x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Chinese and Indians square up - quietly

The Indian government has been playing down reports of Chinese border incursions in an attempt to scale down tensions.

MUMBAI // India has been heavily playing down media reports of Chinese military incursions along the disputed 4,057km border it shares with the country, a move analysts say is a deliberate attempt to scale down tensions after months of troop build-up on both sides of the border. The government does not deny the fact of the incursions, however. India's external affairs ministry accused the media of exaggerating reports of incursions, stressing that both countries need to maintain peace and tranquility along the border. It also decided to prosecute two Indian reporters for a "factually incorrect" report of Chinese firing along the border in the state of Sikkim.

But the long-standing territorial dispute still rankles, analysts say, exacerbated by failed Sino-Indian talks over the issue this summer and stirred by the growing economic clout and military might of both countries. This year, Gen Deepak Kapoor, India's army chief, said China was the country's "biggest threat", before announcing his decision to amass 40,000 troops on the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh state. It was a view echoed by India's chief for the air force, Marshal Fali Homi Major, who called China a "bigger threat than Pakistan", before dispatching 18 Sukoi-30 MKI combat fighter aircraft to the air force base at Tezpur, which abuts the sensitive border along Arunachal Pradesh.

Both countries have shared a tortuous relationship since 1962, when the Chinese seized 38,000 sq km in the state of Jammu and Kashmir after its forces overran mountain regions in a bitter, high-altitude war with India. Decades after the war, the dispute still lingers. China claims 90,000 sq km in Arunachal Pradesh as its own, much to India's chagrin. China, it has been reported, has positioned 30 military divisions along the border that indulge in frequent incursions. According to the Indian government's own estimates, there were 270 "violations" by China along India's borders in 2008, and these incidents have only become more aggressive this year.

"No one in the [Indian] government says Chinese incursions aren't happening," said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic affairs at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. "Yet to play down the incursions, the media has been made the whipping boy." A US think tank recently said China's recent aggression is a direct result of its "nervousness over India's rise". "It's something that they [China] have to deal with that perhaps 10 to 15 years ago they didn't believe was something that was necessary to focus on," said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation.

In June, the Word Bank projected that by 2010, India's economy would overtake China's. According to the bank's Global Development Finance Report, India's economy is slated to grow at 8 per cent in 2010, surpassing China's 7.7-per-cent rate. In recent years, China and India, the two rising Asian behemoths, both nuclear-armed powers and the world's fastest growing economies, have been touted as future global superpowers. They have been engaged in a quasi-war for supremacy in the region.

China is determined to thwart India's emergence as a significant economic and maybe diplomatic and military power, analysts say. The biggest example of that, Ms Curtis said, was when China tried to scuttle, at the last minute, the civilian nuclear deal at the Nuclear Supplier Group meeting last year. It was "an indication that China is not completely comfortable with India's rise on the world stage", she said.

This year, China also held up approval of a loan assistance plan from the Asian Development Bank worth US$2.9 billion (Dh10.7bn) on the ground that a major chunk of it was earmarked for flood management in territories in India's north-east that China claims to be its own. "There cannot be two suns in the sky. China and India cannot really deal with each other harmoniously," said an article recently posted by an anonymous writer on a Chinese strategic affairs website, www.iiss.cn, a view that analysts say echoes Beijing's viewpoint.

The article goes on to ominously say that China could exploit India's growing separatist forces and could "dismember the so-called 'Indian Union' with one little move". Beijing's manoeuvrings in South Asia have also caused a lot of disquiet in India. Chinese interests and diplomatic initiatives are inexorably expanding in south Asia, its footprints particularly growing across Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal, in India's immediate neighbourhood.

China, in recent years, has financed ports at Gwadar, Pakistan; Chittagong, Bangladesh; Sittwe, Myanmar, and Hambantota, on Sri Lanka's southern coast, a part of its "string of pearls" strategy from South East Asia to the Middle East. New Delhi is concerned that Beijing is extending its power to control shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, waterways that it has traditionally controlled. The moves have the potential to intensify the competition and scramble for resources between the world's fastest-growing big economies.

Complicating the issue is that China is India's largest trading partner, with two-way trade amounting to $50bn (Dh184bn) in 2008, an indication that both countries, despite the acrimony and competition, have much to gain by engaging with one another. "These are two of the world's most populous nations - making up 40 per cent of the world's population," said Pranjoy Thakurta Guha, a New Delhi-based commentator. "When they grow - at the dizzying speed at which they are growing - there is bound to be some competition and some collaboration."