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China and India at odds.

Byline: N.V. Subramanian, Special to Gulf News

Peaceable, focused on India's economic rise and aware that the country can ill-afford military tension at this juncture, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is quietly but desperately trying to prevent relations with China from deteriorating further. However, he is not being assisted in this by nationalist forces within, and the Chinese leadership is not being entirely successful in reigning in hawks in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Over the past few months, there have been provocations from the Chinese side along the 3,200 kilometre disputed India-China border, including air violations in Ladakh, PLA hooliganism among settled Ladakhi tribal populations in Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir, PLA incursions in Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims), and a Chinese-Pakistani joint-venture dam project in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which India lodged a protest against some days ago. Additionally, China blocked an Asian Development Bank loan to India because a small portion of it was earmarked for a watershed management project in Arunachal Pradesh and, tellingly, before the thirteenth round of Sino-Indian border talks last month, the Union Cabinet cleared funding for it internally.

Since India and China fought a war in 1962, relations have been fraught, despite peacemaking attempts by prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Singh. By recognising the Tibetan Autonomous Region as Chinese, Vajpayee hoped to win recognition for Arunachal Pradesh, but China merely adjusted online maps to show another previously disputed Sikkim state as India's - mostly for the purpose of resuming border trade. China is keen on acquiring Arunachal Pradesh, especially the Tawang tract where the sixth Dalai Lama was born, to strengthen its hold on the contentious Tibet region. The present Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit to Arunachal Pradesh has angered China, but India is not willing to put further curbs on him.

Because of China's opacity, it is difficult to determine whether the tensions on the border are the result of a power struggle - the PLA flexing its muscles to prove independence from the political leadership - or a show of strength to counter the impression of a weakened centre following the recent Uighur riots. When China is perceived to be weak on Taiwan, Tibet or the Uighur question, the leadership has had to take provocative action.

The Singh government has tended to take the Chinese civilian leadership at its word when it says that it wants peaceful relations, and that there is space for both India and China to rise. As such, it has either denied reports of Chinese incursions or played down such violations. However, the Indian military is in an unusually defiant mood. While confidence-building military exercises are planned in Ladakh and the government has bolstered Arunachal Pradesh's security with at least 60,000 mountain troops and two squadrons of Su-30 fighters, the armed forces are using the press to persuade the public that Chinese border violations should not be taken lightly. However, the political leadership's assessment is that any military tension with China would affect India's rise. As this article was being written, an internal meeting on China to be chaired by National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan was called off so as not to add to the growing media hysteria.

Currently, the Chinese military is superior to that of India's - at least in the eastern sector of the disputed India-China border. Deterrence-wise, India is robustly outclassed, with recently expressed doubts about its thermonuclear weapon tested in May 1998 adding to the nuclear imbalance. And there is no certainty that in a limited war with China, Pakistan would not open a second front.

The United States has tended to intervene to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan. But in the India-China border dispute, there is no third party mediation. The Singh government hopes that if it refrains from provoking China, tensions will somehow dissipate.

N.V.Subramanian is the editor of News Insight, and writes internationally on strategic affairs.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 24, 2009
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