India's real threat comes not from Pakistan but China, says defense analyst
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Brahma Chellaney is a professor of security studies at New Delhi's Center
for Policy Research and is a well-known commentator on defense matters.
He recently spoke with TIME Asia associate editor Aparisim Ghosh. Excerpts
from the interview:
TIME: Dr Chellaney, when India conducted its nuclear tests in 1998,
Defense Minister George Fernandes said the main security threat came not
from Pakistan but from China. Most commentators were amazed, but you agreed
with Fernandes. Two years have passed since the tests, do you still feel
Chellaney: What the defense minister said was what a majority of people
in the government and the country believe--that the emphasis in India
has been on Pakistan, but the real concern is China. There has been an
unwritten policy in India that you don't speak out. It's fine to engage
in Pakistan-bashing, but you don't bash China. And George Fernandes' sin,
so to speak, was that he spoke out on China. He was the first cabinet
minister since 1962, the year China invaded India, who spoke out on China.
The first reactions were of shock. It rattled a lot of people here, but
the message that he delivered was not any different from the popular thinking,
especially the thinking of the government.
TIME: Does India feel more secure in its relations with China now that
it has nuclear weapons?
Chellaney: There certainly has been a greater degree of security as
perceived by Indians than was the case two years ago. India is feeling
more confident, a little more secure. And India's international clout
and influence has gone up since the tests.
What are the points of conflict with China? Why does India feel threatened?
Apart from the 1962 war, there have not been the border skirmishes that
seem to take place all the time with Pakistan. And in the international
stage, China hasn't made any noises about wanting pieces of Indian territory.
Where does this threat perception come from?
Chellaney: The main dispute is territorial. Unlike the China-Russia
dispute, which has now been resolved, the India-China dispute involves
large chunks of territory. And there has not been much progress towards
resolution, although talks have been going on for nearly two decades.
Neither side has been really willing to make any important concession.
The Chinese are not even willing to define the Line of Control (LOC) with
India, let alone resolve the border dispute. I think their motive is to
keep India under strategic pressure. They think that if they were to reach
an agreement with India--by defining the LOC--that would allow India to
reduce its troop deployment along the border with China, and then those
withdrawn troops could beef up India's strength along the frontier with
Pakistan. And they don't want India to put greater pressure on Pakistan,
which they regard as an 'all-weather' friend. So there is a third party
involved here which influences Chinese conduct towards India. But I think
the one important point that we have to bear in mind is that while the
border has been relatively calm, for the last...
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Chellaney: Not really. There were serious border skirmishes in 1967
and in 1986-87. The two sides had some serious showdowns, including in
the Thawang area.
TIME: Can you explain where that is for our readers who are not familiar
with that area?
Chellaney: Thawang is in Arunachal Pradesh, India's most north-eastern
state, which is claimed by China. And there is a place in Arunachal called
Wangchung, where there was a major incident in 1986-87. The border has
been a bit calm since 1987 but last year, during the Kargil war between
India and Pakistan, the Chinese engaged in provocative military maneuvers
and intrusions. Kargil is very close to where the borders of India, Pakistan
and China meet. The Chinese, while the war was raging, were constantly
testing India's defense preparedness by repeatedly crossing theLOC, and
then withdrawing whenever they were challenged. This was to ensure that
the Indians maintained forces in sufficient numbers against them and did
not redeploy those forces to fight against the Pakistanis. Last October,
there was a showdown between Indian and Chinese military forces in Arunachal.
They came close to a major fight but they pulled back from the brink.
So while publicly there isn't much talk about such incidents, forays across
the LOC by the Chinese keep occurring at regular intervals. One could
say that in the last couple of years Chinese military incursions have
increased, compared to the first eight years of the 1990s. Why has this
happened? One explanation could be that the Chinese are venting their
anger at India's defiant nuclear weapons tests. Another is that relations
between India and China have gone through a bad patch. Or maybe the Chinese
are just trying to keep India on its toes. When President Jiang Zemin
went on an overseas trip to Europe last year, and met one of the heads
of state there, he said very uncomplimentary things about India, and I
think taken together these show that China is still a very unfriendly
neighbor. The proof of that is China's continuing nuclear and missile
assistance to Pakistan. That has been going on for quite some time now,
and it's really aimed at helping Pakistan to take on India, and to keep
India confined to the subcontinent.
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You have traveled to China frequently and you interact with academicians
and people from think tanks. Since the nuclear tests were conducted, have
you spotted any signs of a shift in the Chinese perception of India? In
other words, if the tests were meant to send a message to China, did the
message reach its destination?
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Chellaney: The initial reaction of the Chinese was stridently harsh,
but once things cooled down and they realized what had happened could
not be undone, they made the first move. The first batch of Chinese academics,
who were basically officials in academic garb, came to New Delhi last
year for a dialogue with us and then we went to Beijing last October.
Compared with the talks we had before the tests, there has been a clear
change in the Chinese approach in the talks we're having now; they are
taking us more seriously. Secondly, they are seeking to address issues
that they were earlier dismissing offhand. For example, when we would
say that China's continuing nuclear missile assistance to Pakistan was
a serious threat to India's security, and that this had to stop, they
would not take us seriously at all. They would just say: "This is all
false, we have given them no assistance whatsoever." Now they say: "What
happened in the past is past. You should not worry too much about that;
there were certain compulsions on the part of China to engage in special
cooperation with Pakistan, but in the future China will be different."
The message coming from them is that if we are willing to let bygones
be bygones, the Chinese could change. So we've been asking them: "If we
let bygones be bygones, when will this cooperation cease? When will we
see the first results?" All they say is: "Give us some time." But that's
the usual Chinese tactic--they've been saying that for the past 30-40
years. On the border issue, they say: "This is leftover from history.
Patience is important, we need time to resolve it."
TIME: There is a perception now in Pakistan that the United States,
in the aftermath of Bill Clinton's visit to the subcontinent, has abandoned
its old friend in Islamabad. And that Pakistan is now isolated in the
international arena. Does this open up the stage for China to play a greater
role in subcontinental matters? Have you sensed a desire in China to do
Chellaney: Well America's policy shift, if it can be called a shift,
certainly worries China no end. The last thing the Chinese want is a strategic
partnership between India and the United States. We have noticed that
the one issue that excites the Chinese the most is such a relationship.
They are always very curious to know what's happening, because any kind
of strategic partnership would bring about a fundamental change in geopolitics.
Strategic cooperation with the U.S. might prompt Beijing to be more cautious
in its open support for Pakistan. I expect that China, in the next couple
of years, will publicly put on their best face towards India, but privately
they will continue to aid and abet Pakistan. They will continue to arm
Pakistan and continue to provide nuclear missile technology to the Pakistanis,
but publicly they will not seek to do anything that could be construed
as direct Chinese support to Pakistan.
TIME: So there is no question of India and China being friends?
Chellaney: I would be most surprised if India and China became real
friends. There will always be an uneasiness between the two. In the best
of times, there will be an uneasiness; in the worst of times, there could
be competition and conflict. Conflict should of course be avoided and
that can only happen if the competition remains healthy and does not spill
into something nasty. But the disputes between India and China are more
than territorial. There is a fundamental conflict of interest at work:
these two large societies are competing for influence, in Asia and elsewhere.
They are competing for foreign direct investment, for concessional loans
from international financial institutions, for customers of their productsAnd
this competition is going to pick up steam in the years to come. Whether
this competition remains healthy or whether the competition actually triggers
conflict of a serious kind is something that only time will tell.
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