As New Delhi resists China’s efforts to marginalise India, it needs to be concerned about Chinese designs along its northern border.
The Sino-Indian relations have raced along two simultaneous tracks, unfortunately, around the same time: one forward and another backward.
The forward journey
The most significant positive development in the Sino-Indian relations after 1962 was China’s recognition of Sikkim as a part of India in 2003. It was followed by the opening of the Nathu La pass for trade in 2006. In 2007 India and China held their first ever joint military exercise. Several rounds of border talks were held in the meantime. Further, the Sino-Indian trade boomed from US $ 10 billion in 2004 to almost US $ 60 billion in 2010.
The backward journey:
In the latter half of 2007, the reports of repeated incursions by Chinese army along the borders of Arunachal Pradesh, Leh, Ladakh and Sikkim started to trickle. The cases of Chinese incursions into Indian territory increased in 2008, and in 2009, the numbers further catapulted.
In 2010, it was no more about stray military incursions. The Sino-Indian relations was strained to the limits when China denied permission to Lt Gen B S Jaswal, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Udhampur-based Northern Command in August, 2010. The reason China gave was: “he comes from ‘sensitive’ Jammu and Kashmir, which China has long considered as ‘disputed territory’”.
China also invited India’s protest when it deployed 7000-11000 of its army in the Gilgit area of Pak Occupied Kashmir to build high-speed rail and road links. In retaliation, India put on hold visits of Chinese military officials and the government said that China must be sensitive to its concern. That put to an end to the hard earned warmth in the Sino-Indian relations.
The US angle
The lingering question is what caused China to derail the otherwise seemingly pleasant Sino-Indian relations?
There are many factors behind this but a hushed up reason was because of the growing warmth in the US-India ties. Beijing couldn’t tolerate the heat of Indo-US warmth. Ma Jiali of a Beijing-based Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) recently told a magazine, “China wants India to follow an independent foreign policy.”
According to many Indian experts as well, Beijing views India’s increasing partnership with the US as a threat. In a recent article in a journal, the former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran accepted the US factor as a possible cause. “The US understood that even though India could never be an ally, it would nevertheless pursue, in its own interest, policies that would create a strong countervailing presence in the region supportive of the US objectives,” he was quoted in the journal.
One can hold different views about Chinese designs on India and whether India should have improved its ties with the US or not. But, whether our foreign policy’s independence should adhere to Chinese foreign policy’s satisfaction itself smells rot. After all China itself is improving its ties with the US.
Border dreams of China
Ginsburg and Mathos in their book Communist China and Tibet written after the Sino-Indian War in 1964 states: ‘He who holds Tibet dominates the Himalayan piedmont; he who dominates the Himalayan piedmont threatens the Indian subcontinent; and he who threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have all of South-East Aisa within his reach, and all of Asia.’
China seems to have learnt the lessons rather single mindedly.
There is a noteworthy pattern in China’s behaviour towards India for a long time which shouldn’t go unnoticed. In the 50s Mao Ze Dong defined Tibet as the palm which had five fingers – Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. China’s activities in Tibet do not indicate any transition from Mao’s definition. As for Ladakh and Arunachal, the controversies keep cropping up; at times through incursions, and at others through building of roads. Also, China successfully opposed a loan proposal for Arunachal Pradesh early this year at the Asian Development Bank. China has tried hard in recent years to engage Nepal and Bhutan.
The reality is that China never lost its focus along its Himalayan south. It kept working aggressively on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway even while it was signing papers of accepting Sikkim as India’s part. In the next four years, it plans to link Lhasa with Xigaze or Shigatse, the second largest city in the southwestern Tibet. It plans to further extend it to the Chumbi Valley (Tibet-Sikkim border) and then to the Brahmaputra’s Great Bend (near the border with Arunachal Pradesh). China is already carrying out feasibility studies for a 400-km line from Xigaze to Nyalam from where Kathmandu would be just about 120 km away. China is not going to let the plan remain on paper.
It is hard to believe that India would have enjoyed a perfectly harmonious relationship with the Middle Kingdom even if it had left the US altogether. It is not India’s ties with the US but India’s status in the world arena that will determine the dimensions of Sino-Indian relationship. India would only do well for itself to strengthen its position. The peace in the border states like Sikkim owes it to the halo of power and strength that New Delhi is able to build around it. And the aura, this time, can’t have Nehruvian rhetoric as its role model.