China aims to block India’s place in the sun
Posted by: John Elliott
It’s probably the tip of the iceberg of China’s ambitions to thwart India’s emergence as a significant economic and maybe diplomatic and military power. I’m referring to what might appear to some to be a crazy article on a Chinese strategic issues website, which claims that China could “dismember the so-called ‘Indian Union’ with one little move”.
The writer has argued that India’s national unity is weak and that China could exploit this by supporting separatist forces, such as those active in India’s north-east state of Assam, and split the country into 20 or 30 sovereign states.
“There cannot be two suns in the sky. China and India cannot really deal with each other harmoniously,” said the article. That almost certainly reflects Beijing thinking, even though the founder of the website has claimed the anonymous writer has no known government links.
The article was posted last Saturday and was publicised in India yesterday, prompting the Indian foreign ministry to say it appeared to be “an expression of individual opinion and does not accord with the officially stated position of China on India-China relations conveyed to us on several occasions”. But what else could India say – especially since the article coincided with apparently cordial talks between the two countries on their border that has been disputed since China defeated India in a brief 1962 Himalayan war.
It is not unusual for China to fly such extreme kites. Philip Bowring of the Hong Kong-based Asia Sentinel website pointed out in a New York Times article two days ago that the arrest last week of two Rio Tinto executives in Beijing for alleged theft and corruption followed an internet article written by an official of China’s National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets, which accused Rio of commercial “spying” that had cost the nation $100bn in higher iron ore prices – an accusation says Bowring that “does not stand up to the most casual scrutiny of trade data”. Bowring then points out that “although the article is no longer on the website, its claims have not been corrected and its imprint on Chinese minds will not disappear”.
The imprint of the India internet article will also not disappear because, whatever the two countries may say officially, it sums up what has been happening for years.
As James Lamont and Amy Kazmin explained a month ago in an excellent FT round-up of the two countries’ tortuous relations, China has been encircling India by developing influence and outposts in Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, and wants to usurp India’s major role in controlling the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
Pakistan, which China has armed and helped become a nuclear power, has been destabilising India first in Punjab (in the 1980s) and then in Kashmir. China has also for years been encouraging separatist forces in India’s north-eastern states, including Assam, and will no doubt use its growing clout in Myanmar – and Bangladesh – to increase those activities. In the future it could perhaps use its growing influence in Sri Lanka – where it is developing a naval base and advised the government in the recent defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatists – to cause unrest among linked Tamil communities in southern India.It has also strengthened its border claims – for example by opposing a $3bn Asian Development Bank aid project in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian border state that China claims as “south Tibet”. And it tried to block international approval of the recent India-US nuclear deal with the US.
This is of course a dangerous game and sometimes India has to respond – recently for example by moving fighter jets to the China border and, of course, by meddling in other countries, as a comment by Abhyaan (below) explains.
I have heard a former senior Indian bureaucrat argue privately that China’s basic – and permanent – aim is to force India to focus on domestic issues and thus thwart it becoming a future international rival.
China, according to this view – which is surely correct – is determined to be the world’s sole superpower after America, and does not want that status to be upset by a strong and democratic India backed by the US and Europe. Its tactics have become more insistent in the past two years as it has become irritated by India’s growing links with the US, culminating in the nuclear deal.
Everything that China does in relation to India therefore has to be seen through that prism. India will not fragment into 20 or 30 pieces – it is far too unified for that – but there is no prospect of permanent peace and co-operation between the two countries because, as the internet writer has said, “there cannot be two suns in the sky”.