India, Pakistan and the rise of China

May 25, 2009

India has been fretting for months that it could be pushed into the background by the United States’ economic dependence on China and by the renewed focus on Pakistan by President Barack Obama’s administration.  That anxiety appears to have increased lately — perhaps because the end of the country’s lengthy election campaign has opened up space to think more about the external environment — and is focusing on China.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Indian Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major said China posed a greater threat than Pakistan.  “China is a totally different ballgame compared to Pakistan,” he was quoted as saying. “We know very little about the actual capabilities of China, their combat edge or how professional their military is … they are certainly a greater threat.”

The Mint newspaper followed up with a editorial calling China “perhaps the gravest external threat” to India’s security. “That India is in an unstable neighbourhood is clearer than ever this summer,” it said. “But troubles from Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal pale when compared with China.”

The increased anxiety has been driven by the end of the war in Sri Lanka, where the government’s victory was attributed partly to a supply of Chinese weapons, and where China has been building a new port on the island’s southern coast.

“This is part of a broad move by China into the Indian Ocean, which India has traditionally considered its sphere of influence,” said British newspaper The Times. Chinese engineers are building another port at Gwadar in Pakistan; roads are being cut or improved through Burma to help trade routes between Yunnan province in China and the Indian Ocean; ties are being improved with island nations such as the Seychelles; surveillance stations are being sited or upgraded on Burmese islands.”

But even without the Sri Lankan trigger, Indian analysts have suggested that India may no longer enjoy the favoured position that developed under former president George W. Bush, when Washington forged close ties with Delhi, in part as a counterweight to China.  Facing the twin challenges of financial crisis and a military stalemate in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is dependent on India’s two main rivals — China to pay for American debt and Pakistan to help it defeat the Taliban.

“The crux of the matter lies in the US’s relationship with China,” retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote in the Asia Times. “At first glance, it may appear there is hardly any ellipsis between George W Bush’s policy of engaging China in ‘constructive, candid and cooperative’ ties and Obama’s search for a ‘positive, cooperative and comprehensive’ US-China partnership. But the reality is that the US today has a much greater need of strategic engagement with China and arguably to ‘upgrade’ the partnership in the direction of an elevated dialogue on global political issues.”

“To be sure, China’s global influence has increased and a full-blown US-China strategic partnership – as evident from the mere talk of an exclusive ‘G-2′ matrix – will figure on the radars of countries such as India (or Japan) as a high probability if not an inevitability. The Obama administration will have to work hard to reassure India that it is not being relegated to a subordinate status.”

India’s loss does not automatically mean Pakistan’s gain.

Pakistan has traditionally regarded China as its most reliable ally. In the past, Sino-Indian rivalry has helped it to win military supplies from China along with financial and diplomatic support. But rivalry between its two giant neighbours has not necessarily always played in its favour. India developed nuclear weapons to counter China’s nuclear capability.  Pakistan, according to the Pakistan Army’s official website, saw this as “coercive diplomacy” targetting not China, but Pakistan, and began its own nuclear weapons programme after India carried out its first nuclear test in 1974.

Nor did Pakistan necessarily gain from India’s defeat by China in a border war in 1962, which left India with an enduring anxiety about its long, unmarked borders. When it feared Pakistan was planning to take control of the mountains beyond Kashmir — an area so remote that it had never been demarcated — India sent troops to occupy the heights above the Siachen glacier in 1984. Although India had been burned by what it saw as Chinese encroachment in its border areas before the 1962 war, its actions on Siachen were directed against Pakistan. (Twenty-five years later, the Indian and Pakistan armies are still deployed on the heights above Siachen, with India commanding the higher positions.)

Nor does Pakistan automatically gain from ever-closer ties between the United States and China.

According to this McClatchy report, the Obama administration has appealed to China to provide training and even military equipment to help Pakistanis counter the growing militant threat. “The proposal is part of a broad push by Washington to enlist key allies of Pakistan in an effort to persuade Islamabad to step up its efforts against militants while supporting the fragile civilian government and its tottering economy.” it says. Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, had visited China and Saudi Arabia, another ally, in recent weeks as part of the effort, it said.

In the past, Pakistan prided itself as a go-between, facilitating the Cold War thaw in relations between the United States and communist China in the early 1970s.  That may seem like a long time ago, but in a region with a fierce attachment to history, is Pakistan really ready to have Washington and Beijing talk over its head about what is best for it?

(Photos: President Obama meets President Hu in London; and Indian soldiers in Siachen)


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