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China’s challenge moves India to expect the worst

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — As tensions have risen between China and India in recent days and months, India is awash with predictions about China’s impending attack on India.

Most recently, it has been suggested that China will attack India by 2012 primarily to divert attention from its growing domestic troubles. This suggestion received wide coverage in the Indian media, which was more interested in sensationalizing the issue rather than scrutinizing the claims with the seriousness they deserved.

Meanwhile, the official Chinese media picked up the story and gave it another spin. It argued that while a Chinese attack on India is highly unlikely, a conflict between the two neighbors can occur in one scenario: an aggressive Indian policy toward China on the border dispute forcing China to use force. The Chinese media went on to speculate that the “China will attack India” line might just be a pretext for India’s deployment of more troops in the border areas.

This curious exchange reflects an undercurrent of uneasiness that exists between the two Asian giants as they continue their ascent in the global interstate hierarchy. Even as they sign documents with high-sounding words year after year, the distrust between the two is actually growing at an alarming rate. Economic cooperation and bilateral political as well as socio-cultural exchanges are at an all-time high.

Today, China is India’s largest trading partner. Yet this has done little to assuage their concerns with regard to each other’s intentions. The two sides are locked in a classic security dilemma where any action taken by one is immediately interpreted by the other as a threat to its own interests.

At the global level, the rhetoric is all about cooperation, and indeed the two sides have worked together on climate change, global trade negotiations as well as on demands for a restructuring of global financial institutions in view of the global economy’s shifting center of gravity.

At the bilateral level, however, it has reached the point where China has taken its territorial dispute with India to the Asian Development Bank and blocked an application by India for a loan that included development projects in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China continues to claim as part of its own territory.

Buoyed by the perception that the Obama administration plans to make its ties with China the centerpiece of its foreign policy in light of growing American economic dependence on Chinese exports and credit, China has displayed a distinctly aggressive stance vis-a-vis India. The suggestion by the Chinese to the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander that the Indian Ocean should be recognized as a Chinese sphere of influence has raised hackles in New Delhi.

China’s lack of support for the U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact, which China tried to block at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and its obstructionist stance in bringing the terror masterminds of last November’s carnage in Mumbai to justice have further strained ties.

Alarm is rising in India because of frequent and strident claims being made by China along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Indians have complained that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of Chinese intrusions into the Indian territory over the past two years, most of them along the border in regions of Arunachal Pradesh that China refers to as “Southern Tibet.”

China has upped the ante on the border issue. It protested against the Indian prime minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh last year, asserting its claims over the territory, but what has caught most observers of Sino-Indian ties by surprise is the vehemence with which Beijing has contested every single recent Indian administrative and political action in the state, even denying visas to Indian citizens of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Indian foreign minister was forced to go on record that the Chinese army “sometimes” intrudes on its territory, though he added that the issues were being addressed through established mechanisms. The recent rounds of boundary negotiations have been a disappointing failure with a growing perception in India that China is less than willing to adhere to earlier political understandings on how to address the boundary dispute. The rhetoric has degenerated to the extent that a Chinese analyst connected to China’s Ministry of National Defense recently claimed in an article that China could “dismember the so-called ‘Indian Union’ with one little move” into as many as 30 states.

India’s challenge remains formidable. It has not yet achieved the economic and political profile that China enjoys regionally and globally. But it gets increasingly bracketed with China as a rising power, emerging power or even a global superpower. India’s main security concern now is not the increasingly decrepit state of Pakistan, but an ever more assertive China, which is widely viewed in India as having a better ability for strategic planning.

China is viewed by India as a growing, aggressive nationalistic power whose ambitions are likely to reshape the contours of regional and global balance of power with deleterious consequences for Indian interests. It may well be that the recent hardening of the Chinese posture toward India is a function of its own sense of internal vulnerabilities, but that is hardly a consolation to Indian policymakers who must respond to an Indian public that increasingly wants their nation to assert itself in the region and beyond.

China’s all-weather friendship with Pakistan, its attempts to increase its influence in Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma, its persistent refusal to recognize parts of India such as Arunachal Pradesh, its lack of support for India’s membership on the U.N. Security Council and other regional and global organizations, its unwillingness to support the U.S.-India nuclear pact — all point toward China’s attempts at preventing the rise of India as a regional and global player of major import.

India, in response, is now trying to catch up with China by improving the infrastructure on its side of border areas. It has deployed two additional army divisions, heavy tanks and ramped up its air power in the region that is a bone of contention between India and China. In a major snub to China, India has declared that Dalai Lama is free to visit Arunachal Pradesh in November despite strong objections from Beijing.

China’s intentions vis-a-vis India may seem entirely peaceful at the moment, but that is largely irrelevant in the strategic scheme of things. A troubled history coupled with the structural uncertainties engendered by their simultaneous rise is propelling the two Asian giants into a trajectory that the two might find rather difficult to navigate in the coming years.

It is certainly in the interest of both India and China to stabilize their relationship by seeking out issues on which their interests converge, although strategic problems do not necessarily lend themselves to satisfactory solutions merely because they are desirable and in the interest of all.

While focusing on strengthening itself economically and militarily, India will also have to work proactively to achieve greater strategic balance in the region over the next few years if it wants to preserve and enhance its own interests. As of now, it is not clear if the Indian policymakers have found a way to do this.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is a visiting professor at IIM-Bangalore.