Dealing with rising China: Its strategy to contain India unchanged


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Dealing with rising China
Its strategy to contain India unchanged

by G. Parthasarathy

WHILE on a visit to Beijing, the Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, launched a broadside against his senior colleagues in the Home and Defence Ministries, on the sensitive issue of giving the Chinese company HUAWEI access to the telecommunication sector in India, he had asserted: "If we continue to be paranoid about Chinese investment in India, we are not going to be able to derive the full benefits of the Copenhagen spirit." He was referring to the cooperation between India and China at the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen when an isolated China made common cause with India, Brazil and South Africa to thwart Western pressures that would have adversely affected the developmental efforts of emerging and developing countries.

Did Mr Ramesh go through the detailed studies that have been made about Chinese efforts to undermine communications and cyber security in India before making his intemperate comments on foreign soil? Do we not live today in a world where countries, especially emerging powers, compete, cooperate and sometimes even confront each other? The Prime Minister reportedly admonished Mr Ramesh for his comments. One, however, doubts whether his ministerial colleagues are going to become more disciplined in this era of coalition politics.

The Prime Minister's former Special Envoy Shyam Saran, who along with two other eminent experts on climate change, quit over Mr Ramesh's frequent flip-flops on climate-related issues, recently remarked that in an era when the centre of gravity of economic power was shifting from the Western world to Asia, India appeared to be successfully moving globally towards a "hedging" strategy of "engaging with all major powers, but aligning with none". Thus, while we naturally engage and cooperate with China in forums like the G-20 and BRICS and on issues like climate change and world trade negotiations, we should be under no illusions about Chinese determination to become the dominant power in the world, where little strategic space is to be accorded to others in Asia like India and Japan.

When an economically backward China decided to take the road of economic liberalisation and rapid economic growth in 1979, its supreme leader Deng advised his compatriots to follow a policy of "lie low, bide your time" in international affairs. In effect, Deng wisely advised that China should not bite off more than it could chew and that it should bide its time till it could flex its economic and military muscles.

The only instance when China thereafter used raw military power across its land borders was its disastrous effort in 1979 to teach Vietnam a "lesson" after it secured American backing to deal in this manner with an ally of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1980s, the Chinese acted in close concert with the Americans in undermining Soviet interests. The Americans, in turn, lavished praise on China, and American companies went gaga in investing and building Chinese capabilities. In course of time, a resurgent China has emerged as a global economic power whose foreign exchange reserves are double India's entire GDP.

But the Chinese dream of dominating Asia as a prelude to its emergence as a global power number one has remained constant. The detente with the US was used by China to lay claims on its maritime borders with virtually every neighbour and up the ante on its land border claims on India. "Containment" of India was sought by the transfer of conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities to Pakistan and by quiet use of Chinese diplomatic, economic and military muscle across India's neighbourhood.

Throughout this period, the Chinese displayed a healthy respect for American diplomatic and military power. But the American economic meltdown and President Obama's statements and actions suggesting that he favoured a world order dominated by a Sino-American diarchy, prematurely led to discarding Deng's wise advice of "lie low and bide your time". The advent of the Obama Administration has seen growing Chinese assertiveness across Asia. In July 2009 the Chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, told his Indian interlocutors that his Chinese naval counterpart had remarked to him: "You (the US) take Hawaii East and we China will take Hawaii west. Then you need not come into the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean and we need not go to the Eastern Pacific. If anything happens there, then you can let us know and if something happens here we will let you know".

On May 6, 2009, China officially banned summer fishing in the South China Sea rejecting a Vietnamese protest on this unilateral ban in disputed waters. Earlier this year, China announced that it had discovered a new deep water gas-field in the South China Sea and despatched patrol ships to assert its fishing rights in the waters around Nansha Islands. The Chinese have acted similarly in the East China Sea, with the conduct of a military exercise and the commencement of oil and gas exploration in disputed waters, provoking protests from Japan.

Chinese assertiveness is also now being manifested on issues pertaining to the utilisation of river waters. China has refused to join Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as a member of the Mekong River Commission. Cambodia's Minister for Water Resources noted in February this year that there had been concerns over the lowering of water levels in the Mekong, resulting from the construction of dams across the river in China. There are, similarly, serious concerns about the reported plans by China to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra. It was only after India provided it with satellite photographs that China belatedly acknowledged that it was building a hydroelectric project across the Brahmaputra at Zhagmu and thereafter agreed to exchange data on lean season water flows with lower riparian states ---- India and Bangladesh.

It is true that after vicious propaganda barrages against India over the past two years, the Chinese media has toned down hostile reporting about India after the Copenhagen Summit. But it would be naive for India to assume that this presages any Chinese climbdown on its territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh or any dilution of its overall strategies in South Asia and in the entire Indian Ocean region to contain India by enhanced military and nuclear ties with Pakistan, and by undermining Indian influence in its neighbourhood. HUAWEI, the Chinese company so ardently supported by Mr Ramesh, faces charges of bribery, data theft, close ties with China's military and conspiracy to disrupt a national telecommunications network in countries ranging from the US, the UK and Australia to Argentina and Indonesia.

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