The India-China relationship has entered choppy waters because of a perceptible hardening in the Chinese stance. Anti-India rhetoric in the state-run Chinese media has intensified, even as China has stepped up military pressure along the disputed Himalayan frontier through frequent cross-border incursions. Beijing also has resurrected its long-dormant claim to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, nearly three times as large as Taiwan.
The more-muscular Chinese stance clearly is tied to the new U.S.-India strategic partnership, symbolized by the nuclear deal and deepening military cooperation. As President George W. Bush declared in his valedictory speech, “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India.”
The Obama administration, although committed to promoting that strategic partnership, has been reluctant to take New Delhi’s side in any of its disputes with Beijing. This has emboldened China to up the ante against India, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry employing language like “we demand” in a recent statement that labeled the Indian prime minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh a “disturbance.” The Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, after asking India to consider the costs of “a potential confrontation with China,” ran another denunciatory editorial recently on New Delhi’s “recklessness and arrogance.”
New Delhi has hit back by permitting the Dalai Lama to tour Arunachal Pradesh and announcing an end to the practice of Chinese companies bringing thousands of workers from China to work on projects in India. And in a public riposte to Beijing’s raising of objections to multilateral funding of any project in Arunachal, India has asked China to cease its infrastructure and military projects in another disputed region - Pakistan-held Kashmir.
The present pattern of border provocations, new force deployments and mutual recriminations is redolent of the situation that prevailed 47 years ago, when China - taking advantage of the advent of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon - routed the unprepared Indian military in a surprise two-front aggression. Today, amid rising tensions, the danger of border skirmishes, if not a limited war, looks real.
Such tensions have been rising since 2006. Until 2005, China was eschewing anti-India rhetoric and pursuing a policy of active engagement with India even as it continued to expand its strategic space in southern Asia, to New Delhi’s detriment. In fact, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in April 2005, the two countries unveiled six broad principles to help settle their festering border dispute. But after the Indo-U.S. defense-framework accord and nuclear deal were unveiled in quick succession in subsequent months, the mood in Beijing changed perceptibly. That gave rise to a pattern that now has become commonplace: Chinese newspapers, individual bloggers, security think tanks and even officially blessed Web sites ratcheted up an “India threat” scenario.
A U.S.-India military alliance has always been a strategic nightmare for the Chinese, and the ballyhooed Indo-U.S. global strategic partnership triggered alarm bells in Beijing. The partnership, though, falls short of a formal military alliance. Still, the high-pitched Indian and American rhetoric that the new partnership represented a tectonic shift in geopolitical alignments apparently made Chinese policymakers believe India was being groomed as a new Japan or Australia to America - a perception reinforced by subsequent arrangements and Indian orders for U.S. arms worth $3.5 billion in just the past year.
Clearly, New Delhi failed to foresee that its rush to forge close strategic bonds with Washington could provoke greater Chinese pressure and that in such a situation, the United States actually would offer little comfort. Consequently, India finds itself in a spot.
For one thing, Beijing calculatedly has sought to pressure India on multiple fronts - military, diplomatic and multilateral. For another, the United States - far from coming to India’s support - has shied away from even cautioning Beijing against any attempt to forcibly change the territorial status quo. Indeed, on a host of issues - from the Dalai Lama to the Arunachal dispute - Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing. That, in effect, has left India on its own.
The spectacle of the president of the most powerful country in the world seeking to curry favor with a rights-abusing China by shunning the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan leader’s Washington visit cannot but embolden the Chinese leadership to step up pressure on India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. Mr. Obama also has signaled that America’s strategic relationship with India will not be at the expense of the fast-growing U.S. ties with Beijing.
The Obama team, after reviewing the Bush-era arrangements, intends to abjure elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including any joint military drill in Arunachal or a 2007-style naval exercise involving the United States, India, Australia, Japan and Singapore. Even trilateral U.S. naval maneuvers with India and Japan are being abandoned so as not to raise China’s hackles. As his secretary of state did in February, Mr. Obama is undertaking an Asia tour that begins in Japan and ends in China - the high spot - while skipping India. In fact, Washington is quietly charting a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal dispute.
Yet Beijing remains suspicious of the likely trajectory of U.S.-India strategic ties, including pre-1962-style CIA meddling in Tibet. This distrust found expression in the People’s Daily editorial that accused New Delhi of pursuing a foreign policy of “befriending the far and attacking the near.”
Left to fend for itself, New Delhi has decided to steer clear of any confrontation with Beijing. As the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, has put it: “For the past few months, China has adopted an aggressive attitude and is indulging in many provocative activities, which are being tolerated by Indian government in a very passive manner.”
Still, even as it seeks to tamp down tensions with Beijing, New Delhi cannot rule out the use of force by China at a time when hard-liners there seem to believe that a swift, 1962-style military victory can help fashion a Beijing-oriented Asia.
Having declared that America’s “most important bilateral relationship in the world” is with Beijing, the Obama team must caution China against crossing well-defined red lines or going against its self-touted gospel of China’s “peaceful rise.”
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the independent, privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins 2006, with a new U.S. edition scheduled for release in January 2010).