Frederic Grare is a non-resident senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia Program. His book, “India Turns East” tells the story of India’s long and difficult journey to reclaim its status in the fast-changing Asian environment increasingly shaped by the US-China rivalry and the uncertainties of the US commitment to Asia’s security. Read an excerpt from the book here:
Disputes between India and China over Tibet, deeply intertwined with Chinese insecurities in the autonomous region, are perhaps the most troublesome.
As observed by eminent Indian analyst Raja Mohan, “When Tibet is relatively quiescent, it is possible for India and China to keep their fundamental disagreements on the back burner and move forward with the normalization of bilateral relations. When Tibet is restive, as it has been since 2008, it comes back to cast a big shadow on Sino-Indian relations.”
Beijing sees the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile as a base for “anti-China schemes” and regards New Delhi’s support for the Tibetan leader in exile as interference in China’s internal affairs. Although India has on several occasions recognized China’s sovereignty over Tibet, Beijing believes that New Delhi continues to prop up the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in order to create instability in Lhasa and fears that India might, as it did in the 1960s, cooperate with a US effort to support a Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule.
Following the 2008 Tibetan unrest, which prompted serious violence against the Han population in Gansu, Qinhai, and Sichuan provinces, the Chinese government not only placed responsibility on the Dalai Lama and his supporters but also indirectly accused India of fomenting the agitation in Tibet. Beijing’s response was to issue stapled visas for Indian residents from Jammu and Kashmir, indicating that it did not consider them as true Indian citizens and sending a message to New Delhi that it should revise its position on the disputed territories in favour of Pakistan.
Tibet’s contribution to Sino-Indian tensions is unlikely to disappear with the passing of the Dalai Lama. In fact, the issue has risen in prominence since his retirement from political duties in 2011. The Indian government fears that the succession of the Dalai Lama, which might prompt China to put forward its own nominee against the Dalai Lama’s selected successor, might become a source of serious tensions with China. Young Tibetan radicals might alter the Tibetan government-in-exile’s peaceful policies and take a stronger stance against the Chinese occupation in Tibet, and such an evolution would threaten the already fragile equilibrium New Delhi is trying to maintain with Beijing.
The succession of the Dalai Lama—and, as a consequence, the future of Tibet itself—might therefore further complicate India-China relations in the future. China undoubtedly has a military edge over India in the Himalayas. Over the last decade, Beijing has increased its military arsenal in Tibet and considerably developed its military presence. Five fully operational air bases, 46,000 km of roads, helipads, and an extensive rail network give China the ability to rapidly deploy some thirty divisions along the border.20 China has also pursued capacity augmentation on the Golmud-Lhasa rail line, rail links from Lanzhou to Kashi and Lhasa, and a 58,000 km road network. In addition, it has considerably increased its communication network, the level and frequency of its military exercises in Tibet, and its conventional and strategic missile capabilities in the region, compelling India to adopt a defensive position.
The persistence of the border dispute and the occurrence of regular, albeit nonviolent, incidents along the LAC can, therefore, be explained as much by China’s desire to maintain some leverage over India’s Tibet policy as by the intrinsic value of the territory at stake. Despite five successive Border Defence Cooperation Agreements since 1993, violations of the de facto border are commonplace. Agreements with China have essentially been a way of managing the dispute and ensuring that no violation would lead to a confrontation.
Yet the two countries agree neither on the demarcation of the actual boundary nor on the demarcation of the current LAC. In his visit to India in December 2010, Wen Jiabao, then-Chinese premier, dashed any hope of an imminent resolution of the border issue, stating that the settlement of the boundary issue would take a long time. Given that China has not yet succeeded in pacifying Tibet and fears Indian involvement in the area, keeping the border issue open provides Beijing with a strategic advantage: an unsettled border keeps India uncertain about China’s intentions while exposing India’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
But it is also important to note that India does consider China a revisionist power. Indian decision-makers do not believe that China is currently willing to change the status quo in Tibet and seem confident in their ability, in the near-term, to deter any potential aggression in the region thanks to India’s missile development (Agni V) and conventional arms acquisition programs.
But they are also aware that India’s infrastructure development program along the border lags behind China’s and are wary of the growing conventional military disadvantage with China. New Delhi expects Beijing to react politically and militarily should the latter feel threatened by strategic developments in the area, and thus seeks to avoid any situation that might elevate tensions or trigger a confrontation in the meantime.
Problems between India and China extend to areas not immediately linked to the territorial dispute in Tibet. India-China tensions also arise from Chinese support to Pakistan with which India has fought four wars since the partition of British India in 1947. China has used the enmity between the two countries to its advantage. Beijing is Islamabad’s most solid and influential political and military ally by far—and keeping Pakistan strong, independent, and loyal to China is one of Beijing’s methods of keeping India from initiating or collaborating on anti-China schemes in Tibet and elsewhere.
A solid strategic partnership between China and Pakistan is a key element of “China’s India-constraining structure of power.” The alliance between China and Pakistan confronts India with a permanent two-front threat – Pakistan in the west and China in the north and the northeast—that prevents a possible Indian intervention in Tibet.
As a result, Beijing has been a constant source of military backing for Islamabad. It has strengthened Pakistan’s offensive and defensive air and naval capabilities, essentially threatening India with a two-front war in case of conflict with China. China is not the only nation that provides Islamabad with military hardware. But Beijing’s aid to Pakistan’s missile and nuclear programs has deeply altered the balance of power in South Asia to the detriment of India. China was responsible for the transfer of sensitive military technologies, including the design for a nuclear warhead, which allowed Pakistan to successfully build a nuclear deterrent in the 1980s.
China has also given Pakistan missiles of various ranges as part of its effort to balance India and thereby allowing Pakistan to continue its proxy war against India under the nuclear umbrella True, China’s policy toward Pakistan is evolving. Beijing does not trust Islamabad’s ability to contain its terrorism problem and is not willing to let Pakistan get in the way of better relations with India. But Beijing’s policies are selective and reflect changing circumstances rather than any fundamental alteration in China’s objectives.
China does not want Pakistan’s use of proxies against India to spark a conflict which would most likely push New Delhi closer to Washington and Tokyo. Beijing also wants Pakistan to monitor its own border with Afghanistan to limit China’s need to prevent Uighur fighters from moving across its borders but is not ready to pressure Pakistan into limiting the development of its tactical nuclear weapons program. The program constrains India’s ability to retaliate in cases of Pakistani-sponsored terrorist aggression within India and forces India to integrate Pakistan into its strategic calculations.
It also limits India’s hegemony in the subcontinent. While it is uncertain whether China would take up arms on Pakistan’s behalf, Beijing actions have helped produce an Indo-Pakistani deadlock that seems as permanent as it is unstable. If Beijing has created an additional burden for itself in the process—as it needs to constantly restrain Pakistan—it still constrains India’s ability to mobilize its military resources on the Eastern front and thus gives Beijing further leverage over India that it can use when necessary.
Note: This has been excerpted from “India Turns East: International Engagement and US-China Rivalry” by Frederic Grare – with permission from Penguin.