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What is China's problem with India?

No one quite knows what drives China's policies towards its neighbour India. Here are four theories on what Beijing thinks when it contemplates what the ancient Chinese called 'the land of Buddhist kingdoms'. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri and Reshma Patil write. Friction between giants

india Updated: Sep 05, 2010 21:30 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri and Reshma Patil
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri and Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

No one quite knows what drives China's policies towards its neighbour India. Here are four theories on what Beijing thinks when it contemplates what the ancient Chinese called 'the land of Buddhist kingdoms'.

In May, India's ambassador to China had said that while the two Asian giants had experienced a 'blue skies' relationship so far in 2010 there was no guarantee the tensions of 2009 would not recur. Beijing's message that an Indian general would not be welcome because his command included Kashmir has cast a diplomatic pall along the world's highest border. Reports of thousands of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan have not helped. In strategic circles, Chindia is a four-letter word.

China barely figured on India's security consciousness a decade ago. Today, among a younger generation, it may be slowly supplanting Pakistan as India's bogeyman. It doesn't help China is a closed society when it comes to policy-making. Says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, "Nobody has a clear answer when it comes to explaining China's action. One can't get into the mechanics of its decision-making process."

So one can only guesstimate why Beijing acts the way it does. Here are four schools of thinking explaining why China and India can't dance without stepping on each other.

School of confusion
India and China are only now coming to frame coherent policies towards each other. India's policies were marked by political drift and long periods of inactivity. China's were coloured by its disdain for India. China is still trying to work out what are India's red lines.

Indian officials admit their policy towards China over the years has been a zigzag, with various strong-willed Indian statesmen driving it off in different tangents. And this has confused both capitals.

The foundation of the relationship is not very solid, admits Zhao Gancheng, South Asia studies director at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. "The problem in military relations is not new. A lack of mutual trust and confidence in military exchanges reflects the current state of Sino-Indian relations."

Kashmir takeaway: Refusing a visa to Lieutenant General B S Jaswal, admit some Indian officials, may simply reflect a Chinese assumption India isn't overly excited about the issue. After all, New Delhi didn't kick up much fuss about the stapled visa issue. The decision to merely disallow such visa holders from traveling was a relatively passive response. And India barely raised an eyebrow when a Chinese vice foreign minister said his country was prepared to mediate on Kashmir.

School of indifference
China has traditionally been uninterested in India. They see a country politically too chaotic and culturally too confused to be a contender for the Asian high table. The result is an India policy that is driven by short term considerations. Make a stink about Arunachal Pradesh because it allows Chinese leader Hu Jintao to look nationalistic at home. Make a stink about Kashmir because it lifts Islamabad's spirits. India may jump up and down a bit, but no matter — India doesn't have what it takes.

"China tends to ignore India as much as it can," says Dibyesh Anand of the University of Westminster. "There is no evidence the Chinese see India primarily as a rival. It is seen more as an irritant that works with hostile foreign powers to undermine China." Concurs international relations expert Amitabh Mattoo, "We are not in the centre of their radar screen."

Kashmir takeaway: By this school of thinking, the visa refusal was not a carefully calculated move. It was an ad hoc attempt at keeping Pakistan happy, a country whose suicidal tendencies worry even China these days. That this would infuriate India was expected. But Beijing's leadership would see that as a small price to pay because India's reaction would be seen as being of no consequence.

School of rivalry
In recent years, Beijing has awoken to the possibility India may one day be a competitor. India is closing the gap when it comes to economic growth rates. And such diplomatic successes as the Indo-US nuclear deal have made the Middle Kingdom worry about an anti-China great power combination. Because of past historical humiliations, Beijing is particularly sensitive about border disputes.

"China won't make any compromises in its border disputes with India, " an article in People's Daily last year warned. "India can't compete with China…India apparently has not yet realized this." Chinese analyst Dai Bing admits that "while a hot war is out of the question, a cold war between the two countries is increasingly likely."

Beijing's response is to keep pushing the envelope, reminding India and the world there is only one superpower-in-the-making in Asia. Whether it is the border, Pakistan or projecting military power into the Indian Ocean, the message to New Delhi is that it would be best to come to terms with the Big Boss. Says Mattoo, "A new generation of Chinese leaders do not feel the need to keep a low profile and are testing out scenarios, pilot events, on the world stage."

"China wants to nip in the bud any challenge India might pose in the future," says Mohan Malik of the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii. He notes that China's official media never referred to Arunachal Pradesh as "southern Tibet" or "the unfinished business of 1962" before 2005. Malik says manufacturing new disputes to put the other side off balance is an old negotiating tactic in Chinese statecraft.

Kashmir takeaway: Tightening words and actions on Kashmir is part of a carefully calculated Chinese strategy, one that includes diplomatic activity and naval rivalry, to keep India boxed in regionally. Beijing knows Kashmir is the perfect means to narrow India's world view. Says Malik, "Chinese supremacy in Asia is contingent upon having smaller and weaker, compliant states on China's periphery."

School of the military
It's no secret that the arm of the Chinese system most hostile towards India is the People's Liberation Army. And the sentiment is reciprocated among the khaki in India. Beijing's decision-making process is opaque but it is far from being monolithic. And there is some evidence that during last year's kerfuffle over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's election tour of Arunachal, the Chinese foreign ministry was blindsided by what came out of Beijing. If India is facing a more aggressive China, it may indicate the PLA brass is calling the shots.

"The Chinese army believes Beijing should be more assertive about the country's 'core interests'," says former Research and Analysis Wing analyst B Raman. "Retired officers often write that self-respect means being tough about national interests." India intrudes into many of the issues the military sees as important: Tibet, Pakistan, Myanmar and naval security. The latter is rising Chinese strategic concern, writes Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, because Beijing faces "an unprecedented reliance on the seas for China's economic well-being".

Kashmir takeaway: There is evidence the PLA is extremely concerned about the restive Muslim minority in Xinjiang and is looking to Pakistan to help keep this problem in check. Says Raman, "The army is very sympathetic towards Pakistan and the Pakistan military. Raising Kashmir doesn't help Pakistani stability but it does provide a quid pro quo for help in Xinjiang." While Malik says there is only one India policy in Beijing, "the PLA has always played a key role in policy towards the Korean peninsula, Taiwan and India".

Friction between giants

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