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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

India-China relations strained

October 3, 2010

By Vilani Peiris
October 1, 2010

Tensions between India and China stepped up a
notch last month after reports that thousands of
Chinese troops were in the Gilgit-Baltistan area
of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir near the border with China.

The controversy was sparked by an inflammatory
article by Selig Harrison in the New York Times
on August 26 declaring that Islamabad was
“handing over de facto control” of the strategic
region to China by allowing the entry of between
7,000 and 11,000 Chinese soldiers. His article
was based on “foreign intelligence sources,
Pakistani journalists and Pakistani human rights workers."

Harrison was compelled to acknowledge that many
of the "troops" were in fact involved in
construction work on road and rail links between
China and Pakistan. That did not prevent him from
speculating -- without a shred of evidence --
that 22 tunnels under construction could be used for “missile storage sites”.

The article had the hallmarks of a story planted
by US intelligence to undermine relations between
Pakistan and China. Commenting on the land routes
from China via Gilgit-Baltistan to Chinese-built
ports in southern Pakistan, Harrison declared:
"Coupled with its support for the Taliban,
Islamabad’s collusion in facilitating Chinese
access to the [Persian] Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a US ‘ally’."

In fact, Pakistan broke ties with the Taliban in
2001 and, under US pressure, is waging a vicious
war in its border areas to suppress Islamist
insurgents fighting the US occupation in
neighbouring Afghanistan. As for transit through
Gilgit-Baltistan, Harrison is speaking for
sections of the US military and foreign policy
establishment that oppose Pakistani "collusion"
in China’s plans for overland trading and energy routes to the Arabian Sea.

Both Pakistan and China flatly denied the story.
China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told
the press: “The story that China has deployed
some military in the northern part of Pakistan is
totally groundless and out of ulterior purposes."

As reported in the Dawn on September 1, Pakistani
Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said: “The
Chinese were working on landslide, flood-hit
areas and on the destroyed Korakoram Highway with
the permission of Pakistani Government ... The
statements are based on incomplete information.”

The Indian government and media nevertheless
continued to pursue the issue. Gilgit-Baltistan
is part of Kashmir, which is claimed by both
Pakistan and India. The region has been divided
into Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, and
Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir since the two
countries fought a war for its control
immediately after independence and the partition
of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

India has repeatedly opposed any Chinese
involvement in what it regards as its territory.
New Delhi objected to Chinese assistance for the
construction of the Bunji dam and hydro-power
generation project. India also condemned
Pakistan’s decision last year to grant
self-government to the region, renaming what was
previously the Northern Area as Gilgit-Baltistan.

In response to the New York Times article, Indian
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh briefed various
Indian newspapers on the dangers of China’s
alleged military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan. As
reported in the Times of India on September 7,
Singh declared: “China would like to have a
foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on
this reality." He went on to warn of a "new
assertiveness among the Chinese." Singh said
China could use India’s "soft underbelly" of
Kashmir "to keep India in low-level equilibrium."

On September 13, India’s defence minister A.K.
Antony told a military conference that “we cannot
afford to drop our guard” in relation to China.
“We want to develop friendly relations with China
... However, we cannot lose sight of the fact
that China has been improving its military and
physical infrastructure. In fact, there has been
an increasing assertiveness on the part of China," he said.

While the Indian and Chinese governments have
subsequently downplayed the Gilgit-Baltistan
issue, it continues to reverberate in the Indian
and Pakistani press. Last Sunday, a comment in
the Dawn denounced Harrison’s article in the New
York Times, declaring that he had “picked up the
Indian script on Gilgit-Baltistan”. In a comment
on Wednesday, former Indian foreign and defence
minister Jaswant Singh warned of the large number
of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan, warning:
"It is now a China hungry for land, water, and
raw materials that is flexing its muscles,
encroaching on Himalayan redoubts and directly challenging India."

The continuing controversy is a further sign of
friction between the two rising economic powers,
which fought a border war in 1962. China also
claims about 90,000 square kilometres in what is
now the north eastern Indian state of Arunachal
Pradesh; while India asserts its right to 33,000
square kilometres of the Aksai Chin region of
China near north western Jammu and Kashmir. In
1962, Chinese forces advanced rapidly into the
disputed areas, declared a ceasefire and then voluntarily withdrew in 1963.

The unresolved border claims continue to strain
relations. In April 2009, Beijing attempted to
block a $US2.9 billion Asian Development Bank
loan to India that included a flood control
project in Arunachal Pradesh. India finally
obtained the loan in June, apparently with the
backing of the US and Japan, but over the
protests of China. Also in June 2009, India
announced the deployment of 60,000 additional
troops, along with tanks and warplanes, to Assam,
near Arunachal Pradesh, triggering an angry reaction in the Chinese media.

The border areas are sensitive for both India and
China. Arunachal Pradesh is adjacent to Tibet
where China has faced repeated protests against
Chinese rule. Beijing objects to New Delhi’s
hosting of a virtual Tibetan government in exile
headed by the Dalai Lama in northern India. The
disputed areas of Kashmir and of Aksai Chin are
next to the Chinese province of Xinjiang where
Beijing confronts a Muslim separatist movement.
As for India, China’s collaboration with Pakistan
in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir helps undermine New Delhi’s claims to the area.

In late August, China refused a visa to General
B. S. Jaswal, who heads the Indian army’s
Northern Command, on the basis that he was from
Jammu and Kashmir, the territory disputed by
Pakistan. Jaswal was to be part of a high-level
Indian military delegation to China. New Delhi
responded by refusing entry to two Chinese
officers who were scheduled to attend an Indian
defence course. A Chinese colonel was denied
permission to deliver a speech at an Indian army-run institute.

The key destabilising factor in an already tense
situation is the United States, which over the
past decade has developed a close strategic
relationship with India, aimed at countering
growing Chinese influence in Asia. Over the past
year, the Obama administration has intensified
pressure on China over a range of issues in North
East Asia and South East Asia, which will have
encouraged India to take a more assertive stance.

An important aspect of US-Indian relations was
the signing of a nuclear deal in 2008 opening the
door for India to buy fuel and technology to
expand its civilian nuclear power program even
though it is not a signatory to the Nuclear
Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has nuclear
weapons. The US, however, has objected to China’s
plans to build nuclear reactors for Pakistan,
which also has a nuclear arsenal and has not signed the NPT.

Relations in South Asia are further complicated
by Washington’s heavy dependence on the Pakistani
military to wage a war against Islamist
insurgents in areas bordering Afghanistan. US
support for the Pakistani government has raised
concerns in India about the strength of its own
strategic relationship with Washington. At the
same time, New Delhi would quietly welcome any US
efforts to undercut China’s longstanding
relationship with Pakistan -- particularly in the
sensitive border areas in disputed Kashmir.

By alleging "de facto Chinese control" of
Gilgit-Baltistan, the New York Times article
inflamed a contentious issue and threatened to
bring the US into a dispute that involves three
nuclear armed powers -- India, Pakistan and China.
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