Published:  01:44 AM, 16 July 2017

The volatile plateau

The volatile plateau

The India-China standoff at the Bhutan-China-India tri-junction highlights the imperative to be sensitive to mutual concerns and shed recrimination. It involves the Doklam (in Chinese, Donglang) plateau at the trijunction overlooking the Chumbi Valley in the Tibetan region, close to the "Siliguri Corridor", styled as the "Chicken's Neck". It is the narrow stretch which signifies the critical lifeline connecting India's eight Northastern states with the rest of the country.

However, this is not an isolated incident. Somewhat similar developments have often roiled the waters on the India-China line of actual control (LAC) across around 4,050-km boundary that the two countries share. China's People's Liberation Army is often reported to be engaged in a face-off at Demchock in the Ladakh area. The current incident assumes importance as India, Bhutan and China form part of a strategic triangle in the eastern Himalayas with the inverted apex jutting out in the form of the strategic Chumbi Valley.

Attempts at annexation of Doklam from Bhutan along with road extensions enables the PLA to gain flexibility in terms of operations and logistics. This is detrimental to India's security interests. India needs to be prepared to face China's larger geo-strategic and hegemonic aims that are manifest in the Doklam venture. The rapid spread of Chinese influence in and around South Asia has now gained traction by its One Belt One Road connectivity initiative.

All around India, China shares land borders with five SAARC countries, looks over the Chicken's Neck as a sixth, and has a long border with Myanmar. Its growing presence in the region is marked by a 'string of pearls' around the Indian Ocean and on land ~ ports, railways, roads, pipelines, optic fibre and power utilities.

China has done little to discount an abiding perception that many of its projects in the region also aim at containment of India, creating a ring of anti-Indian influences. China's formidable presence in terms of rail and road projects in India's north is exemplified by the world's highest 1,142 km Golmud-Lhasa rail line, opened in July 2006, and now extended westwards by a 252 km link to Xigaze, Tibet's second largest city, with a further 400 km extension not only to Kyirong (Chinese Gyirong), on the border with Nepal, and a probable further 120 km link to Kathmandu, but also to Yayung (Dromo in Tibetan), close to Bhutan, and to Sikkim via the Nathula Pass, yet further on to Nyingchi (Nyingtri), next door to Arunachal Pradesh.

The Lhasa-Nyingtri railway would provide convenient access for China's military in a region with extremely difficult terrain and very limited road access. On India's east, from Kunming in Yunnan province, a network of road, rail and river links fork out to Sittwe in western Myanmar and Thilawa near Yangon on the Bay of Bengal. China built a 1,100 km long pipeline to tap the rich Shwe gas fields from the Kyaukpyu deep sea port on Myanmar's Arakan coast to Kunming. It is closer to establishing a direct railroad link to Bangladesh's port city of Chittagong, in addition to several projects blessed by President Xi during his visit to Bangladesh.

On the western flank, China has planned strategic links to Pakistan, Iran and all across Central Asia, incorporating the Gilgit-Baltistan tract in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) into its Xinjiang's logistics grid, expanding and upgrading the Karakoram highway, and planning a rail line from the China-built and operated Gwadar port on Pakistan's southwest coast close to the Straits of Hormuz.

The city of Kashgar (Kashi), a trading hub in Xinjiang, is connected to Xigaze, already rail-linked to Lhasa. China plans to link Nepal to Karakoram Highway across the Tibetan plateau and Aksai Chin. In the south, as part of its "string of pearls" strategy of links with regional maritime nations, China has been financing nearly all of Sri Lanka's biggest infrastructure projects, including the new sea port at Hambantota. Symptomatic of Chinese tendency to flex muscles, it has always talked about its "sphere of influence", its areas of "core interest", its "waters of concern" in regard to Indian and Pacific oceans, often entangling itself in sovereignty disputes with its neighbours.

China's access to Myanmar's Coco Island, north of Andaman Islands and a naval radar system at Myanmar's Zadetkyi Island impact India's security concerns. China's security concerns in South Asia have historically been centred on its desire to ensure Pakistan thwarts India's intent to challenge China's dominance in Asia.

Hailing its special relationship with Pakistan, "higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans", China seems to miss no opportunity to alienate India ~ persistently blocking India's NSG membership, and UN resolutions on Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Azhar Masood as a terrorist entity.

It hastily denounced the US notification on Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin, as a global terrorist. The Chinese mouthpiece, Global Times, termed the dedicated air freight corridor between India and Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan as "India's stubborn geopolitical thinking".

China's power rests on a 20-fold rise in economic output over the past 40 years. As it becomes richer and more powerful, its aspirations to regional leadership and hegemony grow stronger. Soon after taking over, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that "the greatest Chinese dream" was the "great revival of the Chinese nation". Under him, China displays territorial assertiveness along with a charm offensive, using economic power as a tool of reassurance.

As Michael Pillsbury in his The Hundred Year Marathon writes, Chinese strategists aim at overtaking all. In an interdependent global order, the imperative of maturity and wisdom demands the two leading Asian giants, harbouring almost 40 per cent of the world's population, to build bridges of understanding to usher in the Asian Century.

Jonathan Holslag, a Brussels-based analyst, in his Prospects for Peace explains the India-China relationship marked by relentless strategic mistrust and increasing cooperation, as factors behind the widening India-China chasm. Having galloped at an average annual growth rate of around 10 per cent since 1991, China today boasts a $10.3 trillion GDP (India: $2 trillion). Its per capita income is five times that of an Indian; its exports in 2015 stand at $2.2 trillion (India: $310 billion), and imports at $ 1.6 trillion (India: $ 450 billion).

The world's largest exporting country, having overtaken Germany, has built a warchest of $ 3.2 trillion in terms of foreign exchange (India: $ 366 billion). Hoislag quotes Zhu Rongji, former Chinese Premier, "You (India) are No. One in software. We are No. One in hardware.

Together we are the world's No. One." Both countries need to realise the immense potential of their mutual cooperation. For instance, the 2017 Kleiner Perkins Internet Trends report found four of the top-selling smartphones in India are Chinese (Lenovo, Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi), their combined market share increasing from 15 per cent in 2014 to 52 per cent by QI/2017. UC Browser developed by Alibaba in China commanded half of India's browser market; India is China's largest recipient of capital investment in electronics; China accounts for a whopping 60 per cent of all electronic imports in India.

Yet, strangely enough , it is not for nothing that several observers believe that "Chinese neo-colonialism or imperial expansion" in South Asia constitutes India's most important strategic challenge. It devolves upon China to build the requisite trust by word and deed. When China over-reacts to Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang, it needs to reflect on why it does not display similar sensitivity to India's crucial concerns over the terror outfits in Pakistan as much as its sovereignty over PoK, especially Gilgit Baltistan in the context of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Amidst the Doklams and Demchoks, which engender avoidable fissures, India and China need to grasp Asia's destiny. When destiny endows them with the opportunity to change the course of history for freedom in the widest sense of the term, it enjoins upon them the responsibility to lead with wisdom and sagacity. The two countries need to nudge each other to ensure that there is no ghost at the banquet. There is no room for chestthumping, sabre-rattling, certainly not for intemperate and belligerent language.


The writer is Senior Fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development


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