China emerging as S. Asia’s “Super Cop” hurts India

Chandan Mitra

In the backdrop of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tepid visit to Washington last month, followed by President Obama unveiling a half-hearted Afghanistan policy, India has significant reasons to worry about its relegation to the junior league in America’s foreign policy world view. Earlier, the Hu Jintao-Barrack Obama joint statement in Beijing had made it clear that the US regards China as the regional superpower and is prepared to “outsource” South Asian affairs to it. Although the State Department subsequently tempered this statement, there are sufficient causes for New Delhi to worry that China would henceforth act as the local “dada” overseeing India-Pakistan issues, including Kashmir, with overt US approval. Coincidentally, this was the subject on which I presented a paper at the annual Track Two dialogue held this year in Singapore under the aegis of the German think tank, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) on 23-24 November. Reproduced below is a slightly abridged version of my presentation.

China’s role in the sub-continent, especially its ability to engage constructively in tensions between India and Pakistan is circumscribed by two factors: It’s partisanship in Pakistan’s favour on the Kashmir issue from the inception and its role in the UN Security Council since Beijing replaced Taipei at UN forums, and China’s inconsistent behaviour in Indo-Pak matters, which vary in accordance with ups and downs in Beijing’s relations with New Delhi. Hence, the huge trust deficit between India and China.

By accepting Pakistan’s formulation on the right to self-determination of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, China, in effect, rejected India’s position that a series of free and fair elections in the Indian part of the State is adequate proof of its assimilation into India’s democratic process. China also historically came to Pakistan’s aid during each military conflict between India and Pakistan, by upping the ante along the disputed Himalayan border. Besides it has consistently provided military hardware and technology to Pakistan both directly and also through its ally North Korea.

Further, China has a long history of conflict with India on the boundary issue. It disputes the McMahon Line and during the 1962 border conflict occupied large parts of Aksai Chin apart from over-running Arunachal Pradesh to which it persists on staking a claim. India-China border talks, agreed during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s 2003 visit to Beijing, have progressed fitfully. China has reneged on its earlier agreement that “settled populations” on either side of the Line of Actual Control should be disturbed to the minimum. This backtracking has resulted in a virtual stalemate in the talks between the designated Special Representatives.

During the Vajpayee visit, it was informally agreed that China would finally concede Sikkim to be a part of India and, thus, the Middle sector would pose the least problem in the resolution of the border dispute. In exchange, India would be willing to make adjustments in Aksai Chin, provided China abandoned its claim to Tawang district in Arunachal. It was also discreetly agreed that the issue of the slice of J&K ceded to China by Pakistan would be kept on the backburner pending an overall settlement between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.

However, China’s recent acts of intrusion in the Aksai Chin region, gradual encroachment along the undemarcated boundary on Pangong Tso and the Demchok sector, suggest a new aggressiveness not seen in the last four decades. Beijing’s strong denunciation of the Dalai Lama’s visit, preceded by its objections to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tour of Arunachal Pradesh, have added to misgivings in India about China’s real intentions.

China loves to believe it is on the verge of acquiring superpower status and looks to the US for legitimising its aspirations, although Beijing’s aim has always been to overtake the US as the world’s pre-eminent economic power.

During President Obama’s visit to Beijing earlier this month (November 2009), he acknowledged that China could play a role in lowering tensions between India and Pakistan. Despite India’s voluble protests that no third party could be admitted into the India-Pakistan dialogue process, as the issues, including J&K, were bilateral, Washington did not retract satisfactorily from the position President Obama took during his meeting with President Hu Jintao.

It would appear that two significant uprisings, first in Tibet on the eve of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and later in Xinjiang involving fierce clashes between native Uighur Muslims and Han settlers persuaded Beijing to adopt a hard line towards India. It stops just short of directly blaming India for the troubles in Tibet but its diatribe against India for harbouring the Dalai Lama and nearly one lakh Tibetan refugees has grown shriller in recent months.

At another level, it seems to be altering its approach towards Muslim discontent in Xinjiang. Whereas it has always followed a policy of “strike hard with an iron fist” towards any form of insurgency, particularly the simmering East Turkistan movement in Xinjiang, it appears to be seeking Pakistan’s cooperation in preventing the influx of Taliban-inspired militants into that province. In the past it even hanged two Pakistani nationals after a summary trial for fomenting jihadi terror in Xinjiang.

Clearly, Beijing now believes in befriending Pakistan even more and exerting pressure on it to contain Talibani influence from creeping into its outlying Muslim dominated regions. As a corollary, it has adopted a particularly hostile stance towards India in the last few months, thus reassuring the Pakistani establishment of its unstinted support.

Given this scenario, India cannot accept the Obama-Hu formulation in view of the deep and genuine misgivings about Beijing’s objectives. China is in a conflict situation with India and hence a party to the prevailing disputes. It is ranged on Islamabad’s side.

Finally, China’s aggressive expansionism in countries contiguous to India has added to New Delhi’s concerns. Beijing’s “garland of pearls” policy, which entails construction of a naval base in Myanmar’s Coco Islands, barely 600 km from the Andamans, and ports at Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, besides its links with anti-India forces in Nepal further complicate the prospects of India accepting a legitimate role for China in South Asia. The growing competition between India and China for acquiring oil fields in Africa and Kazakhstan adds a further dimension to the ongoing tussle for economic positioning between the two countries.

Therefore, the only role China can possibly play in the sub-continent is to assist Pakistan in combating and containing Talibani ambitions in the region. It also has a role in supporting the US-led Western forces in stabilising the Kabul regime because that is the only hope for an indigenous Afghan political leadership to keep militancy in check. China has already invested heavily in Afghanistan and therefore must have a stake in helping the Karzai Government regain control of that country.

Although India-China co-operation at the economic level is increasing, there remain sharp divergences in their political and strategic objectives. China’s attempt to emerge as an independent player in South Asia with a view to deny India its pre-eminent role in the region as well as the Indian Ocean cannot be accepted by New Delhi.

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