India toughens up as China's footprint grows


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
India toughens up as China's footprint grows

NEW DELHI -- Earlier this year, when India offered to print machine-readable passports for Nepal at US$4 per booklet, Kathmandu pointed out that a Chinese company had offered to do it for half the amount. An Indian official responded that the price quoted was already at a discount to the cost. But when the Nepalese persisted, he responded they were welcome to give the contract to China.

“But what about data security?” the Nepalese asked.

“That is your problem,” was the Indian response.

Ultimately, the contract went to India.

Not too long ago, New Delhi would probably have caved in and offered a better price, especially with a country strategically so important as Nepal, with which India has an open border and shares deep cultural and religious ties.

Pakistan and China have always considered themselves “all-weather friends,” bound in part by mutual distrust of India, with which both have fought wars. But a series of inroads into countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka that India has long considered its backyard has left New Delhi pondering its options. And the response has been mixed.

On the one hand, it is meeting the challenge head on by building up strategic capability. This week, the annual Defence Ministry report detailed the roads, railway and airports that India is building on its eastern flank, which is close to China.

India is also hastily raising its army deployment there by adding two divisions, ultra-light howitzers and missile squadrons.

On the other hand, there is a broader view that China's growing global footprint will require some acceptance that Chinese businesses, government bodies — and tourists — will be trampling around the Indian elephant's traditional grazing grounds.

Besides, China has the right to ensure that its exports and energy supplies flow unhindered as more parts of its vast nation get plugged into the world. The ports that China is building in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are in addition to the one it has constructed in Gwadar, in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Such activity adds to the perception that China is working on a “string of pearls” strategy to dominate the Indian Ocean and encircle its large neighbor to the west.

Shiv Shankar Menon, India's National Security Adviser, however, takes a less alarmist view of China's port-building activity. He suggests strategists in India and China are responsible for talking up the rivalry.

“There are no Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean today, despite talk of the 'string of pearls,' which, by the way, is a pretty ineffective murder weapon as any Clue (murder mystery game) aficionado will tell you,” he said last September, addressing the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi. “The question is whether and to what extent this improved access and infrastructure will translate into basing arrangements and political influence in the future.”

Besides, government officials here say, countries like Myanmar and Nepal have long used the “China card” to their advantage.

More and more, New Delhi is showing less willingness to fall for the bait. Indeed, some strategists here are coming around to the view that it would be useful to involve China in maritime security issues rather than build sea walls to keep it out.

That is a marked difference from the time, more than three years ago, when Shyam Saran, then India's Foreign Secretary, dropped in for an official call on Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Ties between the two countries were at their tightest. Colombo was gaining against the Tamil Tiger insurgents, helped by Indian intelligence and defence support. But, pressed on his country's links with China, Rajapaksa showed his irritation

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