Tensions Mount Between India and “Assertive” China

 

The bonhomie witnessed between China and India at the Climate Talks at Copenhagen and the subsequent mutual friendly overtures made by the two, are all misleading. There has, of late, been an undercurrent of hostility between the two countries. Even Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, mild-mannered as he is, made a mention of the recent Chinese aggressive posturing against India during his state visit to Washington in November 2009 with his characteristic mildness. While admiring the Chinese accomplishment of a rapid rate of economic growth, he pointed out that India had taken note of a “certain amount of assertiveness” on the part of China lately. He went on to say that he did not “fully understand” the reasons for the recent Chinese actions.

For those who are not quite aware of all that transpired during the last few months a brief resume of the events would seem to be in order. The problem between India and China has been simmering for quite some time. From denial of visas to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh, a province in the north-east of India which it claims as its own, and issue of visas stapled on separate pieces of papers to the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) travelling to China – all fell into a paradigm that was sequential in nature.

Tensions mounted between the two countries when two Chinese choppers violated the Indian airspace and buzzed the village of Demchok in the heights of Ladakh in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. The Chinese even objected to construction of a road up to the village which is within the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the line that separates India with the illegally occupied Indian territory by the Chinese. The state government, apparently feeling a little unsure of the entailing consequences, promptly stopped the work.

Then again, Chinese troops breached the unmanned border and intruded 1.5 kilometres deep into Indian territory in the Chumar sector east of Leh (again in Ladakh), and painted “China” on stray rocks and boulders. The Indian border patrol discovered the signs of Chinese intrusions last July. Sniffing a story to catch the Government on the wrong foot, the media went on an overdrive, with the electronic media telecasting pictures of the boulders with “China” writ large on them in Cantonese. Keen to bring down the temperature, the India’s defence establishment played down the reports of incursions. However, worse was yet to come.

In October last Dr. Singh happened to visit Arunachal Pradesh, the north-eastern state of India bordering Tibet, the status of which China holds in dispute. His visit, essentially for canvassing for elections to the state legislative assembly, brought forth a virtual torrent of undiplomatic verbiage. Expressing its “strong dissatisfaction” over Dr. Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, China demanded India to address its “serious concerns and not trigger disturbances in the disputed region so as to facilitate the healthy development of China-India relations”. The whole thing was quite inexplicable as Dr. Singh was not the first Prime Minister of India to have visited the state.

This was not all. Even the visit of Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh early in November 2009 came in for adverse notice of the Chinese. Their Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement expressing dissatisfaction over the permission given by the Indian Government to the Tibetan leader to visit Tawang and its spokesperson branded Dalai Lama as “anti China” merely because he visited the monastery located therein. The more than three centuries old monastery is one of the biggest outside Lhasa. Dr. Singh clarified that the Tibetan spiritual leader was an honoured guest in India and was free to travel anywhere within the country. Latter’s visit to Tawang, however, sent the mercury soaring in China.

Some China-watchers in India say that the Chinese hostility in so far as India is concerned is Dalai Lama-centric, that is, they are annoyed with India for having given asylum to the Tibetan spiritual leader. It seems, during his Delhi visit in 1956 Zhou Enlai, the then premier of the People’s Republic of China, gave a very broad hint to his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, that any Indian assistance to the Tibetan leader would be treated as an unfriendly act. The continued rebellion in Tibet in the early 1950s perhaps gave the Chinese a hunch that Dalai Lama would eventually seek assistance from India. And, when India played host to Dalai Lama in 1959, Mao is reported to have ticked off India as an enemy. That, perhaps, explains the Chinese policy of keeping the Indo-Chinese border on the boil even after China resolved its land border disputes with 12 of its neighbours, including Russia, North Korea and Vietnam despite brief skirmishes with each.

Topping it all, one has to reckon with the Chinese irredentism. Being its leading proponent, China, on grounds of vague ethnicity, lays claims on vast territories – both land and maritime. Claims against India, substantial as they seem to be, are perhaps receiving special treatment

The “assertiveness” of China that Dr. Singh talked about is born out of a booming economy, with around a couple of trillion dollars in foreign currency reserves, its increasing military might and a rising international stature. Bill Powell, writing in Time magazine (August 10, 2009) said that with its growing economic importance China has increasingly “started throwing its weight around”… and “push other governments to see things China’s way”.

From India’s viewpoint, that, perhaps, is a more accurate assessment of China. For instance, while it has been objecting to developmental activities within the LAC in Ladakh calling it disputed, China has merrily been carrying out infrastructural development on its side of the LAC as if that is not disputed. Worse, having gobbled up Aksai Chin in 1950s, China has occupied large swathes of Ladakhi land during the last two decades and, using intimidatory tactics, its Army is pushing back Indian nomads from their own territory.

Dr. Singh, therefore, has to appreciate that he is up against a bully. He would do well to prepare the nation to meet any eventuality vis-a-vis China. The country needs to shore up its defences. Its military unpreparedness, as was splashed all over recently, to meet the threats from its northern and western neighbours was alarming. True, it may not be possible to match the military might that the Chinese have built up over the last couple of decades, India can surely manage to build up enough deterrent capability to dissuade anyone from treating it as a push-over.

There are enough resources available within the country. Dr. Singh only has to evolve a political consensus to clamp down on leakages by way of large-scale waste and rampant corruption, both at the Centre and in the states. And, decisive steps, as promised, to recover the hundreds of billions of dollars stashed away illegally in tax havens abroad are now overdue. Building up adequate military muscle needs overriding priority to forestall any attempts by any country to mess up with the country.