Indo-China cold war hots up

By Ameen Izzadeen

(This article originally appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on Sept. 17, 2010)

India has apparently lost its cold war with China, or at least the current phase of it. What is disturbing to India is not only China’s superior military power and stronger economy, but also China’s intrusion into what was once regarded as India’s backyard.

The development has rendered the so-called Indira doctrine ineffective or obsolete. The doctrine, formulated during the Indira Gandhi premiership, made it clear to regional countries that they should seek help from within the region – meaning India — before they approached any outside power. In terms of the doctrine, India opposed the presence of superpowers in the Indian Ocean which it regarded as its backyard. Small countries in the region were punished for defying the doctrine. It happened to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. India armed, trained and financed the Sri Lanka’s separatist rebellion. In the late 1980s Nepal tried to defy the doctrine and was punished. New Delhi economically suffocated the land-locked Himalayan nation by closing down almost all the trade routes.

Today India may be much stronger than what it was three decades ago. But its power is confined within its borders. In contrast, China has been increasing its soft and hard power and making its presence felt in South Asia and also throughout the world in so subtle a manner that India could do almost nothing except make belated remarks. Recent statements made by Indian leaders resemble the screams of a man who suddenly wakes up from his slumber under a tree and finds his belongings are gone.

Their statements, like a fiery storm, however, had blown away the cloth of diplomacy that had kept the disputes between the two countries covered. The disputes are now in the open.

The soft-spoken and usually philosophical Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was furious last week. The fire in his remarks made the rest of the world to stop and take note of what he said.

indo-China territorial dispute

indo-China territorial dispute

Though the remarks came against the backdrop of China’s refusal to grant a visa to a top Indian military commander to visit Beijing, the real problem is more complex. It involves unresolved border issues – eg: Arunachel Pradesh — which led to a war between the two countries in 1962. It also involves Kashmir, the presence of Dalai Lama in India and New Delhi’s perception that China is increasing its assertive presence in India’s backyard.

India suspects China is interfering in Kashmir. A little known fact about Kashmir is that it is shared by not only India and Pakistan but also China. Kashmir’s Aksai Chin region is with China. Though India has been making occasional noises about what it calls Chinese occupation of Kashmir, Pakistan goes along with China’s claim of sovereignty over Aksai Chin. There is strong suspicion in New Delhi that not only Pakistan, but China also is stoking up trouble in Indian-administered Kashmir.

China last year started issuing a different kind of visas to the people of Kashmir, sending a strong message to India that Beijing did not recognize India’s sovereignty over the disputed region. China’s explanation to India in refusing the visa to the Indian military officer is that he was not welcome because of his role in Kashmir.

Premier Singh’s remarks came days after India fired off a strongly-worded demarche – a diplomatic note – to China, saying it was calling off the defence exercises and exchange programmes between the two countries.

China responded to the Indian anger with cool diplomacy pointing to the thriving trade between the two countries and claiming that Beijing was committed to the Pancha-Sheela principles that define China’s relations with India.

Singh charged that China was seeking to expand its influence in South Asia and gain a “foothold” in the region.

“China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality. We have to be aware of this,” Singh said.

He said China’s leadership would change in two years and there was a new assertiveness among the Chinese. “It is difficult to tell which way it will go. So it’s important to be prepared,” he said.

Hidden in Singh’s statement is India’s disappointment over its failure to check effectively China’s intrusion into South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. India was a mere onlooker when China built ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar. Except for Pakistan, India has friendly relations with all its neighbours. But today China weighs heavier on the diplomatic scales of India’s neighbours. China has become Sri Lanka’s biggest aid giver. China’s harbour project in Hambantota has raised the eyebrows of Indian defence analysts. However much both Sri Lanka and China insist that the harbour project is essentially a commercial venture and has no military intentions, these analysts say India could not prevent Sri Lanka from allowing China to have a strong foothold in Hambantota from which Beijing can, if it wants to or if the needs arises, control a vast area of the Indian Ocean extending up to Antarctica.

Myanmar has become a virtual Chinese protectorate. Last month, China and Myanmar conducted a series of naval exercises close to Indian waters, prompting India to put its naval troops on alert.

Premier Singh’s statement is not the sole protest. Opposing China’s assertiveness has become India’s official policy. This week, India’s Defence Minister A.K. Anthony addressing a combined commanders’ conference in Delhi, said India could not ignore the fact that Beijing was fast improving its military and physical infrastructure on the border. He called on Indian military leaders to keep abreast of the military modernisation drive in the neighbourhood to ensure that the Indian armed forces held an edge in the region.

India’s sudden awakening to the growing Chinese power has moved it to seek new strategic allies. It has found one such ally in Japan. In recent weeks, Japan and China have been trading charges and counter charges over the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain off some disputed islands in the East China Sea after his boat collided with Japanese coast guard craft. The uninhabited but believed-to-be oil-rich islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are controlled by Japan, but are also claimed by China and Taiwan. The incident has raised tempers in both countries.

When Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada held talks with his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna in New Delhi last month, they shared concern over Beijing’s growing military power and its military build-up in India’s neighbourhood.

The Indian Express newspaper quoted sources as saying that the two sides had expressed “similar language” in describing Chinese actions.

India is also seeking to strengthen its defence relations with the United States. During the George W. Bush administration, the two countries had struck a strong bond in the fight against their common enemy – Islamic terrorism. The relations between them improved with the signing of a civilian nuclear deal and enhanced defence cooperation. But under President Barack Obama, the speed with which the relations improved has slowed down a little. This was largely because of the Obama administration’s pressure on India to find a speedy solution to the Kashmiri problem. However, the visit of Obama to India in November, analysts say, will give the necessary impetus for relations between them to reach the level that was seen during the Bush era.

Of course, the rise of China’s military power is a concern for the US as well. According to Indian media reports, US Pacific Forces’ commander Admiral Robert Willard on a visit to India referred to China’s ‘naval assertiveness’, which he said had ‘complicated matters’.

Though Admiral Willard did not elaborate, he was probably referring to the US concern over the growing Chinese presence in South Asia, Central Asia and the Pacific. One reason why the US is unwilling to leave Afghanistan is its fear that the vacuum created by its departure would be filled by China. According to the latest Globalfirepower.com rankings, China is second only to the United States in terms of military power. India occupies the fourth place after Russia.

These moves and diplomatic contacts may indicate informal alliance formation. The problem with these informal alliance formations is that no bloc has advantage over the other, especially in view of the nuclear capabilities of the major players. The nuclear deterrent works and will avert a major war. China certainly knows this and quietly spreads its power far and wide, reaching even Africa and Latin America.

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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