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China Keeping India Busy or Is It Worried?

September 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Analysis, foreign policy, geopolitics

The title says it all. In its quest to pursue its global aims, China is keeping India tied to the pole by needling her in a geopolitical bind while maintaining a straight face. The discussions in various posts over the last week brought out Chinese dynamics in PakistanBurma and Nepal. This post also brings in the Sri Lankan narrative. Apparently, the two regional heavy weights are busy shadow boxing in South Asia with India kind of getting bitten by a China phobia. In strategic circles, Chindia is a four-letter word.

60 years on, there is nothing to show for these border disputes. Dutifully, the Indians, Pakistanis and the Chinese glare at each other – over colonial border issues. These border issues are less thanperipheral to our nations. We have allowed the past to hold our future as a hostage.

The pace with which China is getting actively involved in economic and military activity in the sub continent is a reminder that the Dragon wants to spread its signature across the continent and the Indian Ocean. The philosophy of five fingers and a string of pearls has long been nursed by Indian analysts. Despite volumes of literature being churned out on the subject, there is no tangible action institutionally to tackle the troubles spawned out by this Chinese maneuvering. Of late though, there is a growing awareness of this Chinese influence as India tries to catch up in Nepal, Burma ,Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This though appears to be too little too late, especially when we have handed over the initiative in each of these countries to China. Then there is the added problems of the “all weather friend” attached to China in all these countries operating counter to Indian interests. The previous posts on Pakistan,  BangladeshNepal, and Burma are indicative of the space we have lost to China in South Asia including the Indian Ocean.

A recent issue of  The Economist quotes Brajesh Mishra,  former Indian national security advisor: Its (China’s) main agenda is to keep India preoccupied with events in South Asia so it is constrained from playing a more important role in Asian and global affairs’. But with or without China, India does embroil herself with her South Asian neighbours. Recent history indicates disputes with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A greater game is unfolding through a China Pakistan ploy to destabilise India as per K Subrahmanyam. “Both countries are interested in fragmenting India. Both have tried to encourage extremist and secessionist groups within the country in J&K, the North-east and the Maoist areas. It is therefore natural for China and Pakistan to attempt to ensure that US President Barack Obama‘s forthcoming visit to India does not take the Indo-US relationship further forward”. China wants to duplicate the Indo-US nuclear deal by offering two more reactors to Pakistan in defiance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines.

Then there is the feedback from these countries being subjected to this regional rivalry. This media report in Sri Lanka on the eve of visit of the Army Chief General VKSingh is largely reflective of how this shadow boxing is perceived in the region:

“China two weeks ago officially became the world’s second biggest economy, overtaking Japan. India last week announced an 8.8 percent economic growth in the last three months and is expected to reach 9 percent by the end of the year. Indian economic growth could touch 10 per cent in the next couple of years and may even beat China in the next four years, Dr. Kaushik Basu Chief Economic Advisor of the Indian Finance Ministry was quoted in The Hindu, last week.

These spurts in economic growth have made the once poverty stricken Asian giants to be considered the two leading economic superpowers of the 21st Century — if not in military terms — influencing and dominating countries near and far reminiscent of the Western colonial empires such as Britain, France and Germany did in the 18th  and 19th Centuries.”

While the official circles discredit the “encirclement theory” by the Chinese, there is a growing realization in the strategic community of growing Chinese influence in the region. Reports of growing military and specifically naval cooperation with Burma as exemplified last month by port calls in Burma by Chinese war ships indicate an enhanced presence in the Indian Ocean region by the Chinese Navy. Hambantota is also a cause for concern. General Singh’s visit comes  ahead of trips to Colombo by defence secretary Pradeep Kumar and foreign minister S.M. Krishna . This signals Indian keenness to regain lost ground in Sri Lanka – a ground lost due to ethnic characteristic of Sri Lanka’s war on LTTE in the face of domestic opposition.

The Sino Indian rivalry is, apparently, largely driven by the PLA where in the opaque but not monolithic CMC considers India as a potential threat to it’s interests in the Indian Ocean region. Needling India on Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh ties down India and suits domestic nationalistic fervor while pleasing Pakistan. Amongst all the theories doing rounds, this appears most plausible as it keeps India in check militarily while allowing China to continue with unbridled trade with India and through the Indian Ocean. As per Chinese experts, India intrudes into many of the issues the military sees as important: Tibet, Pakistan, Myanmar and naval security. The latter is rising Chinese strategic concern, writes Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, because Beijing faces “an unprecedented reliance on the seas for China’s economic well-being”.

The Economist in an article titled “A Himalayan Rivalry” last month articulates the mulltidimensional and complex contours of relationship between the two neighbours. Of interest, apart from the routine boundary and water disputes, is the theory of India being persued by America as a bulwark against China. This worries Chinese the most and so they too have gone on supporting all India neighbours economically and militarily to complete the strategic encirclement of India. While some experts rubbish this theory, there is a lot of substance in the argument as evident from Chinese actions in the region. The theory of encirclement can be played in a variety of ways depending on who is looking. While India feels encircled by China, China feels encircled by America. This aspect was covered in an earlier article on Encirclement. Then there are the growing Chinese worries of increased American influence in Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia to counter Chinese interests.

Pertinent amongst the Chinese fears are America’s historical records, since World War II, of strangulating it’s rival’s energy needs – be it Japan or Iraq. China fears a similar fate and thus has resolved its Malacca dilemmas through Pakistan and Burma. China’s economic rise as the world’s largest cheap labour platform has necessitated a vast expansion of its imports of raw materials from all corners of the globe. More than half its vital oil and gas is imported, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. For this reason, China is determined to secure its sea routes across the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea by building a blue water navy. The US is just as determined to prevent this happening, and to maintain its own naval predominance. However these indirectly or directly impige on Indian interests in the region and thus the cycle of animosity and jostling for influence intensifies.

China appears to be acting out of insistence of its military to keep India engaged regionally while it tackles the American influence in the region. My vote is in favour of a China attempting to de isolate itself from a larger encirclement while encircling India – a game that will never end. As Subrahmanyam says”

Times have changed, as has the international strategic milieu. Even while retaining Russia as a friend in the Asian context, India has to develop a new balance of power equation to deal with the challenge from China and Pakistan not merely to our external security but to our national development as a pluralistic, secular and democratic nation.

India too has its ancient strategic wisdom, preached in the Panchatantra, Hitopadesa andArthasastra, encompassing sama (cooperation), dhana (buying up), bedha (causing division) and dhanda (use of force). It is time to invoke that ancient wisdom and devise an appropriate international strategy to counter the Chinese-Pakistani challenge.

This Indian ability to call the China Pakistan bluff through artful statecraft  is critical to the present regional equation.

Related Articles

Q+A: What’s behind India and China’s diplomatic spats (reuters.com)

India’s PM says China’s territorial ambition must be challenged (telegraph.co.uk)

 India PM warns China wants foothold in South Asia (reuters.com)

India’s deals with Sri Lanka heighten stakes in ‘Great Game’ with Beijing (guardian.co.uk)

 India monitoring China’s intention in Indian Ocean, says Krishna (thehindu.com)


10 Responses to “China Keeping India Busy or Is It Worried?”
  1. Team SAI says:

    Coinciding with this analysis, comes greater intel of China spreading it’s reach from mediterranean sea via Iran and to Burma through rail and road transport corridors in a piece by C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express of today. A reminder that the Dragon, unmindful of the encirclement theory is continuing its quest for energy security which axiomatically enables it to change the geopolitics of Middle East and South East Asia while keeping South Asia engaged through Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

    Simultaneosly, NY Times brings up a story of building “Strategic Trust” between US and China to offset the encirclement theory, militarily and economically.

    Brigadier SK Chatterji has this piece in Rediff mail news spanning ramifications of China’s string of Pearls theory, if there is one.

    Simultaneously Harsh V Pant believes that China poses a challenge to India in the short and medium term because in the long term we are all dead. Makes an interesting read.

  2. Chetan Arora says:

    It is amazing how despite such insights India sits lost in the geopolitical map when it comes to China. Touche.

  3. Chanakya says:

    The South Asian region resting on the Indian Ocean has always been a focus for all powers to gain land and sea dominance over the area. It is nothing to be unduly warned of. The string of pearls theory is a myth fabricated by the West to nudge India into investing in countermeasures, which it is. There actually is a battle for resources afoot as C Raja Mohan brings out.

    Hyperventilating on the possible future conflict scenarios is a brainchild of the Western think tanks and must be taken with a pinch of salt. They, while being embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan want someone to take care of China for them and we are dutifully obliging in words if not in deeds.

  4. Amit Asthana says:

    Robert Kaplan argues as to why the US should embrace—rather than fear—the next superpower.

    “China is a long way from having a two-ocean navy. It does give significant amounts of military and economic aid to Indian Ocean littoral countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma, and is involved in port building projects in all these places. But whether these projects evolve into overt naval bases for the Chinese is highly questionable. More likely, port authorities from third countries will end up running these harbors. And China will be careful not to provoke India, with whom its relations are already quite delicate. What’s more likely to happen – and this is a clue to power relationships as a whole in this new century – is that rather than official Cold War-era style military bases, navies and air forces like US and China’s will have subtle access agreements, whose use will depend upon the health of the bilateral relationships in question.

    True, we must be vigilant. We should follow China’s military rise closely, and have plans to confront China in the unlikely event of asymmetrical attacks at sea. A subtle cold war in the Indian and Pacific oceans with China is not out of the question sometime in the 21st century. We should hold Beijing’s feet to the fire on numerous trade and human rights issues. But we must not panic. And we should not assume that the future is necessarily linear. The fact that China’s economy has been growing exponentially for decades now does not mean it will continue thus. Because its government has no unifying philosophy beyond continued economic growth, China is prone to internal unrest in the event of a downturn or Dubai-style unraveling. And that could push it toward assertive nationalism as a way to distract its angry multitudes. Then we might panic. But not now, and not yet.”

    India needs to be prepared to face all contingencies but not panic.

  5. Smith Hubert says:

    It is amazing to analyze that rise of China is not being taken seriously enough by some commentators. It is not a Western ploy to keep India engage China but a self serving interest of India to keep China and Pakistan off their backs. There are ominous signs of China asserting itself regionally both economically and globally. India needs to take care of its own interests. The West can take care of their own.

  6. Anonymous says:

    China is clear on both focus and pursuit of her national interest. It has a long term perspective that it seems to be following with a modicum of success. Whats wrong with that? Why should success achieved in following that national interest be seen by our pundits as a point scored against us?

    I am not clear why this is so.

    Myanmar begged us for long to take its gas. We did not react. China stepped into the void with alacrity. We have also messed up Bangladesh gas…

    Myanmar asked us for weapons. We sent them recycled stuff. Justified? China to blame if it provides a better deal?

    Sri Lanka first offered Hambantotta to us. We dithered. China stepped in.

    We talk of encirclement.

    We have now been offered Hambantotta Phase 2. Will we accept that?

    China has listening posts in Myanmar…Have we thought of setting up similar posts in Ladakh, Tawang, Walong, A and N, Maldives? Why not?!!

    Nepal, Bangla Desh, the tale is repeated. We dither; China steps in. We then talk darkly of encirclement.
    Anything stopping us making Port Blair like Singapore? Commands the Malacca Straits completely. Dominates oil sup from West Asia to East Asia, Australia, SE Asia. Andanman and Nicobar command!…Could strangle 9 Degree Channel traffic if we did. Have we plans?!!!

    We could monitor Suez and the Gulf ports as no one else (except USA). Do we?

    We could extend our clout till Indonesian and just outside Australian waters. Have we planned to do so? China to blame if it steps in?

    I wonder.

    Our Perspective Planning, Civil-Military partnership for defence, inter and intra Govt coordination for nationally critical projects is close to ZERO. So is our infrastructure building capability in border areas which is in an unholy mess, with the prominent issue being slippages, lack of funding, keeping the Army out of the monitoring loop.

    China to blame?

  7. Deepika Rane says:

    China is concerned about India’s growing strategic ties with the United States.

    Several analysts consider the 2008 civilian nuclear deal as a turning point in ties not only between India and the United States, but also indirectly impacting relations with China. China saw it as part of a U.S. move to build India into a strategic counterweight.

    Beijing, in retaliation, has offered to build new nuclear powered reactors for Pakistan, despite global concerns of nuclear proliferation.

    China and India also compete for global resources, especially energy supplies, to power their growing economies.

    The theory of string of pearls, whatever that means, is to keep India tied to the region and check its global ambitions. What is worrying in all this is that China has now begun to wake up from the “peaceful rise” to rhetorical assertions after overtaking Japan as the second largest economy.

  8. Manish Deshpande says:

    Too much is being made of the Chinese rise and its recent assertive behaviour. Yes there is cause to be concerned but there is no need to panic. Look at some of these possiblities.

    Eventually, if all goes well, China would want to build a two-ocean navy – covering the Pacific and the Indian Ocean (a development that would signal China’s rise as a great military power to go along with its economic clout); and that it intends this projection of power to be benign.

    But China is a long way from having a two-ocean navy. It does give significant amounts of military and economic aid to Indian Ocean littoral countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma, and is involved in port building projects in all these places. But whether these projects evolve into overt naval bases for the Chinese is highly questionable. More likely, port authorities from third countries will end up running these harbors. And China will be careful not to provoke India, with whom its relations are already quite delicate. What’s more likely to happen – and this is a clue to power relationships as a whole in this new century – is that rather than official Cold War-era style military bases, navies and air forces like America and China’s will have subtle access agreements, whose use will depend upon the health of the bilateral relationships in question.

    For China to have a blue ocean capability there is time – lots of it. The needling on tactical issues should be taken as a ploy on Pakistan’s behalf. To that extent this bitter sweet relationship will continue asking for us to keep the guard up but not panic unduly. And yes China is worried on various counts – main being the Indo US strategic relationship as a counter to Chinese adventurism in the Indian Ocean – if any.

    • mah says:

      Whilst the tension between India and China has been a boon for domestic indian media outlets and diplomatic wags, what has gone unnoticed in this fog is China is number 2 export destination, and the number one source of imports.

      This remarkable achievement shows that trade between the two is the source of some seriously growing economic activity, and perhaps the only serious subject of discussion between the two gaints.

      So regardless of what Indo-US relationship has been over the last 60 years, it is the arrival of China that is fueling Indian economic activity like none other.

      • Team SAI says:


        Read the recent posts on the site to understand that while China accounts for 20% of our trade imbalance it is flexing its economic and military muscle in the region which needs to be checked.

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