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Home > News > Columnists > Claude Arpi

Reassessing the Chinese threat

April 21, 2003

The new Chinese leadership has just taken over the reins of the most populous nation in the world. Already many dark clouds are appearing in the sky of the Middle Empire.

With the Iraq war nearing its end, what is going to happen during the next few months is anybody's guess. However, it is certain that the world will not be the same. The forces set in motion by the American operations will have far-reaching repercussions the world over. India and China will not be spared and the new Chinese bosses might have to take new directions on several matters.

First of all, in their relations with the United States. A 130-page report prepared for Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of state for defense and entitled Indo-US military relationship: expectations and perceptions, was recently partially leaked by Jane's Defense Review.

When it reached Beijing, it must have left Hu Jintao and his colleagues pensive. According to the department of defence analysts, the US and India should be forging a long-term defence and security alliance aimed at containing China. Both Asian nations are acknowledged as emerging global powers. The report believes: 'China represents the most significant threat to both countries' security in the future as well as an economic and military competitor.'

Several of 82 senior US and Indian officials interviewed, mostly military personnel, all closely linked with bilateral security relations between Washington and Delhi were of the view that 'if China emerges as a major power, the USA needs to have friends -- preferably friends who share the same values…'

A US admiral told the interviewer: 'The USA and India both view China as a strategic threat and share an interest in understanding Chinese strategic intent, though we do not discuss this publicly.' The conclusion was: 'We [the US] want a friend in 2020 that will be capable of assisting the US militarily to deal with a Chinese threat.'

Though the views of the US and Indian generals seem 'strikingly similar,' the threat is different for the two countries. The US sees China more as a rival for its economic supremacy, while India has a serious problem at its borders.

For example, the report points out that China has resumed, after a two-decade gap, the supply of weapons to various insurgent groups fighting in northeastern India (see recent bombings in Assam). This assumes a serious significance for India with its long border with Tibet.

The American analysts nevertheless believe that, both nations are under Chinese threat and should join hands, India being the 'hedge' against China's hegemony in Asia.

How Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, his new prime minister, will react to this report in the fast moving post-war scenario will be interesting to watch. It is probably why there were recently some indications that Beijing was more inclined to start serious negotiations with India on the border issue and with the Dalai Lama's administration for an internal autonomy for Tibet.

Moreover, the publication of the report inadvertently coincided with the preparation of George Fernandes' visit to Beijing. The first Indian leader to meet the new Chinese leadership is certainly not an ordinary visitor.

Five years ago, soon after he had taken over as Indian defence minister, he had publicly taken a position close to the US report's conclusions (at least about the threat to India). He had declared: 'India faces the biggest threat from China, not from Pakistan.'

In the same speech, he had criticised India's national security planners for ignoring Beijing's plans for regional hegemony, despite having received warnings over the last five decades. He had indicated that the situation had worsened with China expanding military airfields in Tibet. He also mentioned that the Chinese were building a base on the Coco Islands near the Andamans and helping Pakistan with nuclear weaponry.

Today, the US report points out: 'India faces the reality that it lives in a neighbourhood where China supplies nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, weapons to Bangladesh and is building a 12,000 ft runaway near Mandalay (Burma) and a deep-water port in Gwadar in Pakistan.'

Five years ago, when Fernandes quoted Ram Manohar Lohia, the socialist leader for whom China's annexation of Tibet was not only an attack on Tibet but also on India, he was not taken seriously. When he objected to the 'reluctance' to face the reality about China's intentions, a hue and cry was raised in India on the Indian minister's 'loose talk' and 'irresponsible statements.'

During the following years, Fernandes refrained from commenting on China's affairs. But today it appears that his concerns are shared by the US, though perhaps for their own interests.

A recently published report of the RAND Corporation The Military Potential of China's Commercial Technology, investigates the fast improvement of Chinese military technology over the next 20 years.

The report states: 'If China's economy continues to grow as expected over the next 20 years, by 2020 it will surpass that of the United States in terms of purchasing power. Such growth would in theory provide China with the economic base to field a military comparable to that of the United States. But in order to become a true military superpower, China would need to make major improvements in the technological capabilities of its defense industries.'

It is not the Chinese economy which bothers India too much (though the problems of the IT engineers in Malaysia might be a fallout of the growing Chinese quest for hegemony in the area), but more the happenings in Tibet.

Until the Chinese invaded Tibet in October 1950, Tibet was an independent nation. The few remnants of the Chinese mission had politely been asked to leave accompanied by a local fanfare in July 1949. More importantly for India and China, Tibet had for centuries been a buffer zone between the two Asian giant nations.

With the disappearance of this buffer zone (the Dalai Lama today dreams of a zone of ahimsa), India and China began to face each other and share a common border.

In spite of several rounds of talks, particularly in 1960, the so-called border row has not been solved and may not be solved for decades to come. Though maps have been exchanged for more than 40 years, it has resulted in little progress on the ground.

Today China still lays claim to Arunchal Pradesh and Sikkim as well as the eastern part of Ladakh called Aksai Chin. There crosses the most strategic road of the People's Republic: the Tibet-Xinjiang highway linking the two provinces. While China could be more amenable on the central and eastern sectors of the border, Beijing will not concede anything on the Aksai Chin, as too many defence as well as development aspects depend on this axis.

In fact, since Fernandes' famous speech, this road link has taken a renewed importance due to the railway track that will soon reach the Tibetan capital. With trains reaching Kashgar and Lhasa, the highway will complete the loop linking China's Western provinces, with all the consequences for Central Asia. It is certainly here that the concerns of the US and India meet.

But for India, Tibet is the key to the stability in the region. On April 7, during a press conference in Delhi, the Dalai Lama reiterated his demand for 'genuine' autonomy within China. He said he hoped the culture and spirituality of Tibet and its traditions could be preserved: 'It is our only interest to seek autonomy within the constitution of China.'After the first round of negotiations last September during which 'the atmosphere was quite warm and quite positive,' the Dalai Lama's representatives are scheduled to go to Beijing in May for a second round of talks. For the Dalai Lama: 'If the Tibetans get the right to preserve their architecture and environment, then as far as economic development is concerned we might get greater benefit by remaining within China,' but the situation might not be that simple for the US as it is this economic development and its collateral which worries Washington.

Architecture might not bother the US, but for the Tibetans who see the example of Beijing, it is frightening to think that the son of Hitler's architect, Albert Speer has been chosen by Jiang Zemin to transform the Chinese capital into a 'modern city.'

China expert Jasper Baker recently wrote that Speer has begun: 'a series of mega-projects whose giganticism equals if not exceeds what Hitler was prepared to do for old messy Berlin. The price tag for the new Beijing is said to run to well over $100bn, making it the largest such infrastructure project in the world.' As for the environment, it is worrying not only for the Dalai Lama, but also for Indian experts who know that Tibet is the water tank of Asia, with all the main rivers, such the Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Salween, Yangtze and others having their source on the Tibetan plateau. Any change in the ecological balance in Tibet has severe and immediate repercussions in all parts of Asia, particularly in India.

In this complicated situation, with different conflicting centers of interest, the first visit to Beijing of an Indian official after the recent change of guard will be worth watching.

Once the Iraq operations are over, Washington is bound to look East and tackle some of the pending problems. In Beijing, this will not make life easier for Hu and Wen, especially when every day new problems such as the spread of the SARS virus are piling up on their tables.

As for India, though China is more of a security threat than an economic one, it does not automatically mean that it should play the role of the 'hedge' envisaged by Washington. Delhi should access on her own the security threats such as the consequences of a rail line to Lhasa, the ecological dangers due to environmental damages caused by the Chinese occupation of Tibet (mainly on the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra) or even the Chinese presence in the Malacca Straits and take the necessary measures.

George Fernandes was quite right five years ago when he had concluded: 'All discussions can be conducted even while you are prepared to face any eventuality and what I'm pleading is that we should be prepared for any eventuality.' It is certain that the solution proposed by the Dalai Lama to have a demilitarised Tibet would be good not only for the Buddhists on the Roof of the World, but also for India and ultimately China. Let us hope that in the changed context, the new leaders in Beijing will dare to consider it.


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