Chinese Threat Looms large

Chinese threat looms large

G Parthasarathy (Pioneer, Thursday, March 19, 2009)

While India received overwhelming international sympathy and support during the 26/11 terrorist outrage, the Chinese reaction was one of almost unbridled glee, while backing Pakistani protestations of innocence. The state-run China Institute of Contemporary International Relations claimed that the terrorists who carried out the attack came from India. Moreover, even as the terrorist strike was on, yet another Chinese ‘scholar’ gleefully noted: “The Mumbai attack exposed the internal weakness of India, a power that is otherwise raising its status both in the region and in the world”. Not to be outdone, the Foreign Ministry-run China Institute of Strategic Studies warned: “China can firmly support Pakistan in the event of war”, adding: “While Pakistan can benefit from its military cooperation with China while fighting India, the People’s Republic of China may have the option of resorting to a strategic military action in Southern Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh), to thoroughly liberate the people there”.

Rather than condemning the terrorists and their supporters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang urged India and Pakistan to “maintain calm” and investigate the “cause” of the terror attack jointly. The visiting Chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Tariq Majid was received like a state dignitary by Chinese leaders, with promises of support on weapons supplies ranging from fighter aircraft to frigates. The Chinese then got into the diplomatic act, purporting to show that they were actually Good Samaritans seeking to promote peace and reconciliation between India and Pakistan. The rising star in China’s diplomatic hierarchy, Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei, visited Islamabad and met the Pakistani leadership, including the ubiquitous Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani. Rather than asking Pakistan to curb the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba Mr Yafei stressed the need for Pakistan and India to address “outstanding issues through dialogue and cooperation”. Shortly thereafter Mr Yafei landed up in Delhi, again with the object of demonstrating to the world that China had urged ‘restraint’ on India and promoted India-Pakistan dialogue. Mercifully, for once, our pusillanimous mandarins signalled that we did not need China’s purported ‘good offices’ in dealing with the fallout of 26/11.

Just as China was becoming a net importer of oil in 1993, Gen Zhao Nanqui, a senior official of China’s People’s Liberation Army proclaimed: “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an ocean of the Indians”. Another naval analyst Mr Zhang Ming recently proclaimed that the islands of India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago could be used as a metal chain to block Chinese access to the Straits of Malacca. China has used such arguments to boost its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Adopting a ‘string of pearls’ strategy to encircle and contain India in the Indian Ocean, it has acquired base facilities at Gwadar and Pasni in the Makran coast of Pakistan, virtually at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is building a fuelling station in the port of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka, a container facility with naval and commercial access in Chittagong, and linking its Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar. It has gone as far as Mauritius and Maldives for securing a strategic presence, with promises of massive economic assistance to these countries. China has also planned its most ambitious project in the Indian Ocean, proposing a canal access across the Isthmus of Krai in Thailand, linking the Indian Ocean to its Pacific coast.

China has reinforced these measures by sending its first naval expeditionary force spearheaded by two destroyers into the Indian Ocean, purportedly to deal with piracy off the coast of Somalia. A Chinese fleet last entered the India Ocean in the 15th century, when an expeditionary force under Admiral Zheng He sailed across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, Muscat, Maldives and Mogadishu. President Hu Jintao’s China appears desirous of reviving the imperial ambitions of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty! As China strengthens its Navy acquiring aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, India will soon find that unless it combines the boosting of its maritime muscle with imaginative diplomacy in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood and on China’s Pacific shores, it will be strategically marginalised and outflanked by an assertive and expansionist Beijing, which appears bent on exploiting the high costs of imperial overreach by the Americans in recent years. Given the manner in which China has joined hands with Pakistan to sabotage India’s quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the devious role it played in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to undermine moves to end global nuclear sanctions against India, we should have no doubt that ‘strategic containment’ of India will remain the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy in the foreseeable future.

New Delhi should also have no doubt that China will exploit the American economic downturn and the pro-Chinese views of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to get the Americans to revert to the policies of the Nixon, Carter and Clinton presidencies and to make common cause with China on issues like nuclear non-proliferation, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and even on Afghanistan and Pakistan, while undermining Indian interests. Echoing the Pakistani line, China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, recently suggested that for the United States to deal with problems in Afghanistan, it should not merely involve itself in the Afghanistan problem and the Pakistan problem but also in the ‘India-Pakistan problem’. Ms Hillary Clinton has characterised the US-China relationship as the “most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century”. Her visit to China was followed almost immediately by the visit to Beijing of a senior Pentagon official, who joyously proclaimed the resumption of defence ties with Beijing.

The Bush Administration had an overarching strategic vision of its relations with India, premised on New Delhi’s pivotal role in confronting terrorism, safeguarding the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, and in promoting strategic stability in Asia. But with election around the corner and the UPA Government in a lame duck mode, Washington, DC, is unlikely to take any interest in fashioning a larger vision for India-US relations. The challenge we face in coming months is how we can pursue our interests in the aftermath of the 26/11 carnage without making the India-US relationship predominantly determined by developments on our western border. The decision to curb outsourcing by the Obama Administration, without any prior consultations, manifests an American propensity to act unilaterally and peremptorily on issues of vital interest to India.
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