China Seeks to Stem India's Budding Military Ties With U.S.

Saturday, January 19, 2002

International Herald Tribune

Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI -- After seeking to contain India through direct and surrogate
means, China is signaling its intent to be more responsive to Indian
concerns in an effort to dissuade New Delhi from forging a close strategic
partnership with Washington. With the United States already acquiring a
strategic foothold in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia as part of its
anti-terror campaign, Beijing views a potential U.S.-Indian military tie-up
as a nightmare for its interests.
While seeking a multipolar world, China has wanted a unipolar Asia, with
itself as the sole pole, so as to limit U.S. influence, contain India, bully
Taiwan, put down Japan, divide ASEAN, and make use of Pakistan against New
Delhi and North Korea against Tokyo. But the fast-changing strategic
landscape has upset Chinese ambitions.
With India and the United States now discussing strategic cooperation, Prime
Minister Zhu Rongji of China struck an unusually conciliatory tone during
his visit to the Indian capital this week, seeking greater economic
cooperation and consultations on international issues.
Beijing has also been reluctant to come out openly in support of its close
ally, Pakistan, in the current military standoff, even as it has quietly
rushed new jet fighters and other weapon systems to bolster Pakistani
Clearly, China's India policy wants to forestall a second blunder. The first
occurred in 1998 when India, citing China's nuclear buildup and its covert
nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan, declared itself a nuclear-weapons
state by conducting a series of underground tests.
As part of its strategy to deter the rise of a peer competitor in Asia,
China had sought to keep India locked in a low-level deterrent relationship
with Pakistan, with the flow of Chinese military assistance to Islamabad
calibrated to match Indian advances. With India tied down subcontinentally,
the Chinese rulers thought their containment was working well until New
Delhi shocked everyone by blasting its way out of the nuclear straitjacket.
Now, with New Delhi and Washington charting joint military cooperation, the
traditional Chinese policy of hemming in India from three sides - Pakistan,
Tibet and Burma - is in danger of reaping an unwanted whirlwind.
Despite Mr. Zhu's assertion that "China is not a threat to India," relations
between the two Asian giants, between them home to one-third of the human
race, remain uneasy.
The process of high-level visits initiated by India in 1979 has not defused
or diminished bilateral problems. After two decades of border negotiations,
India and China are still the only neighbors in the world without a mutually
recognized frontier. Official Chinese maps even now show three Indian states
outside India.
Moreover, Beijing has used the process of engagement with India as a cover
to transfer missile systems and technologies to Pakistan, build a
plutonium-production reactor there, and set up listening posts in Burma.
India is openly uncomfortable about China's growing power, its rising
assertiveness and nationalistic swagger, and its continuing nuclear and
missile expansion - the largest by any country.
Yet, in a space of 12 months, China has sent two members of its ruling
triumvirate - Li Peng, chairman of the National People's Congress, and now
Mr. Zhu. The other top leader, President Jiang Zemin, visited India in 1996.
The strategic transformation in Asia is taking place at a time of pending
leadership change in China. The Jiang-Zhu-Li triumvirate is scheduled to
retire one by one by the end of next year, although Mr. Jiang is expected to
continue to head China's most powerful institution, the Central Military
The overtures to India have been necessitated both by the new hurdles in
Chinese ambitions and by the growing likelihood of close U.S.-India military
In the years ahead, India and China are likely to remain strategic rivals,
although both want to emphasize areas of agreement and ensure that their
competition does not spill into open confrontation. India, however, is
likely to get increasingly drawn into closer strategic and military
cooperation with the United States without formally entering into an
alliance. The international lineup on U.S. missile defense plans reflects
the emerging strategic equations.
The writer, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center
for Policy Research in New Delhi, contributed this comment to the
International Herald Tribune.