reflections

Geopolitical Diary: A Revival Of Sino-Indian Tensions

6 MINS READJun 12, 2009 | 03:11 GMT
Tensions between China and India have intensified in recent days, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Thursday rejecting recent Indian claims concerning increased border incursions from China. He called for Indian officials and media to temper their language and work toward cooperative relations. Qin's comments followed repeated (and frequently misquoted) statements from Arunachal Pradesh state Governor J.J. Singh, who previously served as head of the Indian army. Singh, who has been an outspoken opponent of China's growing presence on Arunachal Pradesh's borders, claimed that India will deploy "two army divisions comprising 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers each" along with 155-mm guns, helicopters and unmanned aircraft to the Sino-Indian border "within a few years." Those comments touched off a string of anti-India editorials on Thursday in China's state-run Global Times newspaper, which covers international and domestic affairs and is widely distributed among China's research and policy communities. With headlines like "India's Unwise Military Moves," the paper criticized India's behavior and warned against challenging China on the border. One editorial included an unusual, condescending jab, saying that India might think it is doing Beijing a "huge favor simply by not joining the 'ring around China' established by the United States and Japan," but that China would not defer to New Delhi on territorial disputes out of "fear and gratitude" for India's restraint. Underscoring the tensions, the paper on the same day presented the results of an online survey conducted at huanqiu.com, showing that 90 percent of respondents considered India a threat to China. Every now and then, India and China will spend several days trading rhetorical jabs over long-standing territorial disputes: They disagree over the borders in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, in northwest India, and in the northeast region — along the Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim state borders abutting Tibet. Generally, local Indian politicians in the border regions, like J.J. Singh, and various opposition figures will sensationalize the Chinese threat in an attempt to get New Delhi's attention and advance their own political aims. China typically brushes the Indian comments aside and maintains that the two neighbors are working to resolve their differences peacefully. But this time, the Chinese are putting some energy into their response — warning India that there are real consequences to pushing this issue too hard. The invigorated Chinese response suggests that Beijing might be waking up to a shift in the Indian defense posture — one that calls for India to expand its military horizons beyond Pakistan and pay more attention to (what Indian policymakers perceive as) a dangerous Chinese encirclement of the Indian subcontinent. The Chinese threat is already deeply settled in the Indian psyche, but India's concerns have grown over alleged Chinese troop incursions and increased Chinese infrastructure development (both military and civilian) along the mountainous border. From the looks of it, the age-old Sino-Indian rivalry is coming alive again. But the Sino-Indian rivalry is a nebulous concept in and of itself. India and China are walled off from each other by the highest peaks of the Himalayas. This mountain wall essentially denies either power the ability to physically challenge the other. The two fought an inconclusive war in 1962, but quickly discovered that fighting at extremely high altitudes in rough mountain terrain was a futile exercise. They may have very little reason to fight, but they still have overlapping spheres of interests that can lead to exaggerated military perceptions on both sides of the Himalayan divide. Beijing's top security issue remains domestic threats to national stability and unity. Tibet is the Chinese buffer zone anchored by the Himalayas, and locking down this territory ranks high on Beijing's list of priorities. India has the power to shift the geopolitical balance should it decide to facilitate Tibetan exiles — the majority of whom are hosted on Indian soil — in supplying, training and rallying Tibetans inside China to rise up against the government. Naturally, the Chinese have long followed a policy to build up their presence and infrastructure along the Indian border with Tibet, but those actions have also done a good job of increasing Indian anxieties. China also runs into India in planning for its economic security. As Beijing grows more dependent upon international trade and imports of energy and raw materials, it has sought to expand its ability to defend those supply lines against potential disruption. One of the most critical supply lines runs through the Indian Ocean, from Africa and the Middle East. Theoretically, this places the Chinese supply routes at the mercy of Indian naval interdiction. And while New Delhi might have no intention of interrupting Chinese supplies, the capability to do so cannot be simply dismissed. As a result, Chinese companies have been heavily engaged in port expansion projects in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — all of which lie along this strategic trade route. From the Indian point of view, however, Chinese movements in these states are all part of a grand strategy by Beijing to encircle the subcontinent and choke off India's potential to become a global power. Indian defense planners also argue that while the military’s focus has been mainly on Pakistan, India’s chief rival to the west, the Chinese have been building up their military presence in the neglected northeast and moving to assume de facto control over the disputed region. In their eyes, it's time for India to play catch-up — and the way to start is by sending more forces to the east, to remind the Chinese of the seriousness of India’s territorial claims. Neither India nor China has an interest in actually coming to blows over this territory, and it remains unclear when India would even be ready to deploy a significant military contingent to the region. Still, perceptions on both sides of the border will fuel calls for military preparedness and political posturing. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivered a poetic jab to the Chinese last year, when he paid a symbolic visit to the state and referred to Arunachal Pradesh as "our Land of the Rising Sun" — a phrase also used to describe China's chief rival, Japan. Sensing India's gaze shifting to the east, China is now making an issue of the border dispute and wants New Delhi to know that it is prepared to respond in kind to any significant changes in the Indian defense posture. The dispute is getting noisier, and the border region is bound to get more crowded, but we don’t expect this to transform into a military conflict. Instead, the surrounding states of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar are the ones to watch closely. As tensions escalate between the Asian giants, this clash of threat perceptions runs a good chance of revving up some of the traditional Sino-Indian proxy battlegrounds in the region.

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