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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Why India Fears China

October 13, 2009

By Jeremy Kahn
October 10, 2009
 From the magazine issue dated Oct 19, 2009

On June 21, two Chinese military helicopters
swooped low over Demchok, a tiny Indian hamlet
high in the Hima-layas along the northwestern
border with China. The helicopters dropped canned
food over a barren expanse and then returned to
bases in China. India's military scrambled
helicopters to the scene but did not seem unduly
alarmed. This sort of Cold War cat-and-mouse game
has played out on the 4,057-kilometer India-China
border for decades. But the incident fed a media
frenzy about "the Chinese dragon." Beginning in
August, stories about new Chinese incursions into
India have dominated the 24-hour TV news networks and the newspaper headlines.

China claims some 90,000 square kilometers of
Indian territory. And most of those claims are
tangled up with Tibet. Large swaths of India's
northern mountains were once part of Tibet. Other
stretches belonged to semi-independent kingdoms
that paid fealty to Lhasa. Because Beijing now
claims Tibet as part of China, it has by
extension sought to claim parts of India that it
sees as historically Tibetan, a claim that has
become increasingly flammable in recent months.

Ever since the anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet last
year, progress toward settling the border dispute
has stalled, and the situation has taken a
dangerous turn. The emergence of videos showing
Tibetans beating up Han Chinese shopkeepers in
Lhasa and other Tibetan cities created immense
domestic pressure on Beijing to crack down. The
Communist Party leadership worries that agitation
by Tibetans will only encourage unrest by the
country's other ethnic minorities, such as
Uighurs in Xinjiang or ethnic Mongolians in Inner
Mongolia, threatening China's integrity as a
nation. Susan Shirk, a former
Clinton-administration official and expert on
China, says that "in the past, Taiwan was the
'core issue of sovereignty,' as they call it, and
Tibet was not very salient to the public." Now,
says Shirk, Tibet is considered a "core issue of
national sovereignty" on par with Taiwan.

The implications for India's security--and the
world's--are ominous. It turns what was once an
obscure argument over lines on a 1914 map and
some barren, rocky peaks hardly worth fighting
over into a flash point that could spark a war
between two nuclear-armed neighbors. And that
makes the India-China border dispute into an
issue of concern to far more than just the two
parties involved. The United States and Europe as
well as the rest of Asia ought to take notice—a
conflict involving India and China could result
in a nuclear exchange. And it could suck the West
in—either as an ally in the defense of Asian
democracy, as in the case of Taiwan, or as a
mediator trying to separate the two sides.

Beijing appears increasingly concerned about the
safe haven India provides to the Dalai Lama and
to tens of thousands of Tibetan exiles, including
increasingly militant supporters of Tibetan
independence. These younger Tibetans, many born
outside Tibet, are growing impatient with the
Dalai Lama's "middle way" approach—a willingness
to accept Chinese sovereignty in return for true
autonomy—and commitment to nonviolence. If these
groups were to use India as a base for armed
insurrection against China, as Tibetan exiles did
throughout the 1960s, then China might retaliate
against India. By force or demand, Beijing might
also seek to gain possession of important Tibetan
Buddhist monasteries that lie in Indian territory
close to the border. Both politically and
culturally, these monasteries are seen as key
nodes in the Tibetan resistance to Chinese authority.

Already Beijing has launched a diplomatic
offensive aimed at undercutting Indian
sovereignty over the areas China claims,
particularly the northeast state of Arunachal
Pradesh and one of its key cities, Tawang,
birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama in the 17th
century and home to several important Tibetan
monasteries. Tibet ceded Tawang and the area
around it to British India in 1914. China has
recently denied visas to the state's residents;
lodged a formal complaint after Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh visited the state in
2008; and tried to block a $2.9 billion Asian
Development Bank loan to India because some of
the money was earmarked for an irrigation project
in the state. All these moves are best understood
in the context of China's recent troubles in
Tibet, with Beijing increasingly concerned that
any acceptance of the 1914 border will amount to
an implicit acknowledgment that Tibet was once
independent of China—a serious blow to the
legitimacy of China's control over the region and
potentially other minority areas as well.

The reports of Chinese incursions can be read as
a signal that it is deadly serious about its
territorial claims. The exact border has never
been mutually agreed on—meaning one side's
incursion is another side's routine patrol—but
the Chinese have clearly stepped up their
activity along the frontier. The Indian military
reported a record 270 Chinese border violations
last year—nearly double the figure from the year
before and more than three times the number of
incidents in 2006, says Brahma Chellaney, an
expert in strategic studies at New Delhi's Centre
for Policy Research, an independent think tank.
Noting that there was a reported incursion nearly
every day this summer, Chellaney says this
amounts to "a pattern of Chinese belligerence."
In June the People's Daily criticized recent
moves by India to strengthen its border defenses
and declared: "China will not make any
compromises in its border disputes with India."
It asked if India had properly weighed "the
consequences of a potential confrontation with China."

To many Indians, China is an expansionist power
bent on thwarting India's rise as a serious
challenge to Beijing's influence in Asia. They
are haunted by memories of India's 1962 war with
China, in which China launched a massive invasion
along the length of the frontier, routing the
Indians before unilaterally halting at what today
remains the de facto border, known as the Line of
Actual Control (LAC). They are fearful of China's
expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean,
seeing its widening network of naval bases as a
noose that could be used to strangle India. They
blast Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for alleged
weakness in the face of this growing threat.
Bharat Verma, editor of the Indian Defence
Review, predicted in a widely publicized essay
this summer that China would attack India
sometime before 2012. With social unrest rising
within China due to the worldwide economic slump,
he says, the leadership in Beijing needs "a small
military victory" to unify the nation, and India
is "a soft target," due to Singh's fecklessness.
In recent weeks India's defense minister and the
heads of the Army and Air Force have felt
compelled to reassure the public that "there will be no repeat of 1962."

These warnings completely misread China's intent.
While India worries about the larger army and
wealth of China, China worries about the larger
military and economy of the United States. In
Asia, its stated aim is to follow a "peaceful
rise" that benefits all its neighbors, India
included, and there's little reason to doubt this
goal. Beijing is an insecure power, not an
aggressive one, because of the real threat of
social and economic unrest at home. China's
growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean
reflects a legitimate interest in protecting the
sea lanes upon which Beijing depends for its
supply of oil and natural resources from Africa
and the Middle East. The border movements should
be seen in the same light: it's not about an
external threat from India per se, but India's
relationship to the internal threat from Tibet.

Still, if Tibet is the new Taiwan, it requires
extremely delicate diplomacy. If anything, the
West tends to under-estimate China's willingness
to fight independence moves in Taiwan—it has
fired missile warning shots as recently as
1996—and the same may now be said of Tibet.
Taiwan, however, has maintained the parlous
status quo by arming itself to the teeth, while
avoiding any rhetoric or action that crosses Beijing's red lines.

India is trying a similar approach. Last year it
denied the Dalai Lama permission to visit
Tawang--ostensibly because of parliamentary
elections—and now he has scheduled another trip
in November. It would be prudent for New
Delhi—and perhaps others with influence on the
Dalai Lama, such as the United States—to find a
face-saving reason for the Dalai Lama to
indefinitely postpone the trip. India needs to be
especially vigilant against militant activity
within the Tibetan exile community, the single
most likely trigger for a Chinese attack, and it
might be wise to end the policy of simply
avoiding any discussion of Tibet in its dealings
with China. "There are ways to highlight the
centrality of Tibet without being provocative or
confrontational," says Chellaney. "If New Delhi
were to say in public that Tibet has ceased to be
the political buffer between India and China, and
India would like Tibet to be the political bridge
between New Delhi and Beijing, that, in one
stroke, would change the narrative fundamentally."

India's position in talks needs to be backed by
strength in arms. New Delhi has already started
repositioning border forces, launched a
road-building program to match the roads and
airfields that China has built on its side, and
recently conducted a three-day combined
air-and-land war game, seemingly designed to show
that it is on guard. But India needs to be
careful not to overreact: it views with alarm the
tens of thousands of troops China has deployed to
the border region since the 2008 Lhasa riots, but
most of these moves are designed to reassert
control over Tibet. M. Taylor Fravel, an MIT
expert on the India-China border dispute, says
many of the troops deployed in Tibet are
internal-security forces, lacking heavy armor or
artillery, representing less of a threat to India than Indian hawks believe.

India would be wise to invest in -longer-range
weapons--such as missiles and advanced-strike
aircraft--that allow it to maintain a standoff
deterrent, without the need to go toe-to-toe with
Chinese troops on the border. India has also
begun deploying sophisticated radar systems along
its frontier with China—a way to police
inhospitable terrain while avoiding direct
confrontation. India might also seek to share
intelligence with other nations—such as the
United States, Japan, and Taiwan—about China's
actions and troop movements in Tibet, both to
prevent being taken by surprise and to avoid an accidental conflict.

A final lesson from Taiwan is that New Delhi
should pursue ways to open the border to commerce
and communication, binding itself closer to
China. Shirk says China is now opening ties to
Taiwan, as part of an effort to "win the hearts
and minds of the people," raising hopes that
China may eventually pursue a more tolerant
approach toward Tibet and other minority regions.
Amid all the reports of border incursions, both
India and China have sought to lower the volume.
Chinese military officials invited Indian
generals from all three of the regional commands
that face off against it across the LAC to visit
China for confidence-building measures, including
a rare visit to Lhasa. Indian officials have
pleaded with news organizations to tone down
reporting on border incursions. Indian
national-security adviser M. K. Narayanan warned
that the beating of war drums might become a
self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to "an
unwarranted incident or accident" with China.
This is now an issue that should be handled at
the highest levels—not left to hotheads—on all sides.
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