- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

NEW DELHI At a time of growing U.S.-Indian strategic engagement, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's unusually conciliatory tone during his visit to India last month reflected Beijing's hope to decelerate that process by emphasizing areas of potential Sino-Indian cooperation.

China is suddenly signaling its intent to be more responsive to Indian concerns in an effort to dissuade New Delhi from building a close military relationship with the United States. Its overtures to India come as the Asian strategic landscape is being rapidly transformed after September 11 to China's disadvantage.

By spearheading the anti-terrorism campaign, the United States has strengthened its strategic role from Central Asia to Southeast Asia. It is setting up long-term military bases in Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan; it intends to stay strategically engaged in Pakistan; and it has returned to the Philippines with its special forces.

The fast-changing strategic scene not only undercuts Chinese ambitions to dominate Asia, but also puts greater pressure on the country's Leninist rulers as the triumvirate of Jiang Zemin, Li Peng and Zhu Rongji prepares to retire one by one by the end of next year.

Mr. Jiang, however, is expected to continue as head of China's most powerful institution, the Central Military Commission.

Despite their heavy strategic investments in Pakistan, the Chinese now find themselves supplanted there by the Americans. Such has been the cost to China of the Pakistan military's alliance with Islamic fundamentalists.

America's new military presence in Pakistan and formidable leverage over President Pervez Musharraf's regime have even complicated China's construction of a Pakistani naval base at Gwadar. The Gwadar base and Chinese radar facilities and other naval equipment on islands off the Burmese coast have been part of China's strategy to position itself along the sea lanes from the Arabian Sea to the disputed Spratlys (which consists of several hundred islands, reefs and sea mountains) and control traffic between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Given the altered landscape and its fear of encirclement, the last thing Beijing wants are U.S.-India military ties. But it is likely to reap what it has sowed. Just as its proliferation at home and abroad pushed India to go overtly nuclear, China is driving New Delhi closer to the United States by seeking pre-eminence in Asia through balance-of-power politics.

It uses Pakistan against India, and North Korea against Japan.

Just as September 11 helped institute new norms and priorities in international relations, the Dec. 13 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament by five Pakistanis has given birth to a new tenet guiding Indian foreign policy: Deeds, not words.

Although this principle was fashioned in relation to Pakistan, India also needs to apply it to China. The latter's India-related actions have always spoken louder than its words.

It was in keeping with that tradition that after quietly rushing jet fighters and other weapon systems to shore up Pakistani defenses in the current face-off on the subcontinent, Mr. Zhu declared in New Delhi that "China has never viewed India as a threat, nor do we believe India will regard China as a threat."

A down-to-earth, result-oriented approach toward China is necessary because Beijing is a skilled practitioner of classical balance-of-power politics. Since the end of the Cold War, Beijing has also been employing nationalism as a unifying and power-enhancing force to vigorously assert its rights.

In history, virulent nationalism has been the cause of both the rise and fall of empires. Hemming in India from three sides Pakistan, Tibet and Burma is one of the ways China has sought to impose limits on the capabilities of its potential rival. it makes no secret of its desire to dominate Asia by forestalling the rise of any competitor.

While seeking a multipolar world, China aspires for a unipolar Asia, with itself as the sole pole.

Despite its strategy to publicly simulate amity with India while privately working to tie it down south of the Himalayas, Beijing's saccharine talk gives way to snarls whenever New Delhi has asserted its rights, including by conducting the 1974 and 1998 nuclear tests. Few Indians can forget Chinese ultimatums to India in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, and the 1999 Chinese military forays across the Line of Control in Ladakh, Kashmir, while the Kargil conflict was raging between the Indian military and Pakistani invaders on Buddhist Ladakh's opposite flank.

In recent years, nothing has better exposed Beijing's true attitude than President Jiang's dig at India in a private conversation with French President Jacques Chirac in late 1999. Referring to Chinese military forays earlier that year to test Indian preparedness, Mr. Jiang mockingly told Mr. Chirac: "Each time we tested them by sending patrols across, the Indian soldiers reacted by putting their hands up." Mr. Jiang raised his own hands up to drive home the point to Mr. Chirac, who was aghast.

The Chinese president did not stop there. Blaming the 1962 Himalayan war on Indian "aggression," Mr. Jiang warned: "If India were to attack China again, we will crush it." He then squeezed his hands together to stress the word "crush."

The wide gap between what the Chinese Communists say publicly and what they mean in actuality is obvious when one compares those leaked remarks with Mr. Jiang's public statements on India, or with Mr. Zhu's recent soothing declarations on Indian soil.

In the 1950s, the covert Chinese encroachment on Indian territories occurred under Beijing's comforting lullabies that the Indians and Chinese were "brothers."

Yet, sweet talk, however feigned, has its benefits: China can sell missiles to Pakistan while at the same time access the best India can offer high-tech software as Mr. Zhu did by inviting the top Indian information-technology firm, Infosys, to set up shop in Shanghai.

During his Indian tour, Mr. Zhu stressed the broad principles shared by the two nations on international trade, environment, labor and other developing-world issues. But he deliberately avoided making any reference to the bilateral problems or to China's continuing military transfers to Pakistan and Burma.

India and China are together home to one-third of the human race, but their relations are characterized by deep distrust. After more than two decades of continuous border negotiations, the two countries still lack a defined line of control the only neighbors in the world without a mutually recognized or understood frontier. Official Chinese maps even now show three Indian states outside India.

Since Beijing annexed Tibet in 1950 and brought its forces to the border with India, the divide in the Indian debate on China has been between those who believe that New Delhi should proceed on the basis of Beijing's word, and those who caution that policy be founded on Chinese actions.

That remains the dividing line between the quixotic and pragmatic schools of thought on China.

Mr. Zhu's placating tone was partly intended to influence the internal debate in India, especially on strategic cooperation with Washington.

India, however, can persuade Beijing to focus on engagement without containment if it insists on deeds, not words. China should know that its protestations of friendship have to be measured against its actions.

New Delhi's evolving Asia policy reflects the need to build an arc of strategic partnerships with China's key neighbors, and with the United States, to help neutralize the continuing Chinese military assistance and activity around India.


Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Washington Times.


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