Geopolitics

Playing Hardball: Confronting Chinese Hegemonic Designs in South Asia
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 11 Apr , 2017

There has been a substantial amount of heat and dust raised over the intemperate actions of the Chinese in the South China Sea and President Trump’s aggressive posturing prior to President Xi Jinping visit to America including the threat of unilateral action against North Korea.

There is an apparent confluence of interests discernable in the Indo-US relationship as India finds itself increasingly restricted to its own neighbourhood by the stranglehold that China has been able to fashion.

Despite this, one thing is fairly obvious that there is little likelihood of any military confrontation in the region involving either the United States or China. Posturing is all that the United States can afford to indulge in and the reasons for that are obvious. For one, whether the Pentagon admits it or not, the US Military is war- weary having been continuously engaged in conflict for over a decade and a half, in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan with little to show for its efforts and every likelihood of being unable to fully disengage because of the continuing instability in those regions.

Added to this is the aggressive intent shown by Russia to change the existing status quo in the geo-political scheme of things, both in Europe and the Middle East, which is keeping the Western Powers on tenterhooks and looks to be heading towards Cold War 2.0. Finally, as important a factor, if not more so, is the necessity for America and China to work in closely in tandem given the manner in which their economies are so tightly entwined.

A Brexit like situation is the last thing either of these nations need at this stage just as they have started to tentatively recover following the economic downturn of the very recent past.

It stands to reason then that the United States, while conceding space to China in Asia, will attempt to protect its core interests and contain China in the region through proxies, mainly with the assistance of its Allies there, among which India is emerging as an extremely important one.

The Sino-Indian relationship is marred to a large extent by China’s inability to accept the rise of another power in Asia.

There is an apparent confluence of interests discernable in the Indo-US relationship as India finds itself increasingly restricted to its own neighbourhood by the stranglehold that China has been able to fashion. Examples of this are its unequivocal opposition to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the assistance it is providing Pakistan in enhancing its military capabilities, including the very real possibility of leasing it a nuclear powered submarine in the not too distant future. Its commitment to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through parts of “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” that India claims as its own integral territory and the development of a strategic naval facility at Gwadar where it will station 3000 Marines also cannot but add to Indian insecurities.

In addition, even within the Indian Ocean Region, which India considers its backyard, it finds itself hemmed in by the “string of pearls” and the Maritime Silk Road policies that China is so aggressively and adeptly pursuing in an attempt to woo Myanmar, Bangladesh, Srilanka and the Maldives by providing them vast amounts of economic aid.

The Sino-Indian relationship is marred to a large extent by China’s inability to accept the rise of another power in Asia. From Confucian times they have always believed that no legitimate international order can rest on the formal co-equality of sovereigns and therefore refuse to accept any other nation as an equal and will do all in their power, preferably without having to resort to violent conflict, to become the dominant power in that region. While they may be ambitious enough to want to pull down the United States from its position of the sole super power, they are hard headed enough to realize that is beyond their capability for the next few decades. However, they are unwilling to countenance the rise of any other power in Asia.

There is also a competitive facet to this relationship as both countries compete to corner natural resources and markets in their attempts to pull their vast populations out of poverty and join the developed world.

It is China’s inherent fear of losing control over Tibet. Their occupation of Tibet is questionable given the levels of protests by the ethnic Tibetans in the region over the years, even to this day.

Finally, the relationship has been greatly aggravated by the on- going border dispute that has remained unresolved ever since the occupation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in 1949-50. It resulted in the border war of 1962 that India lost, consequences of which continue to haunt the Indian psyche and the security establishment even to this day.

However, despite lack of any apparent progress in talks that have lasted over three decades, regular cross-border intrusions and even the odd confrontation, the border continues to remain relatively quiet and peaceful. This is a far cry from the situation that India faces along its disputed boundary with Pakistan in Kashmir, where cross-border artillery duels, terrorist infiltrations into Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan and attacks on Border Posts are a routine feature.

While all these factors are a cause for worry, they can be mitigated or resolved if suitable impetus and focus is given to the subject by the political leadership on either side. The real flashpoint that may lead to another conflict and is the probable reason for Chinese antipathy towards India, however, is an issue that continues to be shrouded in the background. It is its inherent fear of losing control over Tibet. Their occupation of Tibet is questionable given the levels of protests by the ethnic Tibetans in the region over the years, even to this day.

The Chinese Government insists that they do not accept the McMahon Line as the Sino-Indian border and continue to stake their claim line in Arunachal Pradesh…

The civil disturbances of 2008, which required the induction of two divisions to pacify the restive population of just Lhasa and its environs, are still quite fresh in the minds of the Chinese leadership. That they have been unable to pacify Tibet despite more than 75 years of punitive action against them, involving torture and murder of protestors as well as an ongoing attempt to transform the demography of the region by pushing in millions of Han settlers.

The governing elite is firmly of the opinion that Tibetan opposition to Chinese occupation has been sustained through the overwhelming influence that His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, continues to wield despite living in exile in India for nearly six decades. This they believe would not have been possible without complicity on the part of the Indian Government.

Recently, in an unprecedented move, Mr. Dai Bingguo, a former Deputy Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China and State Councilor, who had represented China in 15 rounds of talks with India on the border question till his retirement in 2013, has suggested a methodology to resolve the border issue. In an interview to a Chinese magazine he has suggested that if India ceded the Tawang region in Arunachal Pradesh, China would reciprocate by giving up its claim over Aksai Chin to solve the border dispute between both countries. For such a statement to be made by an experienced diplomat and politician of his stature, without official patronage is improbable and unlikely and thus needs to be given serious consideration, especially given its timing.

Before focusing on the issue of timing it needs to be understood that interprets the border issue very differently from the Chinese viewpoint. The Chinese Government insists that they do not accept the McMahon Line as the Sino-Indian border and continue to stake their claim line in Arunachal Pradesh or “South Tibet”, as they now prefer to call it, up to the foothills. However, their claims are based on spurious facts and fallacious reasoning, especially given the self-serving nature of their actions over the years. Their claims that Tibet has been a part of China from the Yuan Dynasty onwards (1271-1368) is open to interpretation and has never been accepted by the Tibetan people.

China withdrew from all areas of Arunachal Pradesh that it had occupied during the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962 only buttresses India’s position on the subject.

The acceptance of the McMahon Line, which lays down the boundary between Outer Tibet and the North East Frontier Province (now Arunachal Pradesh) of British India, by the Tibetan Administration at the Simla Conference of 1903 is indisputable, despite Chinese non-acceptance of Tibetan Independence at that time.

Moreover, there are also documents and letters that clearly show that the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai in his discussions with Prime Minister Nehru in 1954 and 1956 had gone so far as to say that though he did not consider the McMahon Line as fair but since it concerned two friendly countries, India and Burma, China could recognise it. Off course, as we know, he subsequently reneged on his own promise in January 1959. This was followed up with the assault and capture of Longju, well south of the McMahon Line in August of that year.

The fact that China withdrew from all areas of Arunachal Pradesh that it had occupied during the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962 only buttresses India’s position on the subject.

Mr. Dai Bingguo’s offer comes at a time when His Holiness the Dalai Lama is to visit Arunachal Pradesh on the invitation of the Chief Minister of the province, despite the intense disapproval and very public objections of the Chinese Government. It is no mere coincidence that his visit includes a stopover at the Tawang Gompa, India’s largest Buddhist Monastery, which is also of immense importance to Tibetans who know it as the Gaden Namgyal Lhatse.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson categorically stated “India is fully aware of the seriousness of Dalai issue and the sensitivity of China-India border question. Under such a background if India invites Dalai to visit the mentioned territory, it will cause serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China-India relations.” India has brushed aside these objections by officially stating “Dalai Lama is free to travel in any part of the country, we see nothing unusual if he visits Arunachal Pradesh again”. It had earlier adopted a similar stance while permitting the United States Ambassador to visit Arunachal against objections raised by the Chinese Government. All of this clearly points to push back by the Modi Government for some of the actions taken by China which have impacted Indian core interests.

The Chinese Government, with its usual efficiency, is already preparing for such a contingency by planning to appoint their own choice for Dalai Lama, in a manner similar to what they had employed to nominate the 11th Panchen Lama…

Ostensibly the Chinese Government has shown its extreme unhappiness towards India over the Dalai Lama’s forthcoming visit to Arunachal Pradesh. Ironically, however, what concerns them more is the uncertainty that would affect Tibet in the even the Dalai Lama were to pass on in the near future. Given that he is in his Eighties, it is a distinct possibility that cannot be overlooked. The Chinese Government, with its usual efficiency, is already preparing for such a contingency by planning to appoint their own choice for Dalai Lama, in a manner similar to what they had employed to nominate the 11th Panchen Lama, the second most revered religious leader in Tibet, located in its second largest city, Shigatse.

As per tradition the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama are both very closely involved in the selection process to identify the reincarnation of the other on their death. This process has been in vogue for over five hundred years, ever since the time the 5th Dalai Lama announced the 1st Panchen Lama as the incarnation of “Dhayani Buddha Amitābha” in the late 16th Century. However in May 1995, when the present Dalai Lama named six year old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the Chinese Government allegedly kidnapped him and replaced him with their puppet, Gyancain Norbu, who is reviled by the local Tibetan population. The true Panchen Lama is believed to be under custody and has never been seen in public since November 1995.

There is little doubt that the Chinese Government will attempt to use their puppet “Panchen Lama”to announce the incarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama on the death of the present incumbent.

The present Dalai Lama is fully conversant of the Chinese game plan and has countered it by releasing an official statement on 24th Nov 2011 that goes on to state “When I am about ninety I will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. On that basis we will take a decision. If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognized, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. They should consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these concerned beings and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this. Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China.”[i]

Given the fact that all three countries are declared nuclear weapons states such a scenario may easily result in a horrific miscalculation…that would be disastrous for the region…

While China may hold India responsible for its support of the Dalai Lama and the influence that he exerts within Tibet, it has however been forced to hold its peace because India has consistently ensured that neither the Dalai Lama nor the Tibetan Government in Exile interfere in any manner in the internal affairs of Tibet. All of this is, however, likely to change in the coming years if following the death of the 14th Dalai Lama the Tibetan Government in Exile actively opposes its choice of the next Dalai Lama and follows the present Dalai Lama’s instructions. In such circumstances Tibet is likely to face a serious escalation in the ongoing peaceful civil disobedience movement opposed to Chinese occupation. There is a possibility that this opposition may take a more violent turn.

Such an act will be blamed on India and given the barely concealed hostility and simmering anger between both countries there is every likelihood of a kinetic confrontation. In that context punitive action against India by China to reclaim “South Tibet” would be a distinct possibility, more so if the CPEC gets stalled due to the separatist Baluchi movement within Pakistan which has tacit moral support of India. This confrontation would probably be restricted to the high Himalayas, but is likely to draw in Pakistan as well, especially given its close relationship with China and its ambitions on Jammu and Kashmir.

Given the fact that all three countries are declared nuclear weapons states such a scenario may easily result in a horrific miscalculation. While that would be disastrous for the region, there is little likelihood that the rest of the world would be able to escape the consequences of such a conflict either. Whatever be the after effects, it would be wise for the Indian security establishment to start gearing up to deal with this likely flash point. We would do well to not just learn but implement the lessons of 1962, quite a few of which don’t seem to have been learnt.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a second generation para trooper and author of “Beyond the Bayonet: Indian Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century.” He is currently a consultant with the Observer Research Foundation.

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4 thoughts on “Playing Hardball: Confronting Chinese Hegemonic Designs in South Asia

  1. A little thought with a rider, I may not be understanding the matter to much depth.

    India Now should be more aggressive with respect to China and Pak, Aggressive in policy so that the ball and moral obligation is always on the neighbor to play it cool. What I mean is clear and limited to these points only :-
    1. India should claim part of Tibet as its own with the boundary being Indus in west, and Brahmputra till east. India should find historical evidence and put forth the claim. Let China be answered in its own way like it claim nine dash lines

    2. Wrt to West Kashmir India should claim back its areas, pok and G-B. every confrontation and dialogue with China and Pak should mention these areas.

  2. Statements made by Mr Trump during recent elections really do not reflect major shift in US policy in respect of China or Pakistan. Such statements are made by politicians for pubic consumption. Importance of Pakistan or China continues to be the same as was during previous regimes of USA and shall never diminish.. China will continue its effort to maintain its hegemony in Asia and none can differ on this. It will be unrealistic to even think of exchanging Aksai Chin with Tawang. Chinese are known as hard bargainers and do not be surprised if they stake claim initially on whole of Ladakh and Arunachal. While peace process and dialogues can continue, do not expect any breakthrough in near future. Be it support for NSG, or seat in UNSC, we can always expect vehement opposition from China. China will be Enemy No.1 and not Pakistan in due course. The only solution is to strengthen and modernise our defence in North as it will be naive to expect any help from US or West..

  3. As of now the Indian Army is woefully inadequate in many ways to face a Chinese onslaught from Tibet on India. Reasons are well known to those who need to know and why? Maybe the Government slumbers on, hoping or imagining that the Chinese will not up the ante. We seem to have an ostrich like mentality when it comes to our National Defence. Our deployment of a police force to man a disputed border region under the aegis of the Home Ministry spills the beans of how well we are prepared mentally and militarily to accept the Chinese challenge. The Chinese always like to speak from the position of power. They tend to test the water first before embarking on an adventure. Their fishermen fleets ( PLA Navy personnel) swarming the shoals in the South China Sea and finally their occupation and now their militarization is an example of how they proceed. This is how they have been testing us on our borders, walking in and walking out and gauging our responses. The border dispute with India is not just a boundary dispute with India, its ramifications are writ large related to the question of Tibet. If the boundary dispute with India is resolved then Tibet is theirs with no hitches. The only hitch that remains is India. In my perception they will try a 62’ like short blitzkrieg to seize a chunk of India territory, having achieved their initial objective declare a ceasefire and bring India to a negation table and draw out a final agreement from a position of advantage. That will be the final end of the Tibetan issue. Our aim should be to stall them and then launch an offensive to draw them into a larger conflict which will upset their apple cart of the negotiation table. Remember the Indian Ocean is an open game where we still have the advantage.

  4. Thank you for writing from Chinese “perception” – believe that’s the word our RM has oft used in the past wrt Ladhakh, POK, AL. Let the UNSCPM worry about “horrific miscalculation” for itself and its all-weather ally. Let the rest 4 of UNSC worry about missile/ nuclear proliferation carried out by one of its own with rogue nations like North Korea, Pakistan.

    Soch badlo – jara lambi socho.

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