China opposes Indian hegemony in South Asia, but realises its own limits.
Two basic facts stand out when looking at the perceptions South Asian countries have about China. The first is that there is a sharp divide between India’s perception and that of the other South Asian countries: India continues to regard China as an adversary and a long-term rival; India’s neighbours, however, look upon China as a benign power, even a friend, with varying degrees of closeness. The second fact, somewhat related to the first, is that the perception of China in the eyes of other South Asian countries is shaped largely by their attitude towards India.
In this scenario, India nervously watches the progress of its neighbours’ relations with China; the underlying assumption being that China wishes to drive a wedge between India and its SAARC partners. India’s other assumption that the neighbours want to gang up against it is only reinforced by the China factor. Any number of Chinese protestations that Beijing wishes all the South Asian countries to live in harmony with one another invoke only cynical smiles at best and impatient dismissals at worst.
Why is China transferring all those military aircraft, tanks and other hardware to Pakistan and Bangladesh, ask Indian policy-makers and opinion leaders. Worse still, why has China been transferring technology to Pakistan for making nuclear weapons and missiles which can only be India-specific? Why egg Nepal on to become a “zone of peace” between India and China? Good questions. But most of them become meaningful only if India’s above-mentioned assumptions are granted. The only exception is about the transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan. But more about that later.
Turning the issue upside down, that is, China’s attitude towards South Asia, it is clear that China looks upon India as a regional power with hegemonic intentions. China’s relationship with each of the other South Asian states is, therefore, governed by the aim of supporting each to resist such an assumed effort to exercise hegemony. Where it perceives the attempts at hegemony to be blatant, as in the case of Pakistan or strong as in the case of Bangladesh, the provision of countervailing power is commensurate. But there are two exceptions.
In the case of Nepal and Bhutan, both landlocked countries with treaties and other agreements which limit their freedom to act independently of India, China has basically adopted a hands-off policy. The one attempt Beijing made to supply Nepal with some weapons (small arms and anti-aircraft guns) was abandoned abruptly when China realised that the effort could not be sustained. Chinese supply lines through Tibet were too long and precarious and other routes had to pass through India.
Since Beijing is deadly opposed to the break-up of existing states, Sri Lanka earned its support and sympathy when India extended all-out assistance to the fight of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) for secession from the Sri Lankan state. Even so, Chinese military aid to Sri Lanka was then limited to small arms and some patrol boats for preventing the traffic in arms and insurgents from India. Since Sri Lanka is geographically too far from China, only political support and token aid were possible. Hence, China supported the Sri Lankan government in its demand that the Indian forces which had gone to Sri Lanka to fight the LTTE should be withdrawn expeditiously. However, later, when the Sri Lankan government sought India’s aid to train its armed forces and for the supply of non-lethal items, China accepted Sri Lanka´s decision. Similarly, when Indian forces were requested by the Maldives president to expel the rebels who were seeking to overthrow him, China accepted the fait accompli.
In short, although China opposes what it perceives as India’s regional hegemony, it nevertheless realises the limits of extending its countervailing power in South Asia. In effect, it acquiesces with the Indian exercise of maintaining influence in several countries of South Asia. And these countries, in turn, understand the reality of India’s proximity and power and also the limits of Chinese power.
The China-Pakistan relationship, as state- to-state relations go, is extremely difficult to explain. When it was forged in the 1950s, the two states could not have been more different. China was a militantly Marxist state and it faced a military threat of regime-extermina-tion from the United States. Pakistan, then, was not only an ally of “US imperialism” and a member of the anti-China South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) pact, it was also ideologically anti-Marxist, having banned the Pakistan Communist Party as early as in 1954. A friendship between the two was even theoretically inconceivable. But they became friends, cautiously at first, and getting closer with the passage of time.
The initiative for reaching out to Pakistan came from the Chinese side, and it was the result of hard calculation. In the late 1950s, India-China relations had already soured and a military confrontation was building up on the Indo-Chinese (Tibetan) border. Meanwhile, China’s relations with the Soviet Union were deteriorating; by 1960 all Soviet aid to China was terminated. In 1959 came the revolt in Tibet; the Dalai Lama fled to India, much to China’s embarrassment.
At that time, India enjoyed high prestige in the international arena, while China was looked upon as a pariah state. Having lost the friendship of the Soviet Union and the states of Eastern Europe (except Albania), China was desperately looking for friends. Later, as Sino-Soviet relations turned hostile and worsened into a military confrontation, China saw itself as being completely encircled by enemies of one kind or another. It was necessary to breach the circle.
Already by the late 1950s, China seemed to have sensed that Pakistan was using its US connection for achieving not anti-Chinese but anti-Indian ends, and that its anti-commun-ism was limited to domestic politics and did not represent an ideological stance. This belief was reinforced when Chinese overtures to Pakistan were accepted in good faith. Pakistan responded positively to the extended Chinese hand despite US misgivings about the relationship.
Beijing, thus, gratefully discovered one soft link in the chain surrounding it at that time. The Chinese chose to look beyond the immediate Pakistani motivation, which was that the enemy’s enemy could be considered a friend. This friendship could be qualitatively different from Pakistan’s expedient friendship with the US, which was on friendly terms with India. Put another way, for Pakistan, the US was not the enemy’s enemy.
As China-Pakistan relations evolved, the element of political compulsions and the invocation of China’s countervailing power became less prominent. During the India-Pakis-tan war of 1965, China’s moral and political support to Pakistan came without asking; in fact, China made threatening noises on the India-China border to concretely demonstrate its support for Pakistan. However, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, despite Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s assurance to his people that the “largest power in Asia” would come to Pakistan’s aid, China did not step beyond anti-India rhetoric.
Pakistan must have felt disappointed, but by that time China-Pakistan relations had taken on a distinctly non-ideological “cultural” hue, not in the sense of sharing a common culture but in terms of values such as friendship, trust, sincerity, the desire to help out a friend to the extent circumstances permitted, and respect for each other’s viewpoints despite sharp differences. Standard theories of international relations have no space for such values, certainly not as the basis of state-to-state relations, but they seem to have played an extremely important role in the case of these two Asian states. Despite the slogan of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers), these values never entered India-China relations. This remains so to a large extent even today.
The alleged Chinese transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan, if true, remains a deep mystery. The only ‘evidence’ there is for it comes in the form of carefully controlled ‘leaks’ from the CIA. It is a mystery because no one has offered any explanation for it. It is known that Libya´s Muammar Gaddafi once offered China USD 2 billion for the sample of a nuclear weapon, but China refused. When Vietnam and North Korea were threatened by the US, in the case of the former with threat of use of nuclear weapons, China again did not give them nuclear weapons or the technology. Why would it then make an exception in the case of Pakistan?
When and exactly what kind of technology may have been transferred to Pakistan? Rumours say that after India’s Pokhran explosion of 1974, possibly in the early 1980s, the design of a 1966 Chinese weapon was transferred. If so, why the relatively primitive design at such a late date? What is the nature of the agreement which made the transfer possible and were there any limiting clauses which, for such a long time, prevented Pakistan from conducting tests to make the weapon deliverable? No answers, even off-the-record, are available from any source.
Such questions have never been asked in India, even by strategic specialists. The CIA leaks seem to be all the evidence they need. The net result has been the deepening of suspicions about China’s motives towards India. The gradual improvement in India-China relations has done little to erode such suspicions.
Know thy enemy
There is an interesting sidelight to how South Asian countries view China: the presence or absence of “China studies” in the Subcontinent. As a general rule, adversary relations promote China studies; friendly relations do not. So, as is to be expected, the “know-thy- enemy” school promoted a number of institutes in India which engaged in the study of China, concentrated largely in the capital of Delhi, where the threat from China was most acutely perceived. In the other countries of South Asia, China studies are of peripheral interest, if at all. In Pakistan, they are generally subsumed under the rubric of international relations in one or two universities; there are very few places in all of South Asia where the Chinese language is taught.
Initially, the fact that China studies got concentrated in Delhi, close to the seat of power in India, had its academic fallout. The views of the older generation of scholars of international relations who switched to China studies strongly reflected the views of the government. However, with time, as younger scholars began to look at China, its ideology, culture, economy and foreign relations with more sophisticated analytical tools, a variety of opinions began to surface.
As this process continued, the view of China as an implacable enemy of India was abandoned. The accent became one of “understanding” China, with some sympathy thrown in here and there; Indian Marxists of the CPI(M) and CPI(ML) variety were clearly impressed by what China was doing but those at the “centre” of the political spectrum also became interested observers of the Chinese scene. The anti-Beijing sentiment, however, persisted in varying degrees in the government, the national media, and very markedly so in the Indian armed forces. That more or less remains the case today but the sharp edges of the opinions, acquired as a result of the defeat in the India-China border war of 1962, have become blunted.
The “normalisation” of India-China relations was an extremely slow process. Indira Gandhi had to walk on eggs when dealing with China for fear of being accused of “selling out” to the enemy; the government of India had painted itself into a corner with the public opinion it had itself created. Still, she began gingerly, first by elevating the relationship to ambassadorial level. An added factor was the nervousness with which the Soviet Union watched India-China relations; the Soviet Union had become India’s only provider of armaments of all kinds, thus creating crippling dependence. India’s informal probes for “talks” with China (“negotiation” was a taboo word) produced anxious enquiries from the Soviet Union. This was why there was no progress when the talks did take place following Deng Xiaoping’s offer of 1980 (essentially a repeat of Zhou Enlai’s proposal of 1960).
During the period of India-China estrangement, which nevertheless saw Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to China in 1979 as foreign minister, relations between China and the other South Asian countries continued to develop cordially. China and Pakistan signed a border agreement in 1963, but in order not to annoy India too much, China made the final status of the border conditional on the future ownership of the part of Kashmir it had control of. As mentioned earlier, China came down decidedly on the side of Pakistan during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971.
When the United States imposed an embargo on weapon exports to Pakistan and India after the 1965 war, China began to supply weapons to Pakistan free of charge; it also made up for the weapons losses suffered by Pakistan in the 1971 war. Beijing scrupulously refrained from recognising Bangladesh until Pakistan had become so secure that the United States used Pakistan as an intermediary to arrange Henry Kissinger’s visit to China in 1972, which led to US President Richard Nixon’s China visit.
The Cultural Revolution saw China’s relations with many countries deteriorate because of the ultra-revolutionary policies then being followed. India also became a target of attack and two Indian diplomats were manhandled and expelled from China. But India’s neigh-bours were spared. Even the extreme revolutionaries of the 516 (16 May) group who had “captured” China’s foreign ministry did not attack the establishments of Nepal and Bhutan, nor the domestically anti-communist regimes of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. That may have been because Premier Zhou Enlai swiftly intervened before further attacks could be made. India was then fair game only because it was still in an anti-China pro-Soviet phase.
That phase lasted well beyond the exchange of ambassadors between India and China. By the early 1980s, the anti-China rhetoric had lost its sharp edge on the Indian side, and China’s critical tone about the Bangladesh war and the annexation of Sikkim was also subdued. Then, in 1985, came
the bombshell of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s Ussuri speech, which brought about a change in Asian geopolitics. In the speech, Gorbachev essentially agreed to the Chinese demand for the Thalweg (mid-stream) in the Ussuri River as the Soviet-China border. Gorbachev had signalled to the world that the Soviet Union had abandoned its confrontationist policy towards China, and this came as a big blow to India because the Soviet counterweight to China would now no longer be available.
Meanwhile, the United States and China had also normalised their relations, and China was already occupying its seat on the Security Council. When it came to dealing with China, therefore, India stood isolated. Among its South Asian neighbours, only Bhutan looked to India when dealing with China. A couple of years later when Indian and Chinese forces confronted each other in the Sumdorang Valley, India’s neighbours did not come to India’s support. Except for Thimphu, each had its own China policy independent of Delhi’s. Their policies were on such even keel that even when, after much internal debate in the Indian government, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi went to China in December 1988 and recognised that an actual dispute did exist over the border, India’s neighbours were not disturbed about the prospects of improved India-China relations.
These relations have, of course, vastly improved over the last decade. There have been high level visits, numerous exchanges of delegations of military officials, parliamentarians, cultural groups and so forth. But above all, there have been two important agreements relating to the maintenance of peace and tranquility over the Line of Actual Control pending the settlement of the India-China border.
The triangular relationship between China, India and the other South Asian countries having ceased to be a zero-sum game, China is now looking at South Asia as a more or less single unit. It shows no desire whatsoever of playing one against the other. Indeed, there is no longer any ‘tilt’ visible, not even towards its close friend of four decades, Pakistan. This became manifest during President Jiang Zemin´s official tour of India, Pakistan and Nepal in November 1996, the first time such a high-ranking Chinese leader had visited India and Pakistan together.
During this trip, while in Pakistan, Jiang laid out China’s policy towards South Asia as a whole. And then he made a high-risk move: he told his Pakistani hosts that they should put aside the dispute with India over Kashmir and seek a common ground with India to promote cooperation. As was to be expected, this piece of advice elicited much negative reaction in the Pakistani media but the Pakistani leaders must have been informed by China in advance that Jiang was going to say publicly what it had been saying to Pakistan privately for several years. As a result, the Pakistani leaders refrained from sharply expressing their disagreement with the Chinese leaders.
The important point is that Jiang’s declaration of China’s even-handed attitude towards India and Pakistan has not affected the friendship between Beijing and Islamabad. Pakistan continues to raise the Kashmir issue with India as well as in the international fora, and China, having made its point, does not react to this.
India-China hostility having become substantially muted, India no longer reacts nervously over Bhutan-China border negotiations; India is kept informed but its guidance is not actively sought by Thimphu. India’s intervention in Sri Lanka was not to China’s liking but that episode has become a thing of the past. The “Gujral Doctrine” has elicited positive responses in China, which also looks positively at SAARC, which it hopes will develop positive cooperation among the subcontinental states.
Chinese military sales to Pakistan and Bangladesh do not meet with India’s approval but are not regarded as threatening either. Only China’s alleged transfer of nuclear weapons technology and missile transfers as well as the potential “nuclear threat” from China to India are repeatedly mentioned in different contexts. But, there again, India has never taken up the issue with China in the case of the former, possibly because the only “evidence” for such transfers has come in the form of “leaks” from the CIA. According to media reports on the Chinese PLA Chief of General Staff Fu Quanyon’s visit, both India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee and Defence Minister Fernandes raised the issue in their brief talks with General Fu. This is good because India, for the first time, will have received clarifications directly from a top-level Chinese official. Whether India trusts the information or not, it is a step forward.
It is against this backdrop that the 11 and 13 May nuclear explosions by India have to be seen – “a solution urgently looking for a problem”. Having decided to go ahead with the tests, the decision had to be linked to some threat/provocation. But Pakistan had not yet tested (although it was to soon enough), so that did not qualify as a concrete provocation. As for China, one’s “threat perception” does not have to be objectively proved.
This line of thinking is not new; it started with Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s when India went on an arms-buying spree. Having acquired the weapons, she went looking for threats which were then said to be coming from land, air and sea. This is a variation of Parkinson’s Law of threats expanding to occupy available capability.
Enemy, or rival?
Opinion-makers in India have always regarded China as a long-term rival. The term “enemy” had gone out of usage until the escalation over the month of May, when the term has made some sort of a comeback. “Adversary” was still used by some but many were in the process of switching over to the terms “challenge” or “rival”. Inside the government, depending on whether it is the armed forces, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the internal and external intelligence agencies, or the Ministry of External Affairs, the views range from “enemy” to “challenge”. There does not seem to be any likelihood of the term “friend” being used except by the “friendship societies” and the communist parties.
Two other factors to bear in mind for the future are that policy towards China has never been an election issue in India and all progress in India-China relations has come about with bipartisan, indeed, multi-partisan support. Added to this is the fact that despite deep Indian fears of an aggressive China, the India-China border, barring three local incidents during the last 35 years, has remained peaceful.
As for India and the SAARC members, the “Gujral Doctrine”, even sans Gujral, is a departure from the earlier fear that the others would “gang up” against India. The smaller neighbours will continue to feel the weight of the Indian colossus but as disputes get resolved one by one in the spirit of the newly formed Indian generosity – the Ganga water dispute with Bangladesh and transit rights to Nepal are the big-ticket items – the fear of India will give way to making a dignified adjustment with India’s powerful presence in the Subcontinent. China’s countervailing power is not of much use for that purpose.
Chinese Marxists are fond of saying that “contradictions” are a permanent fact of life. Contradictions between India and China, between India and its neighbours and indeed between India’s neighbours and China – Pakistan and China for instance, have a Muslim militants problem between them – will continue to exist. What matters is, to use a phrase of Mao Zedong’s, whether the contradictions are “antagonistic” or “non-antagonistic”.