Amid tensions with its neighbors in East and South East Asian countries like Japan, Vietnam and The Philippines, in a major strategic move Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie has just visited India after eight long years and reached on various confidence building measures including joint military exercises following such a joint naval exercises earlier in Shanghai.
Last year, Reuters published a news analysis on sailing Indian assault vassal – INS Airvat in South China Sea receiving a warning on an open radio channel by a Chinese warship official that the ship was entering Chinese waters. Airvat was asked to explain its position and official of the Indian warship’s replied that it was 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast considered within Vietnam’s economic zone. The Indian vassal was on a show-the-flag mission from Vietnam’s Nha Trang port near the deep-water harbour of Cam Ranh Bay toward another Vietnamese port of Haiphong. Because of the restraints exhibited by both sides, nothing happened and Indian ship safely sailed towards its destination. Both the Indian and Chinese officials and downplayed the issue wisely.
On the eve when Indian Prime Minister Manamohan Singh was arriving in Beijing a news story appeared on the New York Times on January 13, 2008, titled “Two Giants Try to Learn to Share Asia”. Three years after that event former Canadian High Commissioner to India as well as nonresident Ambassador to Nepal and Bhutan; David M. Malone wrote a book on Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy named – ‘Does the Elephant Dance’? Malone, who also served his country as an Ambassador to United Nations and also as an Assistant Minister for External Affairs, has an interesting chapter -The Sino- Indian Relationship: Can Two Tigers Share a Mountain? In the book that was published in May. The title given by the news story of ‘The New York Times’ and the title of the chapter in Malone’s book portray the nature of relationship between India and China and its significance to the rest of the world in years to come.
But if the two nuclear power states, supported by great and rapidly rising economies and with world’s largest but most productive population; do not learn how to “share the same mountain” it could sooner or later lead on a collision course detrimental to their potential to lead the new century.
1. A Historical Maritime Power Proceeds With Strategic “String Of Pearls” Strategy
A U.S. Air force official Christopher J. Pehrson in his well researched paper has mentioned how China was a great maritime power more than 600 years from now. According to his paper published in 2006, an emperor of Ming dynasty of China had dispatched a ‘Treasure Fleet ‘of 62 ships under the command of the explorer Zheng He. Some of the ships he, commanded were over 400 feet long and 160 feet wide and were carrying nearly 30 thousands men and thousands of tons of Chinese merchandise. Some of the ships in his command were military and were carrying troops and weapons.
A country like China with such a wonderful maritime history, if has resources to finance and update its past, will not feel content without a strong naval capability at least to compete with other regional powers like India. Also as largest oil consumer of the world, China needs a new silk road to ensure safe route to its fuel tanks from the surrounding waters and run smooth its industrial arteries. Consequently, China’s new maritime strategy in the words of a U.S. defense consultant Booz – Allen Hamilton -“string of Pearls” is gaining bigger ground these days. The report which Hamilton was commissioned to prepare for U.S. Defense Department on ‘Energy Futures in Asia’, was published in the Washington Times (January 17, 2005). It says “China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives.”
The Report further mentions that China intends to protect the sea lanes militarily, by strengthening its navy and developing undersea mines and a missile system to deter the potential disruption of its energy supplies from likely threats, including the US Navy. Therefore, Beijing has also been developing strategic alliances with the states along the sea lanes in an effort to increase its influence in the region of South and South East Asia.
But when compared with China, India has a very significant geographical location in Indian Ocean and this gives India a major strategic edge in its waters. Besides the long coastline of the mainland, Lakshadweep Islands in Indian Ocean and a group of 500 more islets of Andaman and Nicobar Islands near Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have given India an amazing strategic advantage over other great powers. Therefore India is developing these islands as a major hub of amphibious warfare base and training facilities for Indian Army. The Airvat is a part of the fleet based in Port Blair in Andaman Islands- an entry route to the Bay of Bengal shared by Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh. The naval facility built in Andaman and Nicobar has also given India easy access to the waters of South East Asian countries – major trade partners of India.
Similarly China too, not only to fuel the second largest economy but also to feed the largest population of the world as well, needs chain of friendly ports for the smooth supply of energy and minerals for its ever hungry industries and safe passage to its manufacturing worldwide. For this reason, China has developed sea ports encircling India extending from port of Gwadar in Pakistan to Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Chittagong in Bangladesh.
In way to materialize its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy China has constructed one of the world’s deepest -sea port at Gwadar on the Southwest coast of Pakistan at a very important strategic location – a major oil supply route. Although Pakistan is making efforts to develop this base as a major naval base with the assistance of China, China is satisfied while using this port only as a “listening post” from where it can monitor naval activities of other countries in the region. And as China’s naval operations are expanding in Indian Ocean, gradually it might be developed into a military base to protect its interest from Middle East to Central Asia, however this time China has revealed no such intention.
But in Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu port in Rakine state and its access to the Bay of Bengal in order to pipe oil and gas to its land-locked southern and western hinterlands, China is seeking to have a strong foothold. Beijing is currently building two parallel oil and gas pipelines that will connect Kyaukphyu port to the Chinese in southern Yunnan province extending up to the city of Kunming as well as Guizhou and Guangxi provinces.
Another is Myanmar’s Coco Islands – just north to India’s Andaman Islands where China is developing military facilities including helipads and storage system for arms and ammunitions. The information and observatory system installed in Coco Islands are claimed to monitor Indian naval facilities and their operative activities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and other navies throughout the eastern Indian Ocean.
2. Worried India And Concerned China
China’s Hainan Island, located in the South China Sea has developed underground nuclear submarine facility at Yulin Naval Base on the southern tip of Hainan. The submarines are capable of carrying dozen more nuclear missiles.
Yulin base was originally developed to serve mainly as a conventional submarine facility, located on the eastern bank of the Yulin Bay. It is close to the Parcel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea disputed between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. But in recent years, the naval base is expanded up to the nearby Yalong Bay with capability of hiding large number of nuclear submarines from spy satellites. It can also house nuclear ballistic missiles and accommodate aircraft carriers. The naval base is one of the most important bases of the PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet. The base is also strategically located close to the shipping lane of the narrow Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia – a life line for the ASEAN and Pacific islands equally vital for the security and economic interest of India.
All these china’s naval power consolidation with facility to control over the surrounding Indian Ocean region, has been considered in India as a greater security threat to its vital interests in the region and this India takes as a part of China’s “string of pearls” strategy.
Beijing too, is equally concerned over expanded military presence of India on areas starting from west of Persian Gulf to the east of the Malacca Straits, from where China imports 80 percent of its energy needs. For this reason China obviously has deployed new types of submarines, frigates, aircraft and large support vessels ambulance boats, helicopters to support for sustaining long-time maritime missions around its territorial as well as international waters.
China’s defense white paper released in March end and another paper on its peaceful development, released few days ago, have clearly acknowledged that a country with a borderline of over 22,000 kilometers and a coastline of over 18,000 kilometers when confronting with multiple traditional and non-traditional security challenges including the threats of separatists and terrorist forces; upholds its right to modernize its defense capabilities to ensure its security and protect its peaceful development.
The white paper has also admitted that its navy has developed its capabilities of “conducting operations in distant waters” and in countering non-traditional security threats by enhancing its capabilities in strategic deterrence and retaliation. Few weeks earlier, a top Chinese Navy official Admiral Wu Shengli – close on the heel of Indian assessment admitted that China needed more advanced arsenals to boost the ability to fight the regional wars.
Undoubtedly, India has a powerful navy in Indian Ocean region and being guided by its “Look East” strategy is expanding its scope of activities to counter China’s “Look West”. As a part of this changed strategic focus; India during the last decade, has signed over a dozen defense cooperation agreements with Southeast and East Asian countries. Bigger naval facilities are being developed at Andamans with bases for nuclear submarines with guided missile destroyers, stealth frigates and maritime patrol aircraft. Indian Defense Report 2010-2011 has also claimed that its navy “by virtue of its multi dimensional capability, strategic positioning and robust presence in the areas of interest has been a catalyst for peace, tranquility and stability in the Indian Ocean Region during the year”. It has also acknowledged that India is engaged with other maritime nations to support national initiatives of cooperation and engagement and their fleets have sailed and experienced successfully in the South China Sea, African and the Mediterranean waters.
China seems worried on its neighbor’s “Look East” policy and has protested India’s joint naval exercises with the United States, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore in the East and South China Seas considering this as a part of the strategic encirclement of PRC. But this has added the confidence of countries like South Korea and Japan in the East to Vietnam and Indonesia to the South East – as a counterbalance to China in their region.
This way, China’s naval involvement in the coastal waters of India and India’s joint naval operations with East and South East Asian countries has given a new dimension to India –China strategic thinking and level of preparedness. Together with this, the limited nature of interaction with each other seems increasing the risk of misunderstanding between them.
3. Indo – China Rivalry in High Himalayan Mountains
Regardless of increased trade relationships crossing over $60 billions, Pentagon’s latest report on China has stated that a high degree of mistrust continues to strain the bilateral relationships between India and China. It affirms that with an aim to strengthen its deterrent posture relative to India, the PLA has replaced liquid fuelled nuclear capable Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) with more advanced and survivable solid fuelled Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) facility in Tibet, making easy targets to whole of North India. Defense experts are claiming that China with improved defense infrastructures in Tibet, can now move over half million soldiers to the Indo –China border within a month – out numbering Indian with wide margins. This has created a deep sense of mistrust in India on the strategic intention of China.
While India has a better strategic edge over China in Indian Ocean Region, China with bigger military teeth is also blessed with greater geographical advantages over the land border on all major areas of operational capability, logistics and strategic planning in case of war breaking out. To exploit this situation at best, China has built an extensive network of roads, railways, airports, oil pipelines and other logistic hubs to gear up maneuverability to support its military operations against India.
Furthermore, it is reported that China in its efforts to allow heavier vehicles carry weapons and logistics, has widened Karakoram Highway (linking China to Pakistan) threefold. Different units of Defense Regiments, Mountain Infantry Brigades and Special Divisions are concentrated near the Indian border for providing strong response in case of a breakout of hostilities across the Himalayas.
In 2009, Chinese army ran a major military exercise in Sino – Indian border for over two months, involving nearly 50,000 troops with an aim aims of testing the PLA’s ‘capacity in responding any sudden events in Tibet and other border regions.
Correspondingly, ‘The Hindustan Times’ on March 26, 2009 published a news story disclosing a secret military exercise by Indian Army called ‘Divine Matrix’ fearing that a ‘Chinese aggression’ can take place before 2017. Quoting military sources Hindustan Times also stated that with substantial military build-up and improved infrastructure across Indian border, PLA can “launch an assault very quickly, without any warning”. Similarly, India’s renowned defense analyst Bharat Verma in a book – Threat From China (2011), has claimed that Beijing being pushed by multiple reasons – mainly internal – may desperately attack India by 2012.
Learning from the lessons of 1962 war, India, even with the most treacherous geography has deployed troops on its high mountains and toughest terrain of snow capped peaks, deep valleys, and dangerous passes.
Likewise, in addition to Mig 21s fighter jets, missile batteries and spy drones in the North-East, India is planning to deploy two squadrons of Su-30 MKI advanced fighter jets at its airbase in Tezpur – 150 kilometers south of the Chinese border in Arunachal Pradesh and is improving infrastructure and upgrading airfields in the North-East. It is also going to create a new mountain strike corps after raising two new divisions totaling over 60,000 hard fighting forces in Nagaland and Assam.
4. But Any Way, They Have To Learn To Share The Same Mountain
Obviously, formidable military power like India and China cannot afford the human, financial, environmental and even political cost of a war between them. Even a small human and technical error may cause them return to Stone Age. Indubitably, the leaderships of both countries representing 2.5 billion people, if are honest to their country and humanity as a whole can never let this happen.
Moreover, the two leading economies of the world, more than challenges, share astounding opportunities together, like never before in human history. And peace and better trade relations are sure to offer them with enormous prosperity.
Human endeavor endowed with advanced knowledge on Science and technology has revolutionized the nature of human geography of India and China and this ultimately has massively reinforced each other’s economy and share a common prosperity.
When people of both side of the border join easily with improved access; their economy if is developed in strengthening the needs and benefit of each other and when the relationship between them gains more worth, not only they, but the region as a whole will enjoy a new level of economic success and stability. Once the people of both India and China could substantively realize the benefit of shared progress, a new map of Asia would be sketched – with minimal regional conflicts and forces of chaos, anarchy and instability eliminated.
Two countries if continued with their average 8 percent GDP growth for another ten years, their share in global GDP will cross $ 6.5 trillion. when they will become the largest exporter of manufacturing goods and services adding millions of new middle class populations with their stakes across the border, they will naturally not let their rulers risk their economic prosperity.
The next decade will see the both India and China’s economy grow double in size. China can help India enlarge its manufacturing sector and India to boost China’s service sector and help each other achieve balanced development and make goods and service more competitive and cheaper for such a huge market in both countries. This will also help creating millions of jobs and billions of money for the people living there in poverty.
Nevertheless, the hardest truth for any country to achieve a sustainable global power status is that they must learn to change from within and bring change and share change in their neighborhood, which in return will contribute their stability and increase their prosperity many fold.
But, until India and China are able to solve the serious problems and misunderstandings between them, they have to live under a constant threat even for their internal peace and security with implications to political stability and economic prosperity in their neighborhoods as well. This resultantly will force both India and China to live with more burdens and frictions in their relations.
Nevertheless, to run a great country, is not only a matter of great pride and satisfaction, more than this, is a matter of great national capacity and moral challenge and to qualify themselves as great countries; there is no other way out for India and China than learn to share the same mountain.
This article appeared in The Reporter Weekly and is reprinted with permission.