November 28, 2011

Can India beat China at its own game?

Published: Sunday, Nov 27, 2011, 9:15 IST
By Aditya Kaul | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The Chinese play a game called Wei qi. It is like chess, but with a different philosophy. While a chess player seeks absolute victory by checkmating the opponent’s king, a Wei qi player seeks a strategic edge by encircling the opponent’s pieces. In chess, you have the advantage of knowing the placement of all your opponent’s pieces. But, in Wei qi, strategy unfolds gradually. Pieces are deployed as the game progresses.

In making the comparison between the two strategy games in his recent work, On China, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger traces the origins of China’s “distinctive military theory” to a period of upheaval, when ruthless struggles between rival kingdoms decimated China’s population.

Reacting to this slaughter, Chinese thinkers, he says, developed strategic thought that placed a premium on “victory through psychological advantage” and “preached the avoidance of direct conflict.” What makes China’s case more of an enigma is that it still invokes its millennia old strategic principles in its dealings with the modern world, and fiercely adheres to them.

Wei qi originated in China, and chess in India. As chants for an India-China ‘showdown’ grow louder, a senior Indian diplomat cautions that “nobody has a good understanding of China.”

Global power
The two sides were expected to sit across the table from Monday in New Delhi for the 15th time for Special Representatives’ talks on the border dispute, but there has been a last minute postponement and new dates are yet to be announced. Last year too, India had suspended the talks after China denied a visa to Northern Army Commander Lt Gen BS Jaswal because he came from the “sensitive” J&K, which China considers “disputed territory”, a pro-Pakistan shift from its earlier stand that J&K is an India-Pakistan bilateral dispute.

Outwardly, there appears little movement between Beijing and New Delhi. “China’s primary objective,” says former national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, “is to have no rival in Asia. Otherwise, how can they claim to be a global power of the standing of the United States?”

It’s precisely for this reason, he says, China has for some years now been supporting Pakistan with money, arms and infrastructure. “Their purpose is to keep India embroiled in South Asia. By working with Pakistan in PoK, it enlarges the scope for this scenario,” says Mishra.

China has a strategic intent to dominate PoK in general and Gilgit Baltistan in particular, says IDSA, a Delhi-based think tank, in its PoK Project Report. “This area is contiguous to its own Xinjiang province where Muslim separatist feelings are strong. Along with Tibet, Xinjiang has become a particularly large belt of instability for China.”

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal says “PoK is strategically very important for them. The Chinese want to be there in the scenario of a collapse of the Pakistani state.” He says China is one country which has strategically harmed India the most.

“They are upgrading in Tibet, pumping money and nuclear missile technology into Pakistan, developing Gwadar, interfering in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, creating a ‘pearl of strings’ in the Indian ocean, which can also be interpreted as their naval presence in the region. That’s why we have stepped up our naval exercises.”

In January last year, the Pakistani side of the strategic Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan with the Xinjiang region in China was blocked by landslides in the Attabad area of Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan turned to China for help, and China saw an opportunity. The New York Times reported that China had stationed 11,000 PLA regulars in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

NYT claimed that through PoK, the Chinese were looking at unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf region and the link-up would enable Beijing to transport cargo and oil tankers from eastern China to the new Chinese built Pakistani naval base at Gawadar, Pasni and Ormara in Balochistan, just east of the Gulf, in 48 hours.

South China Sea
In the South China Sea, on which China claims its sovereign right, the Chinese strategy has had to counter several factors, including a growing Indian assertiveness, and the uncomfortable presence of the US which has minced no words in claiming they are back in South East Asia for strategic reasons, though not containment of China. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bali for the ASEAN summit came against the backdrop of a build-up of tension between the two countries over India’s oil exploration pact with Vietnam in the South China Sea. During their 55-minute bilateral meeting, Singh reportedly told Wen Jiabao India’s oil and gas exploration was a “commercial activity” and “issues of sovereignty should be resolved according to international law.”

Professor Madhu Bhalla who teaches Chinese Studies at Delhi University says the Chinese “irredentist” attitude towards territory has its roots in China’s history, its ancient philosophy of the “middle kingdom” with a “mandate from heaven,” and with peripheral nations as its vassals. “The ‘century of humiliation’ starting with Britain’s opium wars in the mid-19th century have left a deep mark on the Chinese psyche. So, any attempt at a ‘separation’ of their ‘territory’ reminds them of the past. That history is kept intact in their culture, songs, school syllabus, and cinema. It’s the political folklore in China, and breeds a sense of super-nationalism in the Chinese.”

But a senior army officer says the situation is less scary than projected. “Everyone wants influence and China is no different. The Chinese are building roads, but so are we, though not at their pace,” he says, dismissing suggestions of the Indian approach being reactive. “They started modernising in 1978. We started in 1991,” he argues. “Infrastructure is weak on our side. But if you compare the two sides, the terrain on the Chinese side is flat and open, whereas on our side the terrain friction is very high.”

Prof Bhalla also points out that in a globalised world most things are seen in the context of multilateral engagements. “China also realises that it has gained a lot from engagement in multilateral fora,” she says, pointing out that the US and Japan, whom China perceives as its biggest threat, are also its largest trading partners. “Can they cease all trade with the US and Japan?” Trade between India and China has also been rising. This year it reached $70 billion. By 2015, both countries want it to reach $100 billion.

India and China, she says, are encountering each other at several places and we have common neighbours. “So, it’s not just about what they do, but what we do. The challenge for India is to deliver mutually acceptable programmes in its neighbourhood,” she adds.

Aid diplomacy
The Indian diplomatic community has been engaged in hectic diplomatic parleys. In the last 6-7 months alone, India has inked important agreements in the Central, South and South East Asian regions including a strategic agreement with Afghanistan, and trade agreements with Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, South Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and the Maldives.

India has also been engaged in extended Lines of Credit, including $5 billion to Africa this year.

“Over 40 African countries have availed of over a hundred Indian Lines of Credit so far, aggregating over US $ 4.2 billion. In 2010-11, 14 Lines of Credits amounting to over US $ 1 billion were approved. The list continues to grow,” India’s external affairs minister SM Krishna said at the inauguration of an Indian LoC conference in Delhi last week.

Prof Bhalla however points out that India is in no position to compete financially with China $6 trillion economic might. But India can capitalise on soft power. India’s approach is to better the lives of people they are engaging with, unlike the Chinese mercantilist approach. “In Tanzania a lot of the local market has been taken over by China. They are in Sudan where they have been buying up corrupt leaderships. People get nothing. There is a lot of resentment against China. In Saindak copper and gold mines in Pakistan, Gwadar, everywhere they bring in their own people. Local populations that are mired in poverty get nothing.” In Hambantota, Sri Lankan officials have admitted in the past that local people have been unable to find work because China employed around 7,000 Chinese workers.

“India has been working with democratic governments, building institutions, imparting technical skills. Their credibility is much higher. Africans don’t see India as a threat.”

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