The China-India Rivalry: Watching the Border

The China-India Rivalry: Watching the Border

It’s a sign of how delicate feelings are between Asia’s two rising powers
that an obscure blog post can cause an international incident. Just
recently, Indian newspapers circulated the incendiary comments of an essay
published on a nationalist Chinese website. The essay — authored under the pen
name Zhanlue, or “strategy” in Mandarin — suggested that it was in Beijing’s
interest to support insurgencies on India’s borderlands that could
eventually dismember the diverse Indian federal state. The uproar in India
over this provocation forced officials in New Delhi to respond, saying that
“the article in question … does not accord with the official state
position of China on India-China relations.” That bland assertion, though,
does little to stanch a lingering anxiety, particularly in India, that
tensions between the two giants will inexorably come to a tipping point.
“There cannot be two suns in the sky,” warns Zhanlue’s post.

The hubbub over the essay came at a moment when Indian and Chinese
officials were engaged in a round of largely futile talks over long-standing
disputes along their mountainous 1,060-mile border. A war fought
between the two countries in 1962 was brief, but its legacy remains
rancorous, with both New Delhi and Beijing claiming chunks of land now
patrolled by the other’s troops. Though sparsely populated, the contested
territories, from a sliver of Kashmir to the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh,
a northeastern state in India that China imagines is part of Tibet, are
heavily militarized.

While both nations are engaged in a budding geopolitical chess match across
Asia—building naval bases abroad and enhancing ties with smaller regional
powers—the rugged Himalayan frontier remains the chief fault line for
potential hostilities. Zhanlue’s post recommended helping militants across
the border in Assam realize their separatist ambitions in the near future—a
proposal that feeds into the convictions of Indian hawks like retired army
officer Bharat Verma, who warned in the Indian Defence Review in July that
China would attempt, covertly or otherwise, to attack India by 2012.

Many China watchers have dismissed the essay as a product of China’s
frenetic and often hyper-nationalist community of Netizen bloggers. The
Danwei blog, a respected China commentator, says that elements of Zhanlue’s
essay have appeared on Chinese websites since 2005. The essay’s premise —that
India can be easily dissolved into its composite, regional parts—displays a
naivete few actual policy experts would be capable of. Nonetheless, some
Indian analysts see Zhanlue’s ambition as part of an internal,
chest-thumping dialogue within China that the rulers in Beijing don’t wish
to discourage.

Despite India and China’s ever expanding trade ties and the occasional
cuddly platitudes uttered by their leaders, the intractable border dispute
is a fundamental impasse in their relations. China has negotiated boundary
settlements with virtually all of its other neighbors—even with Japan, an
old and bitter foe—but refuses to drop its Indian claims. In India, growing
awareness of the gulf between the two countries, from China’s colossal
foreign-exchange reserves to its ballooning military spending, has also
heightened concern within certain policy circles.

There’s also a disconnect between how the public in both countries perceive
each other. Indian wariness rubs up against what is, at best, Chinese
indifference—at worst, contempt. Ask most Chinese, and they will tell you
India is a backward, chaotic place, bereft of decent infrastructure and
burdened by hideous poverty. It has no part in the vision projected by
Beijing of the 21st century as a Chinese one, a sense of grand historic
purpose accepted by the bulk of China’s population. The confident certainty
behind Zhanlue’s spurious post that China could break India with minimal
fuss into 20 or 30 pieces is, if nothing else, an expression of a larger

But the underlying irony is that China, not India, remains the nation more
threatened by the specter of ethnic separatism. The Uighurs of Xinjiang and
the Tibetans to their south number fewer than, say, Kashmiris and Assamese
in India, yet their aspirations for nationhood garner much greater global
sympathy. This is chiefly the fault of Beijing, whose uncompromising,
authoritarian rule has pushed certain minorities to the brink and
transformed dissident leaders in exile into enduring spiritual anchors for
their people.

Indeed, China could do worse than to look at India, a country that has
managed to live with its proverbial million mutinies by safeguarding
regional languages and cultures and, most importantly, letting the poor and
marginalized throw out their local rulers every election cycle. Perhaps a
time may come, then, when rather than spying weaknesses in India’s
multi-ethnic landscape, strategists in Beijing may draw inspiration from
their neighbor’s pluralism. In an era of great-power gamesmanship, that may
be wishful thinking. But it surely is a better path than the one walked by
the warmongers and doomsayers on both sides.

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