China’s latest protest, provoked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tawang 10 days earlier on October 3, was tougher than similar protests lodged routinely in the past. The admonition to India ‘to take China’s solemn concerns seriously and…. not stir up trouble at the disputed area ..’ contains the unmistakable suggestion of a warning.
The protest coincided with the free exercise of their democratic franchise by the people of Arunachal Pradesh. More importantly, this precedes the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in early November. The warning leaves little room for doubt that, in the immediate term, China will ratchet up the pressure on India in a determined effort to scuttle the Dalai Lama’s visit.
China also has long-term objectives and perceives the current global geopolitical environment as conducive to formalising its sphere of influence. The latest protest comes in the wake of steadily increasing Chinese pressure on India over the past couple of years. These are also intended to test India’s national resolve.
Progress in the border talks, protracted over almost three decades, has been glacial with China exhibiting no inclination for forward movement. The incidence of incursions by Chinese troops across the entire length of the border has increased. This coincides with a comprehensive build-up of defences across the border, construction of new airfields and a railway in Tibet and, modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, whose doctrine is to ‘win short-duration local wars under hi-tech informatised conditions’.
The largest-ever air-land integrated joint military exercise ‘Kuaye-2009’ (Stride-2009), the conclusion of which was timed to coincide with China’s 60th anniversary celebrations on October 1, demonstrated this capability. Some 50,000 troops and 60,000 vehicles from four of China’s seven Military Regions participated in the exercise, underscoring the country’s rapid power projection capability and showing that it envisages a possible war on its periphery. China’s official media has also published a number of articles critical of India in the past few months.
It has simultaneously reopened territorial issues hitherto considered settled. India’s external affairs minister was surprised, for example, by his Chinese counterpart’s statement in May 2008 that Sikkim is a disputed area. This after the matter had been resolved during the visit of former Prime Minister Vajpayee to Beijing in 2005 and official Chinese maps, reversing a half century-old policy, began depicting Sikkim as part of India since 2006. Chinese diplomatic missions began issuing visas on pieces of paper to residents of Jammu and Kashmir indicating that China considers the state as disputed. Tourist maps distributed in China now reportedly depict Kashmir as ‘independent’.
China adopted other policies that India cannot view as friendly. These include sustained opposition, in close collusion with Pakistan, to the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. After the advent of the Obama administration, China has revived efforts to portray the agreement as violating the principles of nuclear non-proliferation. Beijing’s opposition to expansion of the UN Security Council, which would allow India a permanent seat on the Council, is unyielding. Apart from declining visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh, China objected to the Asian Development Bank granting aid to an energy project in Arunachal Pradesh and has warned it will object in future too.
There was a suggestion in the media that Chinese contacts with insurgent groups in the northeast have resumed. China continues to enhance military and nuclear collaboration with Pakistan and has agreed to assist Pakistan with a new nuclear plant and, during Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani’s visit to Beijing earlier this month, it also concluded additional military cooperation agreements.
Beijing has been emboldened by its successes during the past two years, especially on the Tibet and Taiwan issues. Tibet, which is politically, militarily and strategically important for China, has been a long-standing irritant because of the support to the Dalai Lama from US and other Western powers.
The award of the Nobel Peace Prize enhanced the Dalai Lama’s international stature and facilitated his building an effective platform compelling China to open negotiations with him. The global economic crisis, however, has provided China with an opportunity to flex its strength and adopt a tougher stance. The weakened economies of the Dalai Lama’s major supporters gave heft to Beijing’s diplomatic push. Last October, coinciding with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s pitch for infusion of Chinese funds into the IMF, British foreign secretary David Miliband reversed Britain’s 90-year-old stand and officially jettisoned the concept of suzerainty as outdated, thereby calling into question the 1914 Agreement with Tibet. He declared Tibet part of the People’s Republic of China.
France, a staunch supporter of the Dalai Lama’s cause whose stance has irked Beijing, was the next to fall in line. Chinese President Hu Jintao declined to meet Nicholas Sarkozy on the sidelines of the G20 early this year till France clarified its position on the Tibet issue. France capitulated, declaring that its official position remained unchanged and that it does not support Tibetan independence.
The US, whose economy has been hit hard by the global economic crisis, is acutely conscious that China holds over $1 trillion in US Treasury and other Bonds, has foreign exchange reserves exceeding $2 trillion and, together with the US, accounts for 30 per cent of the world’s GDP. The Obama administration views its options with China as limited and has soft-pedalled issues like human rights and Tibet. American sensitivity to China on the Tibet issue was again recently highlighted when Obama declined to receive the Dalai Lama in the White House, for the first time since 1991, so as not to upset China prior to his visit in November.
These developments will encourage Beijing to exert pressure on India to prevent the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang and impose severe restraints on him. If Beijing succeeds it will be a precedent for considerably greater pressure on India on a range of issues, including Tibet.
About the author:
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India