crazy anti-India commander opening a front at some point along the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC).
There appeared to be a syndrome of looking at China’s strategic thinking through a Pakistani prism, speculating that China’s internal problems may induce Beijing to engage in confrontational military skirmish with India to divert internal pressure. This, however, is not China’s strategic culture. They close up when faced with internal political and social challenges.
It is, however, true that China in the last three years at least, has become highly assertive in its Asia Pacific neighbourhood over territorial claims. Low-level skirmishes (non-military with Japan, over the sovereignty over the Senkaku (in Japan)/Diaoyu (in China) Islands in the East China Sea and confrontations, especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea have intensified. The issue of Taiwan’s return to the mainland is a major issue. The US pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, reinforcement of US-Philippines military agreement, new US-Vietnam contacts which have military overtones are all matters of concern to China.
PLA spokesmen have been threatening military responses to establish Chinese sovereignty over these territories, though the political leadership have recognised their overreach and are trying to reduce tensions. Chinese national strategic interest in the Asia Pacific far surpasses their intentions along the Sino-India border currently. Chinese activities including military, statements from official strategic experts including from the PLA, and official media comments have refrained from threats to India.
This, however, does not mean that China has gone soft over the border issue. Not in the least. They reiterate their position periodically both officially and demi-officially.
Tibet is being militarised aggressively. Old airports have been renovated. Advanced aircraft including SU-27 have been located in Gonga Airport along with Surface-to-Air anti-aircraft missiles. The critical railway is being extended towards the borders with India. Military exercises including ground and air force have been notable for their defensive-offensive joint operations. Most remarkable has been China’s infrastructure construction along the Sino-Indian borders especially in the Eastern Sector.
The PLA studies and simulated exercises over the years have not yielded results encouraging another military adventure against India at the moment. The first conclusion was the 1962 situation no longer obtains. The PLA’s misadventure in Vietnam in 1979 taught them that there is more to winning a war then only sheer armament power. Tactics, planning and morale of soldiers are very important.
Some PLA strategists have suggested that the next India-China war will have to be fought on the ground, air and sea a much bigger battle concept. The current Chinese battle doctrine is focused on winning a local war under modern conditions. From the on-going developments it is evident that its Asia Pacific Seaboard and territorial claims remain the prime focus. India does not figure in this frame work.
India, however, looms much larger in China’s Asia perspective to start with. Perhaps, China’s founding leader Mao Zedong recognised India’s potential much before the Indians did. This weakness, lack of self-belief and self-confidence among Indians almost across the board, and search for peace where there is none, were handsomely exploited by the relentless Chinese propaganda machinery. It is no secret that the defeat of the Indian army in 1962 was rubbed in by the Chinese propaganda and dent the self-confidence of the Indian armed force. This also affected Indian bureaucrats and political leaders who tended to brush Chinese misdemeanors under the carpet. Recently, the Chinese are using some Indian writers to write on the 1962 war on lines dictated by the Chinese in the Chinese media.
In recent years, whenever the Indian leadership reacted strongly to an issue the Chinese backed down. But even then, appeasement of the Chinese continues. It is alleged that the formation of strike corps for the Eastern Sector was shelved a year ago allegedly in order not to provoke China. The proposal is apparently being reconsidered.
It is evident from the recent Joint Working Group (JWG) on the border and Senior Representative (SR) level talks between the two countries that the Chinese are not willing to resolve the border issue at the moment and it does not suit them. A live border issue also gives China an instrument to needle India periodically.
What the Chinese are doing is to buy time till they resolve the territorial issues in the Asia Pacific region in their favour. Then a more powerful China will seriously focus militarily on the Sino-Indian border, and their strength will depend on India’s capability or the lack of it. India has no time to procrastinate its military preparedness.
Chinese Defence White Papers make it clear that only strength can ensure peace and, on this basis, China’s perseverance in military modernisation and preparedness. China’s encirclement of India strategy, commonly known as the “string of pearls” strategy, an American nomenclature, has been widely discussed. Beijing, of course, denies this allegation. The strategy, however, continues but its effectiveness may have dented to an extent with India’s development including military modernisation.
Pakistan, China’s fulcrum for promoting the string of pearls in South Asia may not be as effective any longer because of related developments centering on Afghanistan. But Islamabad has not been given up, though Beijing today finds that its silent support to Pakistan’s Islamic terrorist assets against India is beginning to impact China’s Muslim separatist in Xinjing. Beijing has made inroads into Sri Lanka. But the Island nation has its limitations.
The weak links discovered by Beijing are Bhutan and Nepal. The Himalayan states and the Indo-Himalayan belt always attracted by China as soft power projections against India – winning a war without firing a bullet. It has nurtured anti-India forces in Nepal for years, taking advantage of small country antipathy against a big neighbour. India’s arrogant diplomacy periodically, only back fired. A section virulently anti-India among Nepalese politicians and media has been studiously nurtured by Beijing.
Bhutan and China do not enjoy diplomatic relationship. They have a serious border territorial issue. But official contacts are maintained to resolve the issue, while some trade takes place. But there are those in Bhutan who look at India as a hegemon controlling their life.
In fact, the 1949 Indo-Bhutan treaty virtually made Bhutan an Indian principality. Bhutan agreed to be guided by the advice of the Indian government in regard to its international relations. India’s aid made the most part of Thimpu’s budget. As the country came of age, aspirations of an independent state developed.
This was natural and in tune with the trends of the world. In the 2007 revised treaty, the above article was revised to establish close cooperation between the two countries and not to allow use of their respective territories for activities harmful to the national security and interests of each other. All reference to Bhutan’s external relations was deleted.
This was an astute diplomatic and strategic decision from New Delhi. Bhutan was free to execute its foreign relations independently.
The next steps in China-Bhutan relations promise some interesting propositions for India-China relationship. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinlay met Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at the Rio + 20 summit in Beijing on June 21. This should not have been a surprise as Bhutan was encouraged by India to seek its foreign policy interests.
More importantly, according Bhutan official website, Mr. Thinley discussed with Mr. Wen bilateral issues including Bhutan’s bid for a non-permanent seat on UN Security Council for the term 2013-14. This was interpreted as Bhutan seeking China’s support. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry website made no mention of this.
Following, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister responsible for South Asia, Ms. Fu Ying was in Bhutan from August 9 to 11, for the 20th round of China-Bhutan boundary talks. Expectedly, there was no progress in the talks with the two sides sticking to their positions.
What was important was Ms. Fuying’s speech on arrival in Thimpu. After laboring over China’s admiration for Bhutan’s rich cultural heritage and shared history with China, she came to the specifics. Early establishment of diplomatic relations, building bridges of friendship and cooperation, and supporting Bhutan’s international aspirations. What should not be missed in Ms. Fu Ying’s speech are the following: (i) Bhutan was well placed to benefit from the development of China and India, and (ii) she related a Bhutanese folk tale where a partridge, rabbit, monkey and elephant forged a harmonious relationship fulfilling their wishes together. The reference was obviously to Nepal, Bhutan, China and India.
On to Kathmandu from Bhutan on an official visit, Ms. Fu Ying told Nepal Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai that “Unity between China, India, Bhutan and Nepal could be valuable for the entire region”. She further added “China is not India’s competitor. We want to maintain cooperative relations with India”. (The Telegraph, Nepal, August 14).
China perceives Nepal as a strategic neighbor closely tied in its security and threat calculations. Beijing has established relations with all the major political parties of Nepal, and hoped to marginalise Indian influence in Nepal. But the recent split in Nepal’s largest political party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) UCPN(M), on which Beijing was banking on mainly, has disturbed the Chinese strategy. The hardline pro-China split group calling itself CPN (Maoists) led by Mohan Baidya (Kiran) is viscerally anti-India. Baidya visited China for ten days in July at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department.
On his return from China (July 25) Baidya declared the Chinese leaders were worried that “federalism” in any from may lead to the disintegration of the nation and rise of foreign influence, and that was not acceptable to China. The reference was emphatically to India. But China is also concerned about US and European influence in Nepal who, they believe, use Nepali territory to promote Tibetan separatism in Tibet. From China’s strategic view point, Nepal must be brought under Chinese influences to safeguard security and territorial integrity. China suspects that the USA at least is riding on India’s influence in Nepal.
Consolidation of the Indo-Himalayan border remains a priority for China. Beijing refused to recognise Sikkim’s accession to India till 2005 on the ground that India took over Sikkim by force. Visiting India in 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao gave the assurance to Indian leaders that China had changed their policy, and showed a map indicating Sikkim as a part of India. But questions still remain. Soon after Premier Wen’s India visit, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stated in Beijing that the Sikkim issue will be resolved along with the boundary issue. Official Chinese maps have not yet been published incorporating this change.
It appears China has embarked on, or testing, a new strategy without discarding the exisiting policies. Vice Minister Fu Ying’s visit has initiated a debate in Bhutan on relations with India and China. Some feel Chinese will deliver Thimpu from international hermitage. For India, it time to lead Bhutan by hand to the international playing field following up from the 2007 amendment in the India-Bhutan treaty.
More important is the scenario that with the new template of “India, China, Bhutan, Nepal” cooperation, Beijing is not only trying bring Bhutan out of India’s influence, but also pushing itself into India’s immediate neighbourhood and sensitive relationships.
The importance of this Chinese move to India’s relations with the north-eastern neighbourhood needs no emphasis. In the long run the Chinese move may be connected to India’s ‘Look East’ policy. The discussions and developments on connectivity between Nepal and Bhutan with Bangladesh through Indian territory in which India is a natural participant is the making of new economic and development frame work. It is poised to create this Asian connectivity through Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand linking South East Asia. The project has huge potential for all the concerned countries taking India’s profile to the region claimed by China as its backyard. Therefore, neutralising or even balancing India among the Himalayan states will be a major success for China in containing India.
Preparing for the visible military threat from China is of high importance. The issue cannot be ignored any longer. India’s defense development and deployment is India’s business for its security. Chinese comments, though till now mainly through these propagandas apparatus, amounts to interference in India’s internal affairs.
Notwithstanding the visible challenge, the invisible challenge is far more threatening to India’s development. New Delhi must urgently find ways to respond.
By Bhaskar Roy