Engaging India to contain it

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — Managed competition is likely to define the relationship between the two demographic titans, India and China, in the years ahead, even as they seek to expand bilateral cooperation.

Chinese President Hu Jintao will be received warmly when he arrives in New Delhi on Nov. 20 after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum meeting in Hanoi. The visit will seek to showcase growing ties, but the underlying wariness and even suspicion of each other’s intentions will hardly be absent.

Hu’s tour will be high in banal expressions of friendly intent but low on enduring substance. Any accord signed will be no different than the ornamental agreement that marked the April 2005 visit of Premier Wen Jiabao. That vaunted agreement identifying six abstract “guiding principles” for a settlement of the Sino-Indian frontier disputes has actually taken the border talks backward. Despite 25 years of continuous border negotiations, India and China remain the only neighbors in the world not separated even by a mutually defined line of control.

Still, both are interested in reining in the competitive dynamics of their relationship so as to put the accent on competition. The proclaimed “India-China strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” remains devoid of content. The two sides can only advertise their fast-growing trade and official exchanges.

Their strategic dissonance is rooted not only in contrasting political ideals and quiet geostrategic rivalry, but also in Beijing’s relentless pursuit of a classical, Sun Tzu-style balance-of-power strategy. While seeking to present itself as a see-no-evil, do-no-evil state, China is zealously working to build up its power capabilities so as to engage the world on its own terms.

To avert the rise of a peer rival in Asia, it has sought to tie down India strategically according to policy summed up in three words: engagement with containment.

Hu’s India visit represents the engagement face of China’s strategy. But Hu’s very next stop — Pakistan — is directly linked to the containment part.

As underscored by Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s two visits to Beijing this year, Pakistan is seeking greater Chinese strategic assistance, including in completing a second plutonium-production reactor near Khushab. Hu’s visit is likely to yield a free-trade agreement and an accord to expand the Chinese-built Karakoram Highway that links the two countries through the areas of Kashmir that they control. China has already agreed to lay optic-fiber cable and consider building a railroad along this strategic highway, which has symbolized the Sino-Pakistani nexus since it opened in 1969.

The highlight of Hu’s Pakistan visit would be the opening of the Chinese-built Gwadar port, close to the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil supply passes.

Gwadar, a likely port of call for the Chinese Navy and already home to a Chinese listening post, is a central link in the emerging chain of Chinese forward-operating facilities on India’s periphery. With its petroleum and naval facilities, Gwadar is also intended to serve as a key base in China’s strategy to secure greater Persian Gulf energy resources.

In strategic terms, China’s role in setting up Gwadar as a deepwater cargo port and naval base is no less significant than its well-documented part in arming Pakistan with nuclear and missile capabilities. Designed as the endpoint of the new Trans-Karakoram Corridor linking China with the Arabian Sea, Gwadar is bound to have a strategic-multiplier effect. The Chinese-aided Dalbandin-Gwadar railway connects with the Karakoram Highway.

Hu is eager to add an energy component to the Trans-Karakoram Corridor. A memorandum of understanding has already been signed with Pakistan for “studies to build the energy corridor to China.” A Chinese state firm is examining building a pipeline to carry Gulf oil from Gwadar to western China — a route that will not only cut freight costs and supply time but also lower China’s reliance on U.S.-policed shipping lanes through the Malacca and Taiwan Strait. Pakistan has suggested that China access even Iranian gas through this route.

Hu, to avoid drawing attention to China’s role, may not visit Gwadar. But Chinese and Pakistani technicians are currently working overtime to complete the first phase of Gwadar by the time Hu arrives. Having bankrolled 80 percent of the phase-one costs, Beijing now plans to fund the building of a refinery, huge oil-reserve depots and a pipeline to Xinjiang from Gwadar.

The tribal insurrection in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, however, threatens to derail China’s ambitious plans for Gwadar, the scene of two separate shootings since 2004 targeting Chinese engineers.

Gwadar epitomizes the way China is quietly but determinedly encroaching on India’s strategic backyard by assembling a “string of pearls” in the form of ports, listening posts and naval agreements that stretch from Pakistan and Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Having already stepped up direct and surrogate pressure on India’s north, China is now threatening to challenge the dominant Indian role in the Indian Ocean.

China continues to make new moves — the development of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota harbor, an effort to gain greater naval and commercial access to the Chinese-aided Chittagong port in Bangladesh, and a growing role for Chinese security agencies at the Chinese-built Myanmar ports, including Kyaukypu and Thilawa.

Given its closed system, China has a proclivity to engage in actions counterproductive to its own interests. Just as the 1962 Chinese military invasion shattered India’s pacifism and laid the foundation for its political rise, the ongoing strategic squeeze of India is bound to bring about fundamental changes in Indian strategy.

Rather than move back to a more and more defensive posture, India will be compelled to exert naval power at choke points critical to its interests. Imperial China’s imperious plans could easily backfire.