Tensions are increasing over Sino-Indian boundary issues and Beijing’s efforts to limit Indian influence in the region. G Parthasarathy assesses the situation and its possible solutions.
India and China, the two most populous countries in the world, are seeking strategic space in Asia, across what is now described as the Indo-Pacific region. While the Himalayas historically stood as a barrier that precluded conflict between India and China, the security situation changed with the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1949. The two countries thereafter faced off each other without their land borders having been definitively defined. Differences over the border issue led to a short conflict 1962, in which the Chinese prevailed. Border tensions were exacerbated by great power rivalries. These developments have resulted in greater Sino-Indian rivalry for strategic space across the Indian Ocean and China’s maritime frontiers in the Western Pacific.
While periodic tensions across the high Himalayan peaks do arise, as the militaries of the two countries seek tactical advantage, neither has hitherto appeared to want this friction to escalate. But there seems to have been a recent change in the Chinese stance on settling the border issue. Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao agreed in 2005 to the ‘Guiding Principles’ to settle the border issue, but the Chinese have since hardened their position, expanded their border claims and appear to have renounced what was agreed upon in 2005. How this will play out remains to be seen but in the meantime, China has embarked on moves that enhance its efforts to strategically ‘contain’ India and curb Indian influence, not only in its South Asian neighbourhood but across the entire Indian Ocean Region.
China has been active in cultivating India’s South Asian neighbours. The Chinese intention is evidently to get these neighbours to embarrass and isolate India by insisting that Beijing should be admitted to SAARC as a full member. Liberal offers for arms supplies to SAARC countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have been periodically made. China is also undertaking a concerted effort to develop strong lobbies in political parties in countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, while discreetly ‘facilitating’ individual politicians and parties. Eyebrows have been raised at the number of senior Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who visited Nepal in the months preceding the adoption of the new Constitution by the Constituent Assembly. New Delhi has also taken note of Chinese links with some of their ‘fraternal’ contacts amidst their Maoist brethren in Kathmandu.
Pakistan has served as the primary instrument of Chinese policies to contain and surround India. Beijing has not hesitated to use Pakistan internationally to thwart Indian ambitions regionally and globally. It has backed Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the UN by opposing and delaying moves in the UN to place international sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorist groups and individuals. China has also repeatedly thwarted attempts for India to get Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council and membership of international non-proliferation groupings like the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It was hostile to efforts to widen India’s regional ties with ASEAN and blocked moves by India for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), insisting on Pakistan’s simultaneous admission, which it appears ready to use to undermine India within the SCO.
Pakistan recently announced that it had finalised a deal for acquiring eight submarines from China, with four of them being built in Karachi. It currently has five French-designed Agosta submarines. This Pakistan-China deal, intended to more than double Pakistan’s submarine fleet, follows a deal to acquire four Chinese frigates. It is no secret that as a result of Chinese assistance, Pakistan now possesses Plutonium-based, miniaturised tactical nuclear weapons, enabling it to develop ‘full spectrum’ nuclear capabilities against India. Likewise, Pakistan’s missile programme, capable of targeting population centres across India, is almost entirely based on Chinese designs and technology. The JF17 fighter, which is the main workhorse of the PAF, is being co-produced with China.
India and others face challenges from an increasingly assertive China, now prepared to use force to implement its maritime territorial claims. China is rapidly strengthening its navy and expanding its naval presence across the Indian Ocean. China’s moves to impose its exaggerated maritime territorial claims have led to differences with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines taking pro-active measures to counter Chinese unilateralism. Manila has challenged Chinese maritime claims in the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. It has also joined Vietnam and Japan in bolstering defence capabilities by cooperation with the US. Even Russia is strengthening Vietnamese defence capabilities. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is embarking on a programme of naval expansion.
Beijing’s naval power in the Indian Ocean is being steadily augmented, with a Chinese nuclear-powered attack submarine being spotted in the Indian Ocean last year. Using the rationale of participating in anti-piracy operations, China has moved into the Gulf of Aden. It has sought berthing facilities in Aden, Djibouti and the Seychelles, and obtained exclusive rights for mineral exploration in 10,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean. New Delhi was caught by surprise when Sri Lanka’s then President Rajapaksa twice last year allowed a Chinese submarine to berth in Colombo, where he was proposing to lease land to China.
Chinese diplomatic efforts are not always successful, however, despite the economic and security assistance offered. Project loans offered by China are often not as ‘concessional’ as they are made out to be. For example, the Colombo Port City Project, which was enthusiastically welcomed by the Rajapaksa dispensation, was soon found to be a white elephant. In Myanmar, a number of projects, including pipelines, copper mines and hydroelectric power, have been put on hold or rejected. Moreover, there are credible reports of China permitting armed ethnic groups to operate across the Sino-Myanmar border, in the Shan and Kachin States. In neighbouring Bangladesh, the Chinese are finding that some of their proposals for investments in port and power facilities may well be rejected, as Japan has stepped in with far more attractive offers for port development, power plants and energy terminals.
The growth of Chinese power has caused concerns not only in Western capitals, but also in regional countries like Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines. India has to work for a broad consensus across the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, extending from the western Pacific to the south-western Indian Ocean in the face of Chinese ‘assertiveness’ on territorial and other issues. Balancing Chinese military power is even more complex. India is now regularly holding joint military exercises with the US and Japan. Maritime ties are expanding with littoral countries ranging from Australia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Seychelles, to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has recently spoken of strengthening his country’s naval potential in the wake of maritime boundary issues with China.
The Modi Government is leveraging its ties with the US more effectively, to deal with growing Chinese assertiveness. Spelling out a ‘Joint Strategic Vision’ for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean on January 15 2015, Prime Minister Modi and President Obama agreed that the use or threat of use of force to settle maritime disputes is inadmissible and that they would work out measures to enable ‘both nations to better respond to diplomatic, economic and security challenges in the region’.