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India’s China fears

OVER the first quarter of 2011, Pakistan-India relations have been injected with a healthy dose of goodwill. The two sides announced the resumption of ministerial-level talks. New Delhi asked its Islamabad envoy to engage Pakistan's army chief.

Interior Secretary Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, beaming and flanked by Indian border security, strolled across the frontier on his way to talks with his Indian counterpart. Islamabad granted permission to Indian investigators to visit Pakistan to probe the 2008 Mumbai attacks. And the two prime ministers together watched their nations' cricketers face off in their World Cup semi-final.

Such developments are encouraging, yet they alone cannot break the current impasse in relations. Shifts in strategic thinking, more so than goodwill gestures, are the bellwethers of change in international relations.

Yet, in New Delhi at least, such a shift is now under way. Recent discussions with top strategic thinkers there reveal that India's lingering fears about Pakistan are increasingly being eclipsed by its ever-growing alarm about China. In essence, Delhi discerns a receding threat in Pakistan and an intensifying one in China.

Delhi's concern about Beijing is building at the highest levels. At a combined commanders' conference last September, the three service chiefs declared that China constitutes more of a long-term threat than Pakistan.

Such sentiments were voiced again just a few weeks ago, when Indian media reports quoted an anonymous top army official saying that while Pakistan can be “handled”, China “remains [the] real long-term threat”. Indian strategists dismiss Pakistan as a state convulsed by so many crises that it has no desire, much less ability, to project a threat to India.

India's conclusions about China are driven by a variety of factors. One is competition over natural resources in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), at a time when securing them has become a core national interest for both nations due to rocketing energy demand.

Some Indian strategic thinkers describe the Bay of Bengal as a not-so-distant future source of Sino-Indian conflict. Here, buttressed by its burgeoning naval prowess, China is developing energy assets not far from India's eastern shores.

Border tensions also loom large. They revolve around strategically vital territory — Arunachal Pradesh (AP) is an unusually water-rich state in an increasingly parched region — and Indian strategists insist that war is not out of the question. Tensions are further stoked by water-starved India's contention that Beijing is constructing dams that will prevent waters of the Brahmaputra River from flowing downstream into AP.

Yet India most fears an aggressive Chinese policy of encirclement. Indians watch nervously as China wages occasional incursions into AP, initiates naval base-building and infrastructure-development activities across South and Southeast Asia and the IOR, and builds nuclear power plants and infrastructure projects in Pakistan.

They also single out the Chinese army's activities in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (and often understate their humanitarian nature). With China already administering the eastern Kashmir area of Aksai Chin, Indians face the reality of a Chinese presence on both the eastern and western flanks of the Kashmir region. This perceived encirclement extends even to outer space. New Delhi recently declared that China's anti-satellite tests, by generating space debris and endangering Indian remote-sensing satellites, pose a threat to Indian security.

A powerful indication of India's preoccupation with China is its decision to deepen its ties with Japan — a relationship strategists in Delhi contend is motivated by mutual concern about China. So acute is Delhi's concern about China that India — the nation of nonalignment and no alliances — is solidifying ties with its like-minded regional neighbours.

India is also responding with a major military modernisation programme. Last year, India announced proposals to undertake its largest-ever upgrade of military capabilities along the Chinese border, and to deploy a full squadron of aircraft to a base in Assam, which borders AP.

To be sure, Delhi remains very concerned about Pakistan, and particularly about the threat of Lashkar-i-Taiba and other anti-India militant groups that it insists Islamabad cannot or will not rein in. Delhi also remains preoccupied with Islamabad's nuclear policy. Indians believe that Pakistan has maintained a deliberately ambiguous threat of unilateral first-use that enables it to escalate small battles into nuclear conflicts whenever it wishes.

Yet Indian strategists suggest that such threats can be managed. Arun Prakash, a former Indian naval chief, has argued that by staging maritime manoeuvres to support the Indian army, India can deter Pakistan without approaching Pakistan's unspecified nuclear threshold.

The Lashkar-i-Taiba issue is admittedly harder to manage. Yet it needs to be thought of as a catalyst for, not simply an obstacle to, enhanced Pakistan-India relations. This is because Pakistan has as strong an interest in a weakened Lashkar as does India.

Indian strategists confidently predict that should any future terrorist attack on India be traced back, through credible evidence, to Pakistan-based extremists, the Indian government would respond militarily. Meanwhile, Washington has warned that such an attack on America would have devastating consequences for the Pakistan-US relationship. For Pakistan, failing to deal with the militant group risks triggering both another war with India and a rupture with its erstwhile, yet critical, US ally.

This shared interest in a weakened Lashkar-i-Taiba can help bring India and Pakistan closer together. And so can India's diminishing threat appraisal of Pakistan. For decades, Pakistani officials have obsessed over the perceived dangers posed by its powerful neighbour.

Consequently, it has massed its forces along its eastern front, sponsored a proxy war in Kashmir, and accused India of a variety of transgressions ranging from diverting river water to meddling in Balochistan and sowing discord in Afghanistan. Yet with India's security interests and concerns gravitating away from Pakistan, such policies are losing their utility.

Signalling a desire to rethink such policies would make a powerful impression on New Delhi, shed some of the deep-seated mistrust encumbering the bilateral relationship and enhance the prospects for Indian concessions on the Kashmir question.

The writer is the South Asia programme associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org


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