By D. S. Rajan
(Following are Mr D S Rajan’s answers to questions posed to him at an interview with the correspondent of South China Morning Post on 13 April 2011)
Question: We know about arms race between China and India since China’s rise over the past two decades. Do you think that race between the two in terms of border infrastructure has also began? What will be its impact on Sino-Indian Relations?
D S Rajan: Each country formulates its plans towards defence preparedness taking into account the perceived prevailing security environment. India is doing the same; the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is one of the factors, which influences India’s defence strategy; others include Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indian Ocean etc. On its part, the PRC, in response to the defence needs felt by it, has also been carrying out a military modernisation programme since as early as 1978, the year when the reforms began. China is now well on its way to acquire extended range force projection capabilities; its naval activities are expanding and its investment in missiles, space and cyber technology is getting speeded up. As Beijing officially visualises, the programme is to be completed by ‘middle 21st Century”. In response, major powers like the US and regional powers like India, Japan and ASEAN nations feel in general that China’s military modernisation programme lacks transparency and its goals are unclear, despite Beijing’s declaration that its arms building is only for the purpose of self-defence and not for seeking hegemony in the region. Looking from this perspective, any talk about a specific India-China arms race can be erroneous; but even while assuming the existence of such race, it may be necessary to note that there is asymmetry between India and China in terms of the scope of their respective defence modernisation plans. China’s strategic and defence vision is wider than that of India and by launching a defence modernisation course long before India did, Beijing is way ahead of New Delhi in building its military strength.
For the same ‘asymmetry’ reason quoted above, it may not be apt to describe India’s development of infrastructure in areas bordering China, as a ‘race’ with China. It has only recently begun to implement schemes aimed at modernising border infrastructure, where as China has put in place its border infrastructure building plans much earlier. In Tibet, the PRC has established air links, road network, and railway connections, which may eventually reach up to Indian border. Being built is also the infrastructure in Xinjiang, including that which is slated to provide linkages with Pakistan through a region falling under India’s strategic Western border. New Delhi has come under compulsion to take note of the strategic implications of such Chinese facilities being created across the border, especially at a time when PRC is persisting with its territorial demands against India, particularly with respect to Arunachal Pradesh, called by it as ‘Southern Tibet’, maintaining its opposition to the autonomy demands of Dalai Lama exiled in India and showing signs of supporting Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir issue.
Building of border infrastructure by India and China may only have a limited impact on their present bilateral relations. Mutual recriminations may be there, but without affecting the existing overall favourable atmosphere in ties. Beijing and New Delhi have established confidence-building mechanisms to manage the border affairs including the latest one concluded during the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Sanya city in China. Both nations now hold the position that they are not a ‘threat’ to each other and their relations have acquired a ‘global character’. The overall approach of the two is to conduct bilateral relations looking beyond the thorny border dispute.
However a Sino-Indian border defence competition may have strategic implications for bilateral ties in a long term. Chinese official media comments continue to vehemently criticise India’s deployment of additional troops and establishment of airbases capable of handling advanced fighter aircraft in Arunachal Pradesh, signalling that Beijing’s strategic suspicions vis-à-vis New Delhi remain strong. The two nations will have a heavy responsibility in future to avert any crisis that may inadvertently arise as a result of border military build-up by any of the sides.
Question: What do you think about China’s real aims behind its military strategic and railway projects?
D S Rajan: Many in India feel that the projects are symbolic of China’s intentions to apply strategic pressure on India.
It is natural that China’s projects in the Western sector of the Sino-Indian border are raising New Delhi’s concerns. Connecting Xinjiang with Pakistan through highways, railway and oil pipeline, appears to reflect three-fold Chinese objectives – improving economic standards in the Uighur dominated and ethnically restive Xinjiang, attending to China’s energy security needs and providing connectivity to the military, in an area close to Indian borders. China’s military units are reported to be involved in some of the projects; the reported presence of Chinese troops in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and the PRC’s nuanced shift in its Kashmir policy (e.g stapled visa issue) implying support to Pakistan’s position, are of particular concern to India.
Coming to Tibet, across India’s Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese are fast modernising its infrastructure there. Economic benefits to Tibetans are definitely one objective, but an important goal seems to be providing facilities for rapid deployment of troops. Domestically, this could be significant considering the present conditions marked by the stalemate on the Dalai Lama issue and inability to restore full normalcy in Tibet subsequent to March 2008 Tibetan riots.
On the whole, as against China’s persistent territorial claims against India, New Delhi cannot afford to miss the significance of the potential military dimensions of China’s projects, both in the Western and Eastern sectors across Indian border.
Question: Would the infra structure race benefit economic development in the border areas?
D S Rajan: Improving infrastructure in border areas will definitely benefit the border economies of both India and China. The two powers may nevertheless have to take steps to prevent any military use of such infrastructure. How to balance the requirements of border economies and strategic calculations will therefore be a question which needs to be addressed by the two sides.
Question: What will be the impact on whole of Asia from the Sino-Indian military infrastructure-building race?
D S Rajan: China is expanding military facilities in borders with India and the latter is also responding suitably. But, the issue may basically remain bilateral. As for now, it may not have any impact on the whole of Asia. However if border tensions in a large scale arise despite the existing management mechanisms, the situation may warrant attention from other Asian powers. One of the reasons behind the recent China-Japan row over the disputed Senkakus Island was Japan’s reported enhancement of military facilities around that island; But Beijing made the island issue lying so far dormant, into a reason for a major crisis and went to the extent of retaliating economically against Tokyo – by banning export of rare earth metal to Japan. This naturally gave rise to tensions in the whole of East Asia. Will a similar situation emerge in the Sino-Indian border? The answer may lie in an explanation to China’s behaviour towards Japan – Beijing at any time may choose to adopt tough measures against its perceived adversaries if it feels necessary. In this, India may see a lesson.
Question: What do you think about the territorial disputes between China and India? Is it possible for the two countries to solve the problem by peaceful means?
D S Rajan: I feel that China will be reluctant to make any compromise on the border dispute with India. Its ‘core interest’ – based foreign policy which gives emphasis to protecting the country’s sovereignty, will stand in the way of Beijing making concessions to India on the dispute. However, territorial disputes between the two sides may not escalate into a major confrontation between them at least in the near future. We can forget the 1962 episode. China now stands for ‘shelving the disputes and working for the common development’. New Delhi and Beijing are adopting a common position that the border issue dividing them is complex and may require long time to solve. They want to promote bilateral ties looking beyond the border dispute. Thus, both India and China appear to be firmly in favour of continuing a peaceful dialogue between them on the border issue. The bottom line however is that a final solution to the Sino-Indian border dispute seems to be still far away. Let us hope that such final solution comes through peaceful means.
To see coverage by the South China Morning Post, please visit http://gochina.scmp.com/chengdu/news/hopes-prosperity-ease-border-tension
(The Writer is Director, Chennai centre for China Studies, Chennai, India and can be reached at email:email@example.com)