Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Dragon and the Elephant

A 20-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the disputed Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir in the Himalayan Mountains ended without escalation at the beginning of this month. Now that the dust has settled, a number of trends are crystallising in South Asia. New Delhi especially is making a concerted effort to bolster their domestic defences to better deal with similar flare-ups should they occur in the future.

Following the border spat, Chinese state media heralded Premier Li Keqiang’s India visit with headlines declaring the "Dragon and elephant dance together" with coverage emphasising common interests — trade and regional peace — while playing down divisions.  

Indian soldiers at the India-China border region in Arunachal Pradesh (file photo)
Given how completely China backed down on the disputed border, and the resultant apologetic tour by Chinese officials, it could be that India is viewed both too economically important for China and also proving to be too militarily tough to bully.

The standoff in the Himalayas occurred along what is known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this is the effective border of India and China. The border is far from perfectly formed and China has a history of pushing up to the line. In April, Chinese troops crossed the de-facto border and pitched camp causing New Delhi to send its own troops into the mountains to block any further advances.

For a while, things were tense. But the tension was defused in early May and the two nations have since shaken hands in order to keep the peace. The two sides negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff by withdrawing troops to their original positions in the Ladakh area. The border stalemate threatened to undermine the relative peace between New Delhi and Beijing and highlighted the lack of trust between the two South Asian rivals.

As the weaker power, India has come out ahead politically in the standoff. Forcing a withdrawal of Chinese troops in a highly-charged environment is a major win for New Delhi, especially as Indian officials made bold claims during the crisis not to give in to Chinese demands and pressure.

What led to the standoff is partly explained by the history of Sino-Indian relations. But an equally important detail is the increasing militarisation of the border between the two Asian heavyweights. It’s no secret that India and China are building their military capabilities and each possesses advanced weapons programs which will continue to affect regional security in the future.

Following the border dispute a number of security and economic events in India suggest that although the two countries have much more economic cooperation to exercise, there remains an underlying suspicion between them refusing to be excoriated.

For instance, in a highly political move, police in Dharamsala, India, arrested a 33-year-old Tibetan man suspected of being a Chinese spy on May 24. According to Tibetan intelligence reports, the suspect, Pema Tsering, was a member of China’s People's Liberation Army and served in the People's Armed Police before moving to India. Recent reports suggest China is declining comment on the case.

Also this month, India’s defence ministry confirmed discussions are continuing over purchases of 15 Chinook and 22 Apache helicopters from Boeing Corporation. India is already the world’s largest arms importer, mainly from Russia, with a defence budget close to NZ$60 billion this year – and growing. Talking with an American arms manufacturer could be an effort to diversify away from Russia, lowering their dependence on Moscow for defence.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is also in Japan this week. The two countries are reportedly set to confirm plans for a purchase of Japanese US-2 amphibious aircraft. The deal would be the first sale of Japanese military hardware since restrictions were placed on Japan’s export of weapons systems and other equipment. This is just one of many recent signs that New Delhi is trying to regenerate its role in regional and global affairs. 

But it’s not all about weapons shopping for New Delhi. India on May 22 successfully test-fired its indigenously-developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, with a reportedly 290-kilometer range. The Indian navy frigate INS Tarkash performed the test-fire off the coast of Goa. India successfully fired a similar underwater supersonic cruise missile back in March. China has expressed concern that Indian missile development is quickly bringing its mainland into effective range.

On a different, but related, tack a recent survey conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia revealed an astounding 83 percent of Indians view China as a security threat to India. The poll also showed that 95 percent of Indians feel a strong military will be very important for India to achieve its goals around the world. In light of these numbers, it is easy to why the political opposition and Indian media pressured the government during the recent spat to shun any Chinese olive leaf.

And yet, as India fortifies its military strength, a NZ$1 billion loan deal with China was signed May 21 with Essar Oil Ltd. India’s second largest private refiner will supply refined products to top state oil producer PetroChina from a refinery capable of delivering 405,000 barrels of oil per day. The deal will go some way in mending their strained relationship.

Relationships between China and India are tense, but also very complex. They share regional space and compete for influence over third countries even as a deep mistrust simmers between them. China is still the stronger power, but India is quickly closing the military gap. So as China plays more aggressively in India’s backyard, standoffs mimicking the one in Kashmir can be expected in the future.

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