The Pentagon report, Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, 2010, has opened a fresh chapter of India-China friction. The report had let on that China had moved CSS 5 Medium Range Ballistic Missiles to Tibet. Following on its heels, the latest headline is that India has cancelled a few military confidence-building engagements with China in wake of China not granting a visa for the visit of the head of India's Northern Army.
Earlier Indian reservations on Chinese behavior stemmed from its attempt to derail a $2.9 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank meant for water projects in Arunachal Pradesh. This was of a piece with its discreet lobbying against India's access to nuclear technology and material at the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Geneva in 2008. Prompted by the media's misreporting of mutual patrolling up to respective claim lines as Chinese 'intrusions', India has taken to calling these 'transgressions' lately.
Minor grouses such as that China has taken to issuing stapled visas to Indians from J&K apart, the major Indian concern is the 'string of pearls' strategy through which China is seemingly circling India by constructing ports in the Indian Ocean that could potentially have military use later.
China for its part is miffed at the unpublicised meeting of the Dalai Lama with the Prime Minister last fortnight. It had raised objections to the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang last year and also to that of the PM. It is also rankling perhaps from India taking objection to China's work on infrastructure in Gilgit in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. India is lobbying with the NSG to block two Chinese nuclear reactors bound for Pakistan. But more significantly, China is wary of India's drawing closer to the US signified by the nuclear deal with the US in 2007. The deal has since culminated in the Parliament passing the Nuclear Liability Bill, paving the way for closer ties in the run up to the Obama visit in November.
China sees itself as hemmed in by the US' presence as an 'Asian' power. Hillary Clinton upset China when she raised the issue of territorial claims at the ASEAN regional forum in July, referring to China's claim of 'indisputable sovereignty' over the South China Sea. The US Pacific Command chief has claimed that the US is mindful of Chinese 'assertiveness'. The report to Congress mentions that Chinese military modernisation that attempts to deny US access to Asia through acquiring a ballistic missile capability to hit US' giant air craft carriers. This is the latest twist to the long standing trans-Pacific disagreement along several dimensions such as North Korea's nuclear ambitions and US interests in Taiwan.
India risks being sucked into the incipient global rivalry between a hegemon and a rising challenger. Thus far it has attempted to maintain relations with both states without reference to the proximity or otherwise of the second. In this, for example, India not only exercised its military regularly with the US, but also has had two rounds of exercises with China. However, a view is emerging that while not alienating China there is a case for India to lean towards the US.
China sees itself as hemmed in by the US' presence as an 'Asian' power.
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Alongside, India has been upgrading its military capability in the east. It has moved from what it terms 'dissuasive defence' to 'active deterrence'. This means a move away from conventional 'deterrence by denial' to an ability to punish, based on two additional mountain divisions. These are under raising presently as part of four to be raised to eventually form part of an offensive 'strike' corps for mountains. This is coupled with infrastructure development, specifically 72 strategic roads along the border. The idea is to bring home to China that India too is a rising power.
The current low ebb may owe to China warning India tacitly against explicitly weighing in on the side of the US. It has created a two-front problem for India in arming Pakistan in both nuclear and missile delivery fields. It may now be keeping India's focus eastwards so as to bail out its friend Pakistan, passing through a period of uncertainty. It is constantly balancing India in its own backyard in its relations with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The message is that India has its vulnerabilities, and these could be aggravated at will.
India needs to borrow a page out of the Chinese success story. Ever since 1978, China has attempted to maintain a stable environment to continue on the growth path. It has resolved its border problems with all states and placed others, such as with India, on the back burner. It has simultaneously raised its military capabilities to eventually be able to break into the superpower league.
India is in a similar position. It requires stability so as to remain on the growth trajectory. In case it is displaced or distracted, then it would not be able to cope with its monumental problems, leave alone match China or be a useful partner for the US. It therefore needs to stay out of the China-US equation.
The argument to the contrary doing the rounds is that India needs to get closer to the US since it needs technology, both civilian and military, and capital. The US would tacitly oblige since it would help balance China, but would extract a price in terms of strategic autonomy from India. Some believe that this is a price worth paying, while others believe that such proximity would make the US dependent on India and therefore would strengthen autonomy. More importantly, it would ensure that the magic 10 per cent growth figure is met. Given such growth, India would be able to arm itself, reorder itself internally and get its periphery to bandwagon. This is a seductive visualisation of the future.
The choice not offered by those making these arguments is whether India can stay non-aligned. India has inclined towards the US as a hedge against China. But China looms as a threat to India to the extent India seems to incline towards the US. Therefore, if India was to stay non-aligned or equidistant, then it gains time to protect its national interest of stability for economic growth. China then would not need to prop up Pakistan as their proxy either. This would give India the space of about a decade or a generation it needs to set its house in order. Greater distance from the US may entail a slower rate of growth, but it would be growth that would be certain.
Even while India tells China when to lay off, it needs to revisit why the relationship is as it is. Non-alignment may serve our interests once again.