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Imperial China

India has more cause for concern over the Sino-Pak nexus than for cheer over its own ties with China, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Nov 07, 2006 00:51 IST

In keeping with Indian hospitality, Chinese President Hu Jintao will be received warmly when he visits India in three weeks after attending an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meet in Hanoi.

The world’s leading autocrat, currently tightening his hold at home by purging non-loyalists through an anti-corruption drive, might even get to address the Parliament of the world’s largest democracy, whose winter session is being especially brought forward.

Hu’s India visit, however, will be largely symbolic, high on banal expressions of friendly intent but low on enduring substance.

Any accord signed will be no different than the ornamental agreement that marked the April 2005 visit of Premier Wen Jiabao.

That vaunted agreement identifying six abstract ‘guiding principles’ for a settlement of frontier disputes has actually taken the border talks backwards.

Despite 25 years of continuous negotiation, India and China remain the only neighbours in the world not separated even by a mutually-defined line of control.

Yet, India and China have built a stake in maintaining the peaceful diplomatic environment on which their continued economic modernisation and security depend. But there is still no strategic congruence.

That is why the proclaimed ‘India-China strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity’ remains devoid of content.

The two sides can only showcase their fast-growing trade and official exchanges.

Nevertheless, Japan and China, with a 10 times greater trade volume, are discovering that when strategic animosities remain untreated, interdependent commercial ties do not guarantee moderation and restraint.

The India-China strategic dissonance is rooted not only in their contrasting political ideals and difference over ideas, but also in Beijing’s relentless pursuit of a classical, Sun Tzu-style balance-of-power strategy. While seeking to present itself as a see-no-evil, do-no-evil State, China is zealously working to build its power to engage the world on its own terms.

In order to avert the rise of a rival in Asia, it has sought to tie down India strategically. Its India policy is easily summed up in three words — engagement with containment.

Hu’s India visit represents the engagement face of China’s strategy. But Hu’s very next stop — Pakistan — is linked to the containment part.

Although China has fashioned additional strategic levers against New Delhi in the period since Indian efforts at rapprochement began in 1988, it continues to value Pakistan as central to its gameplan to keep India boxed in in the subcontinent.

More significant than Hu’s India stop, therefore, will be his Pakistan tour, during which substantive decisions are likely to be reached.

As underscored by General Pervez Musharraf’s two visits to Beijing this year, Pakistan is seeking greater strategic assistance from China, including to complete a second plutonium-production reactor near Khushab.

Hu’s visit is likely to yield a free-trade agreement and an accord to expand the Chinese-built Karakoram Highway. It has already agreed to lay an optic-fibre cable and consider building a railroad along this strategic highway.

The highlight of Hu’s Pakistan visit will be the opening of the Chinese-built Gwadar port, close to the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 per cent of the world’s oil supply passes.

Gwadar, a likely port of call for the Chinese Navy and already home to a Chinese listening post, is a central link in the emerging chain of Chinese forward-operating facilities in India’s periphery.

With its petroleum and naval facilities, Gwadar will serve as a key base to secure greater Gulf energy resources for China.

In strategic terms, China’s role in setting up Gwadar as a deepwater cargo port and naval base is no less significant than its well-documented part in arming Pakistan with nuclear and missile capabilities.

Designed as the end-point of the new Trans-Karakoram Corridor linking China with the Arabian Sea, Gwadar is bound to have a strategic-multiplier effect.

The Chinese-aided Dalbandin-Gwadar railway connects with the Karakoram Highway, while another Chinese-assisted project links Gwadar with Karachi by road.

Hu is eager to add an energy component to the Trans-Karakoram Corridor. An MoU has already been signed with Pakistan for “studies to build the energy corridor to China”.

A Chinese State firm is examining building a pipeline to carry Gulf oil from Gwadar to western China — a route that will not only cut freight costs and supply time but also lower China’s reliance on US-policed shipping lanes through the Malacca and Taiwan Straits. Pakistan has suggested that China access even Iranian gas through this route.

Hu, in order not to draw attention to China’s role, has no plan to visit Gwadar. The Balochi insurrection already threatens to derail China’s plans for Gwadar, the scene of two separate shootings targeting Chinese engineers since 2004.

But Chinese and Pakistani technicians are working overtime to complete the first phase of Gwadar by the time Hu arrives.

Having bankrolled 80 per cent of Gwadar phase-one costs, Hu now plans to fund a refinery, oil-reserve depots and a pipeline to Xinjiang.

Gwadar epitomises the way China is quietly but determinedly encroaching on India’s strategic backyard by assembling a ‘string of pearls’ in the form of ports, listening posts and naval agreements stretching from Pakistan and Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Burma.

Having stepped up direct and surrogate pressure on India’s north, China is now threatening to challenge the dominant Indian role in the Indian Ocean.

A Chinese threat from the south will emerge if the Chinese navy positions itself along sea lanes critical to India’s security and economy.

China continues to make new moves, like developing Sri Lanka’s Hambantota harbour to gain better access to the Chinese-aided Chittagong port and a bigger role for Chinese security agencies at the Chinese-built Burmese ports, including Kyaukypu.

Against this backdrop, New Delhi has sought to exclude from Indian contracts a few Chinese firms that are involved in strategic projects antithetical to Indian interests.

Most Chinese firms active or interested in India are unaffected by New Delhi’s action. Yet, throwing diplomatic norms to the wind, Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi took the lead in publicly castigating his host nation for the action.

It reminded many of the way the Chinese consul-general had audaciously talked down to the defence minister at a seminar in Mumbai last year.

Given its closed system, China has a proclivity to engage in actions counterproductive to its own interests.

Just as the 1962 invasion shattered India’s pacifism and laid the foundation for its political rise, the ongoing strategic squeeze of India is bound to bring about fundamental changes in the Indian strategy.

Rather than move back to a defensive posture, India will be compelled to exert naval power at chokepoints critical to its interests. China’s imperious plans can easily backfire.

When Wen Jiabao came, he wantonly used Indian soil to demand that Japan “face up to history squarely”, triggering his country’s scripted anti-Japanese mob protests.

Those mobs not only shook Tokyo out of its complacency, but also prompted Japanese institutional investors to begin ploughing funds into India in such a major way that a foreign-funded bubble in Indian equities persists to this day. Hu’s visit, at best, can result in a counterproductive statement or action.