War of words in the Himalayas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am


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Are China and India on the verge of war with one another? On the potholed traffic-jammed main roads and in the glittering shopping malls of New Delhi and other newly prospering cities, it is a ridiculous question that would not distract people from enjoying their newfound wealth. The same applies in Beijing, with its bigger, wider highways and larger, glitzier shopping paradises.

But in Indian political circles, there is increasing unease about the way that Beijing seems to be spoiling for a fight. And some of India's military top brass are worried about China's belligerent intentions. Bharat Verma, editor of the Indian Defence Review, predicts that 'China will launch an attack on India before 2012'. Economist and commentator Prem Shankar Jha also claims that the two countries are heading 'towards a war that neither wants'.

Certainly, there is little spirit of developing solidarity, let alone friendship, in recent messages from Beijing to India. China protested about a visit this month by India's prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, declaring that it was 'strongly dissatisfied' that he had gone there and urging India to behave itself. Singh was campaigning in state elections in the northeastern territory that borders China in the high Himalayas. The turnout was more than 70 per cent, suggesting that the people are happy to participate in Indian democracy.

Beijing protested because it considers Arunachal Pradesh to be part of its territory, even though in 1913-14 Tibet and Britain signed the Simla Accord that gave Arunachal to India. China, since Tibet is part of its territory, considers all of the land once ruled by Tibet to be its own, and that Tibet was never independent so had no power to negotiate or sign a treaty.

Arunachal Pradesh, or South Tibet as China calls it, is especially sensitive because it contains an important Tibetan monastery at Tawang, which the Dalai Lama used as a resting place on his flight from Tibet. The town is also the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. The present Dalai Lama is due to visit the monastery next month and China has already laid down a strident barrage of protests, even though he has visited Arunachal and the monastery several times.

Protests over Arunachal Pradesh are only part of a more vociferous and vigorous assertion by China of its claims over disputed territory in the mountainous wastelands of the roof of the world. Earlier this year, China tried to block a US$1.3 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank to India that included a watershed project in Arunachal Pradesh. In the other disputed part of the frontier, the chilly desert Aksai Chin, China continues to test Indian forces.

India claimed last year there were 270 violations of the disputed border areas by China, or more than twice the number of the previous year.

While China protests against Indian activity in an area that has been de facto part of Indian territory long before the People's Republic was founded, India is irked that China has been going ahead with help to Pakistan-controlled territory that India claims rightfully belongs to it. This month India formally asked China to stop building projects, such as a hydroelectric plant and highways, 'in areas illegally occupied by Pakistan'.

Residents of Indian Kashmir recently have been given Chinese visas on sheets of paper rather than in their passports, suggesting that Beijing is challenging India's control of Kashmir on behalf of Pakistan.

China's close military ties with Pakistan, particularly its supplies of advanced weaponry, are also a source of annoyance to India. Recently China has supplied Pakistan with the Z9EC anti-submarine helicopters.

India, from a late start, is building roads, railways and infrastructure on its side of the disputed borders. It has transferred five airports to military control. It has ordered advanced early warning aircraft from Israel. Delhi dispatched 60,000 more troops to the frontiers and last month planned to deploy 300 light tanks able to cope with the mountain terrain. Even so, Indian military experts concede China's superiority, but hope to be able to deter a limited Chinese attack.

India feels increasingly threatened by China's activities in most of its neighbours - Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and most recently its massive aid to Sri Lanka in its battle against Tamil Tigers, as well as by Beijing's plans to build a blue water fleet, fearing encirclement.

Apologists for China say it fears a hostile encircling alliance by the US, India, Japan and Australia and is baring its teeth to dissuade India as the weakest link in any such alliance.

Both countries have issued a spate of propaganda. In India it consists mostly of alarmed protests about China's intentions. Bharat Verma claims that China is motivated by 'unprecedented internal social unrest' threatening the Communist Party grip, so an attack on India would serve the twin purpose of diverting attention from its own problems and teaching India a lesson.

In the Chinese press there is more than a touch of hubris. Global Times, the friendly international face of China, issued an editorial declaring: 'India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.' The paper also cited an online poll by huanqiu.com in June claiming that '90 per cent of participants believe that India poses a big threat to China'.

A video in Chinese titled 2009: Go China shows rural schoolchildren in jingoistic mood reciting a poem about 'Western values falling like a snowstorm' and determined to 'step ruthlessly over all anti-China forces'. One boy declares: 'The suona [musical instrument] plays aloud in the Tawang area of the Himalayas.'

It is time for both countries, but especially China, to cool this ultimately self-defeating jingoism and grow up. War would do nothing for either country. Defeat for India could be devastating, but victory for China could easily prove pyrrhic. Even if it can discard the opprobrium of the rest of the world, does China want really want yet another disaffected minority inside its borders?

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express Group of newspapers