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Mapping the roadblocks

By Madhuri Santanam Sondhi
June 28, 2003 16:46 IST
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Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a seasoned and cultivated politician, who displays a good grasp of current international trends as they change along the time-graph. He is also an eminent realist, and does not let ideology or isms of any kind cloud his vision.

His visit to China followed the defence minister's volte face on China's strategic threats and bravura in daring a visit to a SARS-infected and originating country. The prospect caught the imagination of people who imagine the dawn of a new era of bhai-bhaism promising a cornucopia of economic benefits to a nation already reeling under the dumping of cheap Chinese
manufactured goods, even to the extent of suffocating an ancient and indigenous silk-industry.

It is useful to recapitulate a few strategic facts underlying the India-China relationship which no trade agreements can wish away. Some were stated at a seminar on Himalayan and National Security held in New Delhi recently addressed by former members of the Indian Foreign Service, retired generals of the Indian Army and other strategic thinkers.

It was generally agreed that no amount of cultural and economic agreements would take away the unease stemming from an unsettled border between India and China -- which is anomalous given China's acceptance of the MacMahon Line as the border between her and Myanmar, and her border agreements with the then USSR.

Contrary to big brotherly reminders from Beijing that there is nuclear asymmetry between China and India, this writer emphasised the doctrine of 'force de frappe' as formulated by General de Gaulle. Even one nuclear bomb (India has more) aimed at a strategic target constitutes a threat which can inflict unacceptable damage to the enemy, and act as a deterrent. Hence China's insistence on India's nuclear disarmament.

General J F K Jacob, Bangladesh hero and former governor of Punjab, raised three fundamental points relating to the strategic situation along the Himalayas:

  • the ecological impact of Chinese plans to divert the rivers of Tibet for irrigation purposes within China -- remembering that India's most important rivers originate on the Tibetan side of the Himalayan massif. (Water has been identified as is the most important strategic and economic asset of this century, over which new wars are likely to be fought);
  • all this will be aggravated by thoughtless degradation of the Himalayan forest cover in southern Tibet, Chumbi Valley, and other areas of the cis-Himalaya;
  • the ominous creation of ethnic imbalances in Tibet and Sinkiang -- ie, the Hanification of these areas, superceding the local populations with whom there has been a manageable if not friendly co-existence through most of history.

A K Ray, former Indian ambassador, recalled Lord Curzon's classical formulation of India's security zone, which cannot be drawn along her national frontiers but extend in the north beyond to the Tibetan glacis, which in India's interest, should never be occupied by a hostile power.

China's hostile and threatening acts right up until the present are well-known -- her massive support to Pakistan with conventional and nuclear arms and industry, her dominance over Myanmar and naval activity in the Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal, her penetration into the Arabian Sea through Gwadar, her building of a military airfield in Manually, and the China-Tibet railway, enabling fast deployment of Chinese troops along the Tibetan border.

China refuses to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as part of India (the Sikkim affair is a non-issue), and she possesses, thanks to Pakistan, part of Kashmir, apart from Aksai Chin. Conversely certain Indian developments threaten China, such as the emergence of a new, engagement-oriented Indian political class represented by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the National Democratic Alliance coalition, under whose dispensation nuclear and missile developments have taken pace, with the prospect of more nuclear testing if circumstances merit.

Indian missile defence, Indian engagement with Pakistani terrorism and strengthening of democracy in Kashmir, a positive attitude towards the use of coercive diplomacy as well as naval deployment in the Indian Ocean area are the actions which are registering on the China-Pakistan mind which is inseparable.

US-India defence cooperation is a sign of the new, smart and strategic thinking and policy action on both sides. Time is not on China's side, as Japan, India, Australia, the US, Singapore, Philippines and others in Asia and the Middle East see the value of fighting terrorism by military action, and the value of building traditional as well as non-traditional alliances.

Another sign of the new times is that the US is allowing Israel to sell the Phalcon airborne warning and control system to India but not to China. George W Bush, unlike Bill Clinton, is not receptive to the business community and open to Chinese economic blandishments. The Arrow-2 anti-missile system is also being considered for supply to India. The Phalcon and the Arrow change the military equation in Asia significantly.

Thus India's immediate strategic defence arc includes Tibet, Pakistan and Myanmar, and hopefully the prime minister's visit, with India's growing military and economic clout, will play a strong hand. China will have to take India seriously if Vajpayee retains his strategic focus along with his inimitable diplomatic flourish.

Professor Madhuri Santanam Sondhi is Director of the Institute for Asia-Pacific Security and a former member of Parliament.

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Madhuri Santanam Sondhi