India and China

Competitors or Partners?

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prior to a delegation-level meeting in New Delhi on Nov. 21, 2006. (Photo: Raveendran / AFP-Getty Images)

Can neighbors India and China really be partners? Does Beijing have selfish designs in South Asia? These, among others, are queries that Beijing has not addressed ever since bilateral ties have been on upswing. Although President Hu Jintao has asserted that both India and China are committed to pursuing a long-term friendship and can work together to create a bright future for their peoples, the Chinese government has done little so far to address New Delhi's concerns on the boundary issue and Beijing's growing ties with India's neighbors as a part of a 'containment policy.' Hu's visit to India in November of 2006 did not address these critical issues.

China's repeated assertions on Arunachal Pradesh (a state in Northeast India) being integral part of China, including the denial of a visa to an Indian administrative officer from the state, highlights Beijing's intransigence on the issue. The government has emphatically conveyed that the Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh is non-negotiable in any final settlement of the border issue. With Beijing's claim in Bhutan also inching closer to the Indian border, the Chinese threat needs no further explanation. The two countries have made little progress in several rounds of negotiations over resolving the dispute.

China's occupation of approximately 23,612 square miles (38,000 sq. km) in Jammu and Kashmir is besides the 3,219 square miles (5,180 sq. km) illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir under the so-called Sino-Pakistan Boundary Agreement of 1963. India and China are in the second stage of exploring the framework of a final package settlement covering all aspects of the India-China boundary dispute. This will be followed by the last stage, which will involve the actual delineation and demarcation of the boundary on maps and on the ground by the civil, military and survey officials from the two sides. The three-stage process began with the signing of an agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the India-China boundary question on April 11, 2005, during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India. But little is expected from the boundary dialogue.

The Chinese are masters of the art of denial and deception. In 1988 then-leader Deng Xiaoping offered India a package deal on the border. It was withdrawn as "just a concept" when Indian officials sought clarifications. So can Hu be trusted when he says that Beijing is willing to work with New Delhi to push for an early settlement to a decades-old border dispute?

With Pakistan, Hu is indulging in a delicate balancing act to avoid upsetting a longtime ally. However, too much warmth by the Chinese president in Islamabad could upset the contacts he has established in India. To counterbalance India in South Asia and prevent New Delhi's rise as a regional power, Beijing has long supported Muslim Pakistan economically and militarily, and both Hu and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are anxious to show the world that those ties have not been diminished, especially after the early July killing of three Chinese workers by Islamists in the border city of Peshawar.

Beijing's interest in Pakistan goes well beyond the economic sphere, into the area of strategic influence that China can wield in the South Asian region. China's alliance with Pakistan is one of the most important in the region and Pakistan is viewed by China as a considerable foothold. It is a very special relationship, which both countries need to be retained. Hu does have to play a balancing act between India and Pakistan, but the dynamics are rather different. India is a rising power in Asia and a key economic engine driving the whole region It is a potential competitor with China, while Pakistan is not. China shares a symbiotic relationship with Pakistan. On Afghanistan, China and Pakistan have mutual interests and fairly similar views. Both are concerned about stability and the return of peace to that country.

India is closely watching the Chinese moves in Afghanistan, where New Delhi has lot at stake. Any foothold in Afghanistan will bring Beijing nearer to oil-rich Gulf region. China is also suspicious of the warming ties between India and the United States, which are seen as an attempt by Washington to contain China's political influence as its massive economy gives it ever more weight. Beijing's official media makes no secret of the fact that China views India's 'newfound' friendship with the United States as symptomatic of New Delhi being drawn in against China.

China was an observer at the 14th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit at New Delhi in April. This puts Beijing in a position to straddle a large South Asian political and economic space. China's consolidation of its infrastructure in Tibet and along the border areas with India is also an area of concern as it brings Beijing closer to Nepal and the northeastern states of India.

China's rising profile has acquired new dimensions. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is driven by the Chinese, has demanded that the United Sates establish timelines for withdrawal from Central Asia. Of the several American-led alliances in the region, Beijing perceives the ties with Japan, Australia and India as the most vital because collectively they can transform into a U.S.-Japan-Australia-India coalition to encircle China.

Most of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are also increasingly looking at India to balance China's force projection in the region, which could prompt Beijing to deepen its ties with Islamabad, Dhaka and Kathmandu to encircle India. President Hu is trying to balance America's nuclear effort in South Asia with one of its own with Pakistan. As India reaches into the Malacca Straits, Beijing is developing strategic port facilities in Sittwe (Myanmar), Chittagong and Gwadar (Pakistan) in an effort to build capacity to protect sea lanes and to ensure uninterrupted energy supplies. China will allow the SCO to give India membership only when India allows China to become a member of SAARC.

The Sino-Indian relationship cannot acquire a strategic dimension as long the noted differences persist. Despite the slew of agreements signed during Hu's visit last year, New Delhi remains wary of Chinese designs in South Asia. Building trust is a primary criterion to take the bilateral relationship to greater heights. However, Beijing and New Delhi remain on their guard against one another, realizing that as regional giants they appear fated to be economic and possibly political competitors. China aims to dominate Asia and once it becomes the world's largest economy, it will be in an advantageous position to twist its neighbors' arms even further.

Back on October 20, 1962, unable to reach a political accommodation on the disputed territory along the 2,000-mile long (3,225 km) Himalayan border, China attacked India. Since the Sino-Indian War, each side continued to improve its military and logistics capabilities in the disputed regions. China has maintained its occupation of the Aksai Chin area, through which it built a strategic highway linking Xizang and Xinjiang autonomous regions.

China has a vital military interest in maintaining control over this region, whereas India's primary focus lay in Arunachal Pradesh, its state in the northeast bordering Xizang Autonomous Region. In 1987, although India enjoyed air superiority, rough parity on the ground existed between the two military forces, which had a combined total of nearly 400,000 troops near the border. The Indian Army deployed eleven divisions in the region, backed up by paramilitary forces, whereas the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had fifteen divisions available for operations on the border.

After a 1986 border clash and India's conversion of Arunachal Pradesh from union territory to state, tensions between China and India escalated. Both sides moved to reinforce their capabilities in the area, but neither ruled out further negotiations of their dispute. Most observers believe that the mountainous terrain, high altitude climate, and concomitant logistical difficulties made it unlikely that a protracted or large-scale conflict could erupt on the Sino-Indian border.

It is highly improbable that the Chinese army is going to march into Indian territory and take it away by force. Beijing proved its point in 1962 and is unlikely to expend energies on such exercises again. Its one-point agenda at present is to stamp out competition and be the undisputed regional economic superpower. New Delhi must not get drawn into a game of diplomatic tit-for-tat with Beijing, be it over Arunachal Pradesh or Aksai Chin. When China tries to arm-twist India, it must be reminded of its own abysmal human rights record and aggression in Tibet.

China is supposed to be a rising power and full of self-confidence. But its actions suggest that Beijing remains utterly insecure when it comes to Tibet and the long contested Indo-Tibetan border. Traditionally it is India that has been accused, by the friends of China around the world, of lacking imagination in dealing with the complex boundary dispute. In the last few years, India has shown extraordinary flexibility and offering to negotiate — on a practical and political basis — the final disposition of the Sino-Indian border. It seems Beijing is not as serious about settling the boundary dispute with India.

There was no forward movement on this issue at the 10th round of the border talks held at New Delhi and Coonoor in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu between India's National Security Adviser, M K Narayanan, and the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister, Dai Bingguo, in April. Without referring to any specific issue, a three-paragraph joint statement issued at the end of the talks merely said: "The talks were held in an open, friendly, cooperative and constructive atmosphere. Both sides agreed to hold the next round of talks between the Special Representatives in China at a mutually convenient time, which will be decided through diplomatic channels."

It has been apparent for the last three years since the present government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh came to power, that the Chinese made it clear that there could be no final settlement on the border issue unless India agreed to transfer the Tawang tract to China. The Chinese insistence on this transfer of a populated area was contrary to one of the agreed principles between the two countries that any transfer of territory should not involve such areas.

The Chinese do have concerns over future stability in Tibet, but not for the reasons promulgated by Prof. Ma Jiali of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. The real reason for their concern is the fact that despite their undeniable success in the economic development of the Tibetan region, they have not been able to eradicate the influence of Buddhism and His Holiness the Dalai Lama from the minds of the people of Tibet. Tibetans continue to hold the Dalai Lama in great reverence. The Chinese are worried that if they try to impose their own Dalai Lama on the Tibetan people after the present Dalai Lama, there could be a new popular uprising in Tibet similar to one in the 1950's, which led to the Dalai Lama fleeing to Tawang in 1959 and seeking political asylum in India.

The Chinese feel confident that they would be able to crush any uprising, provided it does not enjoy any outside support from the Tibetan diaspora abroad, or from India and the United States. The Chinese have always suspected that the Khampa revolt of the 1950's was instigated and sponsored by the intelligence agencies of India and the United States from across Tawang in India's Arunachal Pradesh and the Mustang area in Nepal.

To prevent a similar scenario after the Dalai Lama, they either want to pressure India to transfer Tawang to China or to keep the issue pending without reaching any border settlement in order to justify an intervention by the Chinese Army in the Arunachal Pradesh area, should serious political instability occur in Tibet. Until the Chinese feel totally satisfied that they have pacified Tibet once and for all with their own Party nominees in position in Lhasa as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, it is unlikely to anticipate any change in their rigid position during the border talks.

In all likelihood, the Chinese policy towards India in bilateral matters will continue to be characterized by forward movement in all matters except on the border issue, and 'benign stagnation' on that score with the Chinese marking time till the Dalai Lama is out of the way and they have managed to avoid any instability after him. However, this benign stagnation could turn into hostility in the event of serious disturbances in Tibet. The Chinese have been preparing themselves for such a contingency, if it occurs, despite their efforts to prevent it. India, too, should continue to strengthen the defenses of the Arunachal Pradesh area and keep itself in readiness in case the situation turns actively hostile.

According to Beijing, China would be "magnanimous" in Aksai Chin if India agreed to give up Tawang. If China's minimum demand in the eastern sector has been defined 'unofficially' to a certain extent, the so-called offer of concessions in the western sector remains vague. Mostly, this offer has been qualified by the phrase, "China will consider." The Chinese are only interested in resolving the border issue on their terms. And these terms extend beyond Tawang to cover all of Arunachal Pradesh, which appears linked to Beijing's Tibet policy. They feel their control over Tibet is incomplete without Arunachal.

"Hide your strength and bide your time" is an old Chinese strategy. This involves lulling their opponent into disarming, while they acquire overwhelming strength. Then they suddenly pounce upon their foe. For decades, China worked behind the veil of being a Third World country, implementing the theory that says development and security must go together; that in the absence of one the other cannot be achieved.

The Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a think-tank supported by China's external intelligence agency, recently unveiled the "Greater Peripheral" theory of emerging as a major power. This was most recently showcased through a commitment of $5 billion in assistance to 48 African countries. The scheme was earlier applied in its immediate periphery (East and Central Asia) where China utilized a varied mix of instruments — diplomacy, political support, economic allurement and military aid — to acquire heft and influence. The greater periphery strategy includes both large and small nations. The Chinese policy, therefore, is to ensure that India is surrounded by inimical neighbors. Thus, Pakistan was elevated to a nuclear power through illegal proliferation. In addition, not only is China arming Bangladesh, it is assisting Dhaka to build a nuclear reactor.

President Hu's visit to India came in the backdrop of an international milieu that has changed remarkably in China's favor. India's neighbor has developed rapidly: its forex reserves (minus gold) recently touched a trillion dollars (while India's nudged $67 billion on Nov. 3, 2006); last year, China became the biggest purchaser of United States treasury bonds; and it is the third largest trading entity, after the United States and the European Union as a bloc.

China's ascendancy has come at a time when the world's sole superpower — the United States — is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the heart of China's engagement with India is the ambivalence with which it watches New Delhi consolidate its relationship with the United States and Japan, besides being spurred into greater engagement with the outer fringes of eastern Asia. This is the region where China, too, is exerting its presence.

China views East Asia essentially as an 'ASEAN + 3' arrangement, the three being China, Japan and South Korea. Japan sought to widen the ambit by including India, Australia and New Zealand, thereby making it 'ASEAN + 6.' This suits the Indian argument that the region should not have two tracks, one for the core and one for the periphery; that only if there is a single track would India be able to optimize its participation in the Asian theater.

Most countries, including Japan and South Korea, would not want a single country to dominate East Asia, as it would manifest itself in a skewed security framework in the region. In power terms, therefore, each nation is looking for a balanced security architecture — the more the balance, the less the conflict. This is why Southeast Asian countries welcome Indian participation in the East Asian summit. Currently, China is perceived as a power bent on seeking unilateral advantages, in sharp contrast to India's quests in the Far East.

Many Asian continues to view India as a regional countervailing force against China. In general, countries in the region do not resent Indian power. A rising India along with Japan and South Korea helps create a certain balance. Therefore, even as India engages China, New Delhi has made naval forays into the eastern littoral areas in an effort that anoints it with the potential to protect some sea lanes, a few of which are in the Chinese sphere of influence. Sea lanes assume a critical importance, particularly because both China and India are emerging as huge energy consumers and therefore competitors. Both countries are intensely aware that the nature of their interaction will partially determine Asia's overall character.

India will be closely watching China's dealings with Pakistan and whether it goes ahead with a similar nuclear pact as the Indo-U.S. deal, as has been suggested. Gwadar Port in Pakistan opens the possibility of a Chinese naval presence very close to Indian shores. China has been involved in the construction of at least two nuclear reactors in Pakistan. The United States has refused to deal with Pakistan on nuclear energy because of its dubious proliferation record.

In the past, reacting to the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear energy deal, China has asked India to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) first. India has refused to do so, as it considers the NPT to be biased in favor of countries that already possess nuclear weapons. Beijing has been critical of the United States for violating international norms by signing the nuclear pact with India and was unhappy about Indian nuclear weapon tests in 1998. Not too long ago, Beijing had said that given India's strong military strength, it was Pakistan more than India that needed nuclear weapons to defend itself.

The joint statement issued last year after the deliberations involving Prime Minister Singh and President Hu said: "There is the need for an international energy order, and for global energy systems to take into account the needs of both countries based on a stable, predictable, secure and clean energy future. In this context, the international civilian nuclear cooperation should be advanced through innovative and forward-looking approaches while safeguarding the effectiveness of international non-proliferation principles."

After 1949, Sino-Indian relations, after experiencing a high, went down to its lowest ebb in 1962 and remained frozen thereafter. A new phase of gradual improvement started with the exchange of ambassadors in 1976, and the first high level Chinese visit in 1976. This trend was solidified by then-Foreign Minister Vajpayee's visit in Feb. 1979. It is no coincidence that Deng Xiaoping had then just emerged as the unchallenged leader in China. The measure of improvement can be appreciated if one takes the negative areas in the relationship that have been eliminated or reduced to manageable proportions. Even by the time Foreign Minister Huang Hua paid a return visit in 1981, official level discussions had put many issues in perspective notwithstanding public disagreement over Afghanistan and Cambodia.

The challenge for the future is moving the dialogue into positive areas. In the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's the export of revolution was seen as the bounden duty of all Communist States. Even with the loud cheers of "Hindi Cheeni Bhai Bhai" in the air, material and moral support was being given to dissident groups in India. This caused India grave problems in dealing with the insurgent groups in the country's northeast.

Indo-china and Vietnam also posed a source of friction. China did not support North Vietnam as whole-heartedly as they did North Korea. China and Vietnam are historical rivals. Further, the Chinese establishment, and Deng in particular, developed a strong antipathy to the Vietnamese leadership. The leading Soviet role in supporting Hanoi could have played a part in this. For India, on the other hand, supporting Vietnam was a cardinal principle of her non-aligned policy. China's police action against Vietnam in 1979 during Vajpayee's visit, and India's recognition of the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin government in Cambodia caused temporary tensions.

Can this relationship go forward? Can India and China ever be partners? This is the question haunting many policymakers and analysts. In this context, one needs to look into three broad areas. Foremost among them is the border question. This issue has two dimensions. First, some boundary specialists would argue that at the end of 1994, there were more than 100 disputed boundaries around the world. This is a vexing problem for the international community and there are no fixed ground rules to rectify it. These experts feel that after the 1958-59 Sino-Indian boundary talks, it became clear that this issue has no academic solution. India is not in a position to cede any territory to others. Therefore, to resolve the disputed boundary issue and establish cordial relations with India, China has to vacate the occupied territory.

Second is the economic cooperation between the two countries. Both China and India are developing nations and each enjoys some advantage over the other in trade. Incidentally, both are exporters of primary commodities and semi-manufactured goods. At the moment, India enjoys a marginal advantage over China because of its being a member of the World Trade Organisation. In short, both the economies are competing with each other in the international market. India-China joint ventures in third countries is once again a low feasibility proposition because of the same reasons In fact, China is mixing politics with economics to a certain extent. For example, China would prefer the United States to India in awarding a contract.

Lastly is the option to improve people-to-people level contacts between India and China. This, undoubtedly, is one area where more interaction can take place between the two countries. But, the spirit of Hindi-Chini Bhai Thai of the 1950's cannot stage a comeback for obvious reasons. Both China and India had broken the impasse that set into their relations from 1962 onwards, in the early l980's, and continued to do so even in the 1990's. The political leadership of both these nations have, over the last 15 years, evolved a mature relationship which is mutually beneficial. To take it beyond this level in the immediate future does not seem possible at this time. India and China seem fated to be competitors in the coming years and not partners, as they both endeavor to dominate in world politics and the global economy.

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