January 11, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Claude Arpi

Indo-Chinese relations: Great Leap Forward?
Indo-Chinese relations: Great Leap Forward?

In November 1951, at the presentation of the credentials of the first Pakistani ambassador to Beijing, Mao spoke of the 'long friendship between the two countries' and the 'common wishes for lasting peace in Asia and the world'. Though at that time the 'long friendship' was only four years old, today it has become 'deeper than the oceans and higher than the mountains', as was reiterated several times by the Chinese leadership during General Musharraf's two recent visits to China.

The visit of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to India cannot be dissociated from this 'long friendship'. So much so that Zhu's visit had to be postponed in November when China and Pakistan were not very sure of the turn of events in Afghanistan. Today, after the defeat of the Taliban and the Pakistan president's visits to China, the situation seems clearer for Beijing and Zhu's visit could be rescheduled.

The first point to note is that despite Musharraf's visits, China has tried to keep a certain balance between India and Pakistan, at least in its declaration of intention.

However, when tension began to escalate between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the December 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, the 'old' friendship translated into the immediate supply of armaments by China to Pakistan.

The Pakistani newspaper The News, quoting senior officials in Islamabad, wrote: 'China dispatched five ships to Karachi in the span of about 10 days. The ships were loaded with cargo ranging from cartons of unassembled brand new combat aircraft and a variety of air force-related weapons and equipment. The brand new aircraft were believed to be F-7MG, which Pakistan had ordered earlier. Pakistan had ordered two squadrons, about 40 aircraft, to beef up its ageing fleet.'

With Zhu Rongji's impending visit to India, Beijing objected to this report and Pakistan foreign office spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan quickly denied the arrival of the spares. He told a news conference that the information had no truth whatsoever and the report was fabricated. However, too many details had already gone public for the denial to be plausible.

One of these details should retain our attention. The Pakistani press declared: 'China made a speedy delivery of spares and related equipment for Pakistan's strategic assets through the Karakoram highway mountainous pass connecting both the countries.'

Apart from the fact that 'strategic assets' usually means 'nuclear weapons and delivery systems', the fact that part of the shipment was made through the Karakoram highway is of great importance.

We should remember that soon after the beginning of the American intervention in Afghanistan, some Pakistani mujahideen occupied the Khunjerab Pass between Pakistan and Xinjiang province of China for more than six days. At that time, Musharraf had no alternative but to send a delegation of mullahs to 'negotiate' the withdrawal of the 'tribes'.

Though no news appeared later in the press, it appears the pass was cleared and military convoys could use the Karakoram high road again. This brings us to one of the most important strategic knots in the relations between Pakistan, India and China: namely Xinjiang, Tibet and Kashmir.

Soon after the tragic attack of September 11, China began demanding a price for its support for the US-led retaliation against the Taliban regime. Beijing sought to gain American 'support and understanding' in its fight against 'terrorism' in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Zhu Bangzao, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, told the press a week after the terrorist attacks: 'The United States has asked China to provide assistance in the fight against terrorism. China, by the same token, has reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists.' Though China was ready to provide help to the United States, Zhu Bangzao said: 'We should not have double standards.'

Around that time, Musharraf became the 'major' ally of the United States. However the general soon began differentiating between Taliban terrorism and Kashmiri jihad. For Pakistan, the so-called freedom struggle of the Kashmiri people could continue while the extremists supporting the Kandahar regime were to be reined in. A difficult proposition indeed!

The Americans, who badly needed Pakistani airports and land base for their military operations in Afghanistan, temporarily agreed with Islamabad that Kashmir was different. China's entry in the game made the problem more complex. To link their problems in Tibet and Xinjiang with the Taliban was an easy temptation for Beijing. Of course, it was difficult for them to really speak about terrorism in Tibet.

Under the non-violent leadership of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans in their 50 years of non-violent struggle for independence (or 'genuine autonomy') have never used Kalashnikovs or even violence to reach their objectives. It probably explains why, after a couple of weeks, the Chinese government spokesperson had to fine-tune his theory: he began differentiating between 'terrorists, separatists and splitists'. But the issue of Xinjiang, where the Uighur Muslim population has not always been so peaceful, remained.

The problem faced by the 'all-weather friendship' between Pakistan and China was (and is) that the mujahideen who have been crossing over to Kashmir to bring terror for the past 12 years in the valley are the same who are ready to cross the Khunjerab Pass and enter Xinjiang to bring in the Islamic revolution. This prospect does not make Beijing rejoice.

During their first meeting President Jiang Zemin of China and Musharraf discussed the tensions between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. The Chinese leader offered his good offices: 'If China has any role to play, we will help relaxation of tensions and improvement of relations between India and Pakistan.' However, Musharraf, who had hoped to get China's support on the Kashmir issue, did not get what he wanted. Beijing was not ready to take a stand that could boomerang against them in Xinjiang.

On this issue, the September 11 factor seems to bring Beijing and Delhi closer and it could be an easy temptation for the Indian government to equate Kashmir to Xinjiang and Tibet, but is this a correct postulate? Would it be wise for Delhi, who may have a common concern with Beijing about Islamic fundamentalism, to jump on to the bandwagon of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or even approve of Chinese policies in Xinjiang and Tibet?

Some Western observers were quick to club together the issues of Tibet, Xinjiang and Kashmir. A recent example is an article by Isabel Hilton in The Guardian. She wrote: The war against terrorism has proved a blessing to governments embroiled in long-running conflicts, especially, though not exclusively, where the rebels are Muslim. ... In Tibet, China has increased repression under the guise of a campaign against terrorism. ... But it is in Xinjiang and in Kashmir that the Chinese and Indian governments, respectively, have been offered a justification for the use of force that could prove a dangerous and counter-productive option. In both places, there is a historical dispute that, in the absence of negotiation, has led to violence. ... The security forces have a better chance of getting away with violence without international condemnation.

But Xinjiang, Tibet and Kashmir are three entirely different issues. The grievances of the people of Tibet and Xinjiang are mainly due to lack of autonomy and the massive transfer of population that has been the hallmark of Beijing's 'imperialist' policy for the past two decades. Chinese Han are today a majority in Tibet (with 7.5 million Chinese versus 6 million Tibetans). Over the past 40 years, the transfer of population and cultural cleansing has continued unabated on the Roof of the World and it is bound to increase with the opening of a railway line from the mainland to Lhasa. The situation is similar in Xinjiang, where the Han population equals Uighur Muslims in the former Eastern Turkestan.

In Kashmir, a reverse scenario has occurred with the Kashmiri Pandits who for centuries have been the cultural heart of the state having had to flee en masse from the valley under the pressure of the militant groups belonging to the Islamic jihad based in Pakistan.

Racially, culturally, linguistically and politically, Tibet and Xinjiang were separate entities for centuries before the advent of Communist rule in 1949 in China. Kashmir has always been a part of India. It is only due to the unfortunate Partition on the Indian subcontinent on communal lines (thanks to the British rulers, particularly the Tories, for whom it was certainly a way to control the subcontinent better) that Kashmir has become an unsolvable issue.

It has been unfortunate that during the past decade Indian leaders have not been able to articulate properly their position vis--vis Kashmir, Xinjiang and Tibet. At times (particularly during earlier visits of Chinese leaders), India was bullied into accepting that the problems of Kashmir, Xinjiang and Tibet were similar. This matter will certainly come up again for discussion between the Chinese premier and Indian leaders and one can only hope that the Indian position will remain firm.

Another topic should be taken up for discussion: The building of a railway line to Lhasa could have the most disastrous consequences for India's security. It is perhaps the gravest threat to India since the building of motorable roads by the People's Liberation Army in Tibet in the fifties. While 'liberating Tibet from the imperialists' was then used as a motto by the Chinese, they have now coined a new slogan: 'Development of the West [of China]'. But for India the problem remains the same: Delhi should not fool itself, especially after the Chinese themselves have admitted that the railway line will 'strengthen the borders'.

From 1950, it took 12 years for the Chinese to be ready with the logistics, mainly roads, airports and 'pacification' of the local Tibetan population. The story of the 1962 debacle is known to all. Today, the old rivalry between India and China has not disappeared (at least in the Chinese mind) and from this point of view, a train to Lhasa is of tremendous importance to Beijing. This will complete a pincer movement ultimately encircling India.

One should not forget that the Chinese now have rail access up to Kashgar in Xinjiang as well as in the south to Burma and the Indochina peninsula. The train will be able to bring men and armaments dangerously close to the Indian border. The Tibet-Xinjiang highway, running alongside the Indian border in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir before cutting across Indian territory in Aksai Chin, Ladakh, will become the most strategic axis in the world. Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Tibet and Xinjiang will be linked together. It should not be forgotten also that the battle over the Siachen glacier is not a prestige issue, but only about this link.

Another security danger that India should take up with Zhu is that of the waters from Tibet, the source of most of Asia's great rivers. The control of these rivers is of very great strategic importance for the subcontinent. One example is the floods that occurred in the spring of 2000 in Arunachal Pradesh and in Kinnaur area in July 2000, which washed away many Indian strategic roads and bridges (especially along the Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh). There are good reasons to believe these floods were not natural calamities, but human-triggered. It is more than unfortunate that it was hardly reported in the Indian press.

Once more we can only hope it will be frankly discussed with Zhu Rongji who is perhaps more open than his predecessor Li Peng, though it appears he might be out of his job next year.

The strategic position of the Tibetan plateau is certainly the most important factor to keep in mind and only an autonomous Tibet can give India a true and permanent guarantee for her genuine security concerns. It is also the only solution to solve all the other contentious problems, including the border issue.

How can one forget that India had no problem with China for 2000 years, simply because India had no border with China?

Design: Uttam Ghosh

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