The India-China relationship has entered choppy waters due to a perceptible hardening in the Chinese stance. Anti-India rhetoric in the state-run Chinese media has intensified, even as China has stepped up military pressure along the disputed Himalayan frontier through frequent cross-border incursions. Beijing also has resurrected its long dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh.
The more muscular Chinese stance clearly is tied to the new US-India strategic partnership, symbolized by the nuclear deal and deepening military cooperation. As former US president George W. Bush declared in his valedictory speech, “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India.”
The Barack Obama administration, although committed to promoting that strategic partnership, has been reluctant to take New Delhi’s side in any of its disputes with Beijing. This has emboldened China to up the ante against India.
Indeed, the present pattern of border provocations, new force deployments and mutual recriminations is redolent of the situation that prevailed 47 years ago when China—taking advantage of the advent of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon—routed the unprepared Indian military in a surprise two-front aggression.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The new tensions are of recent origin. Until mid-2005, China was eschewing anti-India rhetoric and pursuing a policy of active engagement with India, even as it continued to expand its strategic space in southern Asia, to New Delhi’s detriment. In fact, when Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in April 2005, the two countries unveiled an important agreement identifying six broad principles to govern a border settlement.
But after the separate unveiling of the Indo-US defence framework accord and nuclear deal in 2005, the mood in Beijing perceptibly changed. That gave rise to a pattern that has become commonplace since: Chinese newspapers, individual bloggers, security think tanks and even officially blessed websites ratcheting up an “India threat” scenario.
A US-India military alliance has always been a strategic nightmare for the Chinese, and the ballyhooed Indo-US global strategic partnership, although it falls short of a formal military alliance, triggered alarm bells in Beijing. That raises the question whether New Delhi helped create the context, however inadvertently, for the new Chinese assertiveness by agreeing to participate in US-led “multinational operations”, share intelligence and build military-to-military interoperability (key elements of the defence framework accord) and to become the US’ partner on a new “global democracy initiative”—a commitment found in the nuclear agreement-in-principle.
While Beijing cannot hold a veto over New Delhi’s diplomatic or strategic initiatives, couldn’t India have avoided creating an impression that it was potentially being primed as a new junior partner (or spoke) in the US’ hub-and-spoke global alliance system?
India—with its hallowed traditions of policy independence—is an unlikely candidate to be a US ally in a patron-client framework. But the high-pitched Indian and American rhetoric that the new partnership represented a tectonic shift in geopolitical alignments apparently made Chinese policymakers believe that India was being groomed as a new Japan or Australia to the US—a perception reinforced by subsequent arrangements and defence transactions.
New Delhi failed to foresee that its rush to forge close strategic bonds with Washington could provoke greater Chinese pressure and that, in such a situation, the US actually would offer little comfort to India. Consequently, India finds itself in a spot.
For one, Beijing calculatedly has sought to badger India on multiple fronts: military—Chinese cross-border incursions nearly doubled in one year, from 140 in 2007 to 270 in 2008, according to Indian defence officials, with “no significant increase”, to quote the foreign secretary, in the 2009 level; diplomatic—for instance, strongly protesting a prime ministerial visit to Arunachal Pradesh and issuing visas on a separate sheet to Jammu and Kashmir residents; and multilateral—launching a diplomatic offensive to undercut Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, as at the Asian Development Bank. For another, the US—far from coming to India’s support—has shied away from even cautioning Beijing against any attempt to forcibly change the existing territorial status quo. Indeed, on a host of issues—from the Dalai Lama to the Arunachal Pradesh issue—Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing.
That, in effect, has left India on its own. The Obama administration isn’t unfriendly to India. It just doesn’t see India as able to make an important difference to US geopolitical interests. As his secretary of state Hillary Clinton did in February, US President Obama is undertaking an Asia tour that begins in Japan and ends in China—the high spot—while skipping India.
But playing to India’s weakness for flattery, Obama is to massage its ego by honouring it with his presidency’s first state dinner. Such a glitzy affair jibes with Washington’s current business focus on India: Promoting big-ticket export items such as nuclear power reactors and conventional weapons, while prodding New Delhi to be helpful on the Af-Pak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) front.
To be sure, Obama wants to advance the Indo-US partnership, as part of which New Delhi has placed arms purchase orders, according to the Indian ambassador to the US, worth a staggering $3.5 billion just last year. But he also has signalled that such a relationship with India will not be at the expense of Washington’s fast-growing ties with Beijing. The US needs Chinese capital inflows as much as China needs US consumers—an economic interdependence of such import that snapping it would amount to mutually assured destruction (MAD). Even politically, China, with its international leverage, counts for more in US policy than New Delhi or Tokyo. Indeed, as the US-China relationship acquires a wider and deeper base in the coming years, the strains in some of the US’ existing military or strategic tie-ups in Asia will become pronounced.
Against that background, it is no surprise that Washington now intends to abjure elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including any joint military drill in Arunachal Pradesh or trilateral naval manoeuvres with India and Japan. In fact, Washington is quietly charting a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal Pradesh issue, just as its ally Australia has done rather publicly.
Left to fend for itself both on the China and Af-Pak fronts, New Delhi has decided to steer clear of any potential aggravation or confrontation with Beijing. Discretion, after all, is the better part of valour. India, however, cannot afford to be out on a limb. The Indo-US partnership has turned into a great opportunity for Washington to win multi-billion dollar Indian contracts and co-opt India in strategic arrangements, without a concomitant obligation to be on India’s side or to extend political help on regional and international issues.
Joint military exercises indeed have become a basis to make India buy increasing quantities of US arms so as to build compatibility and interoperability between the two militaries. Even counterterrorism is emerging as a major area of defence sales to India, despite the US doing little to help dismantle Pakistan’s state-run terror complex against India or bring the real masterminds of the Mumbai attacks to justice.
With Obama pursuing a Sino-centric Asia policy, and with China-friendly heads of government ensconced in Australia, Japan and Taiwan, it is apparent that New Delhi’s diplomatic calculations have gone terribly wrong. In its exuberance, the government had convinced itself that the way for India to carve out a larger international role was to bandwagon with the US, instead of following China’s example and rapidly developing comprehensive national power.
Yet the present muscular Chinese approach, paradoxically, reinforces the very line of Indian thinking that engendered greater Chinese assertiveness—that India has little option other than to align with the US. Such thinking blithely ignores the limitations of the Indo-US partnership arising from the vicissitudes and compulsions of US policy. Washington indeed is showing through its growing strategic cooperation with China and Pakistan that it does not believe in exclusive strategic partnership in any region.
India can wield international power only through the accretion of its own economic and military strength. In fact, the only way China can be deterred from making a land grab across the line of control or nibbling further at Indian territories is for India to have sufficient nuclear and missile capability. So, augmenting India’s deterrent capabilities to credible but minimal levels has to be priority No. 1. A stable, mutually beneficial equation with China is more likely to be realized if there is no trans-Himalayan military imbalance or Indian security dependency on a third party.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan (2006). Comment at email@example.com