At the last G-8 Summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to China as India’s greatest neighbour. There is no disputing this observation but if any one expected the Chinese to reciprocate this with something remotely similar they were disappointed. The Chinese media did not even refer to the meeting between the two leaders. In keeping with the Chinese view of their position in the world they accepted this statement as a factual narration.
An insight of how the Chinese let slip their view of India in their scheme of things is given by the official China handouts (China 2006) that are available in New Delhi. While describing their relations with major powers, the Chinese handout mentions China’s relations with the US, Russia, the EU and Japan. India is listed, en passant, in the portion "Other Asian countries".
We heaved a national sigh of relief when China stopped showing Sikkim as a separate entity on its maps. Yet, we say nothing when China mentions in its handouts that China has a boundary with India, Kashmir. In 1963 China and Pakistan ceded Shaksgam, a portion of Jammu and Kashmir territory in Pakistan’s occupation, to China. The agreement at that time said that this would be finally settled once the question of the status of Jammu and Kashmir is decided. Yet nowadays Chinese officials refer to this, sotto voce, as being a part of the Northern Areas. The implication is that the Northern Areas are a part of Pakistan and not part of Jammu and Kashmir. And, periodically the issues of Arunachal Pradesh and settled areas, figure in the China-India discourse while the boundary talks drag on.
Meanwhile, the two leaderships speak of cooperation not confrontation. India speaks of there being enough space for the two to grow, China speaks of its harmonious rise while seeking containment through engagement. In search of an assured energy supply and safe routes so essential for its 10 per cent annual economic growth and regime stability, China has been working on securing its interests around the Indian Ocean littoral. Strategists have begun to refer to this as a ‘string of pearls’ which has an air of innocence and desirable about it. Indian strategists, however, have woken up to the realisation that an iron necklace was being cast around the Indian neck.
Unable to protect sea-lanes because of an inadequate navy, the Chinese needed alternative routes for energy supplies. Chinese assistance for the development of Gwadar, close to the vital Straits of Hormuz and located on Pakistan’s Balochistan coast, began at a feverish pace in 2002. The port will have an exclusive SEZ for China and will eventually be linked through Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar with a network of roads, rail links and gas pipelines. Kashgar is linked to Xigatse, which will soon have a rail link with Lhasa. The road continues to run parallel to the Sino-Indian border and then south to Kunming from where a network of river, rail and road links lead to Sittwe in Western Myanmar and Thilawa near Rangoon on the Bay of Bengal. These will be the entry points for energy supplies to China avoiding the Straits of Malacca. In the 20th century, Xinjiang was the New Territory and Tibet was the New Treasure. In the 21st century, Pakistan is the New Territory and Myanmar is the New Treasure. In addition, China has offered assistance for development of Hambantota harbour in southern Sri Lanka. None of this is India specific by design but India’s encirclement will be complete and India’s influence restricted to its national boundaries.
In recent years, Chinese leaders have made several statements in their internal deliberations that indicate their worries. Commenting on China’s periphery after September 11, 2001, Hu Jintao said that the US had strengthened its military positions in the Asia-Pacific region, strengthened its alliance with Japan and strategic cooperation with India, improved relations with Vietnam and established a pro-American regime in Afghanistan. He also referred to the extended outposts — possibly referring to the 737 (some calculate this may be 1,000) military bases around the globe — and that America had placed pressure points on China’s east, west and south. Premier Wen Jiabao also predicted that US military focus would shift from Europe to Asia-Pacific.
China has other ambitions although but will not challenge the US directly in the foreseeable future. It sees the US stuck in a strategic stalemate in Iraq which, for a superpower is really a strategic defeat, and sees this as an opportunity to move in to a perceived vacuum in the Eurasian region. Apart from the various energy tie-ups that Beijing has worked out with Kazakhstan, Russia and other Central Asian states, it will now build 12 new highways connecting Xinjiang to major Central Asian cities. When completed by 2010, these roads will connect Urumqi with Tashkent, Mashad in Iran and Istanbul to reach Europe eventually. China would like to position itself, not as a successor but possibly as an eventual competitor just as it has endeavoured to ease out the US from various arrangements in South East Asia.
It is in this context that the association of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by China with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation led by Russia assumes significance. Both Russia and China participated in week long joint military exercises in Siberia that ended on August 17 and were watched by leaders of all the participating SCO countries. Peace Mission-I would bring SCO and CSTO closer. Many view this as the Russian and Chinese response to the eastward expansion of Nato into Asia. Paradoxically, while the two powers worry about the presence of the US in Eurasia and West Asia, they also fear that should the Americans go away from Afghanistan, instability may spread to Russia’s periphery in Central Asia and China.
The high-voltage stability of the bipolar world has now been replaced by the uncertainty of evolving multi-linear multi-polarities with the US still the primary power. Inter-state relations are now going to be more carefully calibrated and sophisticated with no clearly demarcated power blocs operating. Various triangulations are being configured, many of which exclude the US. Russia, India and China have been talking to each other trilaterally and Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin referred to India during their recent meeting in Moscow. There could even be an Iran, Russia and China arrangement that effectively bottles up the energy rich Eurasian region or there could be a Russia, Iran and India arrangement.
At the same time, no country, including India, China and Russia would want to jeopardise its relationship with the US for the sake of its new partners. Indians surely understand that China and the US will not sacrifice their relationship with each other for India’s sake.
India’s relationship with the US is still evolving with several agreements having been worked out. A strategic partnership between the two will mostly be one-sided with the US far too powerful and India somewhat wary of being either overwhelmed or becoming an appendage. Since common ideals do not necessarily assure common adversaries, India will continue to look at Iran and Myanmar from its own geo-strategic perspective, just as the US has its perspective on Pakistan. India did not have to make a choice during the Cold War but in this age of multi-polarity, it might have to do so as the battle ground shifts from Europe to closer home.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing