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CHINA AT THE CROSS ROADS IN SOUTH ASIA : An Analysis

 

Paper 703                                                      02.06.2003

by Dr Subhash Kapila 

China extended its borders to South Asia with the forcible military occupation of Tibet in late 1950. China’s military annexation of Tibet was facilitated by two factors: (1) United States military pre-occupation with the war in Korea, and (2) India’s  policies of strategic neglect of India’s national security interests and Nehru's blind obsession for China’s friendship. 

In one swift stroke, Mao’s Communist China on coming into power, obliterated the “buffer state” of Tibet, which the British strategists and policy makers had created over two centuries. Far from opposing China’s annexation of Tibet, militarily or politically, India through  its policy of China appeasement, facilitated China’s hold over Tibet. 

Overnight the Indian Sub- continent secured, so far, by the impregnable Himalayan chain witnessed the intrusive presence of China.  The story did not end there. China’s quest for strategic frontiers led her to claim large parts of India’s North and North Eastern territories as China’s own. 

Nehru, for eight long years kept the Indian Parliament and the people of India in the dark on China’s slicing away the Aksai-Chin portion of India’s Ladakh region. By the time Nehru awoke to China’s aggressive designs and gave strategic directives incompatible with India’s military preparedness and capabilities, neglected by him, China had inflicted a military debacle on India. The India-China War 1962, was a military debacle brought about by political complacency, strategic neglect of the Indian Armed Forces and lack of strategic vision. 

With this China emerged as even a more forceful entity in the South Asia strategic calculus. South Asia was henceforth to become China’s strategic playground not only for regional dominance but also to provide avenues to China to play her strategic games vis-a vis the two superpowers of the day i.e. the United States and Soviet Union. Pakistan was to be China’s hand-maiden in South Asia. China thereafter to this day has pursued a mono-chromatic policy in South Asia. 

China’s Monochromatic Policy in South Asia: Despite China’s professions for eternal friendship with India based on age-old cultural ties, China ever since the 1950s and more forcefully after 1962 has pursued a monochromatic policy in South Asia. This monochromatic policy focused on pre-empting the emergence of India as the regional power in Southern Asia. 

Instead of opting for a strategy of direct military confrontation with India, which contemporaneous domestic and global factors did not permit, China following Sun Tzu’s “strategy of indirect approach” resorted to the following: 

* China’s total involvement in building up Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile arsenal to create a ‘spoiler state’ to challenge India’s military predominance.

* China’s efforts to ring India with military equipment client states on India’s periphery and thereby determine their India-specific policies.

*  China’s Defence Cooperation Agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh. The latter only too recently.

* China’s attempts to intrude into the Indian Ocean through participation in build-up of naval bases in neighbouring countries, more notable Gwadur in Pakistan.

* Rabid opposition to India’s nuclear weapons tests and demanding roll-back of India’s nuclear programme.

* Stoutly opposing India’s candidature for United Nations Security Council’s Permanent Membership.

Having assiduously followed this monochromatic policy for nearly four decades, China now finds herself at the cross-roads in terms of her South Asia policies as a result of multiple pressures arising from prevailing and developing global and regional strategic realities. 

Strategic Realities Bringing China to the Crossroads in South Asia: South Asia no longer presents the same strategic picture as of the 1960s with a militarily humbled India, wary and in fear, of a two-front confrontation with China and a Pakistan that was military-aided both by  China and USA. 

South Asia today in terms of strategic realities  presents the following picture: 

* China and so also the United States have failed to arrest the emergence of India’s rise to her natural pre-eminence in the region through their strategy of Pakistan as a strategic ‘spoiler state’.

* The irony today in South Asia is that Pakistan as the ‘spoiler state’ built up by China and the United States stands “spoilt” to such a degree that it was ending up as a “failed state” till the morning of 9/11.

* Pakistan’s future stands threatened today due to lack of political and economic instability as a consequence of permitting herself to be used as a pawn by external powers.

* India, in stark comparison, like the proverbial tortoise, is steadily on the move to emerge not only as the regional power in South Asia but also as a key global power.

* India stands out today not only in South Asia but also in  Southern Asia today as a:

1.      Politically stable and functioning democracy.

2.      World’s fourth largest economy with appreciable rates of economic growth.

3.      IT superpower and with the largest exports of knowledge power.

* Indian Armed Forces today are military capable of extracting heavy costs today in any two-front confrontation. 

In terms of global strategic realities, the emerging picture presents grave challenges to China’s national security as a result of the following developments:

*China’s efforts to arrest United States unipolar strategic dominance ever since the end of the Cold War have not met with success

 * China’s policy of developing the Islamic countries of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan as strategic counter-pressure points against the United States stands neutralized as a result of United States military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

* Pakistan, as China’s key strategic ally in South Asia has a considerable strength of American troops operating from at least half a dozen bases in Pakistan.

* It can also be assessed that the Pakistani nuclear weapons and missile arsenal, so painstakingly built up by China, may now be under control of United States troops stationed in Pakistan.

* China’s military option against Taiwan gets that  much more unworkable after US invasion of Iraq.

* China’s protégé in East Asia i.e. North Korea is in danger of military pre-emptive strikes by USA. What would China’s choices be then? Can it afford to militarily intervene like it did in the Korean War?. China’s patronage of the two nuclear weapons and missile proliferators, North Korea and Pakistan, and the three-way inter-linkages have not gone un-noticed. 

Before analyzing China’s options in South Asia, a brief review of China’s threat potential and her coercive capabilities needs to be looked into. 

China’s Threat Potential and Coercive Capabilities Stand Over-rated: China’s threat potential and coercive capabilities have consistently been over-rated by China’s most keenest analysts, namely American scholars, academia and analysts. This community had a vested interest in doing so as to provide reinforcing arguments for United States policies in East Asia and the forward positioning of United States Forces in Japan and South Korea, Marines Expeditionary Forces in Okinawa and a host of US Navy and Air Force assets. Such over-rated assessment was also handy in extracting host-country basing costs from Japan and South Korea. 

China has no doubt built up her strategic assets to steadily narrow the differential with USA and Russian strategic assets. Despite this China's strategic capabilities and coercive capabilities are limited by one single factor, which this author has written repeatedly elsewhere. That is  “ China has no natural allies”. 

China’s Hard Choices in South Asia: In the absence of natural allies. China today has no option but to attempt to win more friends on her periphery so that her strategic complexities and challenges are minimized. 

In South Asia, China faces the following policy choices:

* Continue with her monochromatic policy of strategically de-stabilising India through the Pakistan spoiler-state route.

* Adopt an ‘equi-distant’ policy with both Pakistan and India.

* Concede South Asia to India as the preeminent regional power. 

There could be many more variations and colourations of the above, but these are the basic three.

China’s pursuance of mono-chromatic Pakistan-centric policy in South Asia stands greatly neutralized due to the factors analysed above. Pakistan’s continued relevance to China’s strategic policies both in relation to USA and India is dubious and the same is being debated in Pakistan’s academic circles in a reverse manner. 

South Asia does not offer any attractive strategic gains to any external power in terms of  following ‘equi-distant’ policies with India and Pakistan. South Asia’s contemporary history proves that due to the complex strategic asymmetrical balance in South Asia. ‘Zero-sum games’ are not the option. China and the United States, too, should have realised by now the futility of “regional spoiler states” strategy. The geo-strategic importance of India and her power-potential dictate the choice. 

Conceding South Asia as India’s sphere of influence would call for a drastic strategic re-orientation in China’s policies. It would involve the following:

*Recognising India as the regional power in South Asia and abandoning the strategy of indirect approach to limit India’s rise through proxies.

*  Re-casting China’s relations with Pakistan, Bangladesh and other peripheral states i.e. reducing China’s military clientism on India’s peripheries.

* Re-examination of China’s threat perceptions vis-a vis India.

China in the past, has exhibited her potential for ‘swing strategy’ in international relations and therefore putting the third option in play should not be such a hard choice for China. It would be a strategically wise option and impart strategic flexibility to her policy choices. 

Conclusion: In the formative stages of the modern Chinese Communist nation-state, it was India that stood by China and espoused her cause at international forums, where it was being considered as a ‘pariah state’. Pakistan, at that time was a member of Cold War military alliances like CENTO and SEATO designed to contain former USSR and China.

China’s misguided strategy of “teaching India a lesson” in 1962 marked an arrogant and aggressive stance and has be-devilled India-China relations ever since.  China today, bereft of natural allies and strategically being hemmed-in on nearly all sides has to display the wisdom and vision to recognize the hard choices it faces in South Asia today. 

China, by conceding the strategic space to India in South Asia, would naturally make herself that much more secure and stronger in its own region, namely, East Asia.  The choice is not hard for China, as it strategically does not belittle or limit China, but it is recognizing the attendant imperatives that are harder for China.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email <drsubhashkapila @yahoo.com>)

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