Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

About the author
Gentleman crusader
List of articles
Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Indian arms were never used to expand into China. The Dogra conquest of Ladakh by Zorawar Singh in 1842 was no exception. It was only in the 19th century that India got embroiled in Britain's Imperial games in China proper through the opium trade. This led to the Opium Wars and, later, the Boxer rebellion in which Indian troops were employed.

India, Pakistan, China: From Continental to Oceanic Challenges and Opportunities


By B G Verghese

Katari Memorial Lecture, 18 January, 2013

Admiral D.K. Joshi, Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral S.K. Das, President of the Navy Foundation’s Delhi Charter, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am greatly honoured to be invited to deliver this Lecture in memory of Admiral Ram Dass Katari, who became the country's first Indian Chief of Naval Staff after Independence in 1958. He helped lay the foundations of what is today a formidable fleet that sails the five Oceans. I knew the Admiral but slightly as a reporter but was later to forge a valued friendship with his daughter and son-in-law, "Lolly" and Admiral Ram Das.

As an intrepid land lubber, I boldly ventured to sail into unchartered waters when I accepted Admiral Das's kindly but, surely, rash invitation to deliver this Lecture. I, however, cautioned that I might tend to hug the shore, rendering the lecture more continental than oceanic. In weighing anchor, I am reminded of the adage that the art of Journalism, my chosen profession, lies in cleverly mixing a dilute solution of knowledge and spreading it thinly on Paper.

India and China are ancient civilisations whose histories recede into the mists of time. Pakistan is a much younger player, carved out of India sixty years ago. The two Asian giants were mainly continental powers though not without a significant maritime history. Between them, they constitute – as they always did – almost a third of all mankind. While China was a strongly centralised state, India was a looser confederation of entities bound by common cultural ties, making up an enduring civilisational construct known as Bharat. These local kingdoms acquired different configurations over time as empires rose and fell to make up the suggestive contours of what became the Asokan and Mauryan and then the Mughal and British Indian empires. India was buffered by the Great Himalayan-Karakoram-Hindu Kush arc whereas the Chinese built the Great Wall to keep out the western barbarians, but made forays beyond it to exact tribute when and where they could.

There was no naval threat to either country over millennia as there was no powerful or proximate maritime nation with the capability of bringing such naval forces to bear as would overwhelm a strong continental power. But maritime trade flourished and local principalities and even Imperial authorities established brown water navies to maintain offshore maritime order and subdue pirates.

The ancient Indus Valley civilisation shipyard at Lohtal in Gujarat bears testimony to maritime pursuits while the great ports of Khambat, Surat, Calicut, Muziris, Nagipattanam and Tamluk were famed entrepots along the Spice Route – matching the overland Silk Route that straddled the Eurasian land mass with connecting spurs to India, a fabled emporia that Greece, Rome, Persia, the Arabs, Central Asians, Venice Spain, Portugal, and a rising Europe sought to reach in turn.

The Arabs were great navigators. Their dhows, and other vessels from the Indian Ocean littoral, rode the monsoon from the East Africa and the Red Sea to India and beyond, to Malacca and China, returning with the retreating monsoon. India and China were economic powers. Angus Maddison, a Cambridge economist, has calculated that until 1700 the two accounted for almost half the World's GDP, with China enjoying a slight edge over India.

Culture, Faith and Commerce travelled along the Silk and Spice routes. Indian arithmetic had conceived the revolutionary concept of the zero and, with its astronomic charts, added to China's invention of the compass and gunpowder, combined with Arab navigational skills to open up the world. Hinduism and Buddhism went from India to Central, Inner and Southeast Asia and to China by land and Great Chinese travellers like Huen Tsang and Fa Hein visited India and helped return some of its lost scriptural learning to this country in subsequent centuries. It is by sea and through Arab traders that Islam came to coastal and thence interior India during the very life time of the Prophet.

In the 14th century, Mohammad bin Tughlak appointed the famous Moroccan traveller, Ibn Batuta, as his Ambassador to China. That was still an age of soft borders in a world without passports and visas where wisdom mattered more than the yet unborn idea of the nation state.

Indian arms were never used to expand into China. The Dogra conquest of Ladakh by Zorawar Singh in 1842 was no exception. It was only in the 19th century that India got embroiled in Britain's Imperial games in China proper through the opium trade. This led to the Opium Wars and, later, the Boxer rebellion in which Indian troops were employed. The same compulsions saw the Raj defining its boundaries with Tibet and Sinkiang. The Younghusband expedition and the Simla Convention established the McMahon Line. Two differing outer boundary alignments in the Aksaichin region of Ladakh were also drawn as a peripheral consequence of the Great Game, to keep Russia from creeping south of the Pamirs. These Imperial manoeuvres by Britain were to become Indian legacies and later to give cause for friction with the People's Republic of China.

Even as China thrust north and west into Eurasia, India was concerned with safeguarding its borders against inroads from Central Asia, Persia and Afghanistan through which Hun, Mongol and other tribal hordes had come in search of loot, conquest and knowledge, as Alexander had done earlier. The coasts were quiet. Regional kingdoms south of the Vindhyas wielded enough naval power to ensure against hostile intruders and both engage in and protect a flourishing trade in a glorious chapter of India’s maritime history that is little remembered. The Maratha and Mughal fleets were akin to coastguards rather than anything like blue water navies.

China, however, did see an interlude of maritime glory with the Ming Admiral, Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, undertaking seven remarkable trans-oceanic naval expeditions. These great, well armed armadas of huge wooden "treasure ships", explored the furthest limits of the known oceanic world in the Western or Indian Ocean, and even beyond, between 1405 and 1433, well before Bartholomew Diaz, Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan. Some, like Gavin Menzies, author of "1421, The Year China Discovered the World", believe that Zheng even reached the Americas before Columbus. This, however, is disputed.

Zheng He visited Cochin, Kollam (Quilon) and Calicut. He died at sea and was given a naval burial off the Malabar coast. At least 24 wrecks of vessels since located testify to the extent and daring of his exploits. There is a memorial dedicated to him at Nanking and a tablet at Dondra Head, the southernmost promontory of Sri Lanka.

Chinese interests in maritime glory faded with the demise of Zheng He. The Mongols were once again knocking at the gates of Beijing, the new capital located well to the north to ward off just such a threat. New armies had to be raised and a fortune was spent in refurbishing and greatly extending the Great Wall. The regime did not think this a time for maritime adventure. But China had left behind an oceanic calling card.

Calicut, then ruled by the Zamorin Rajas, was visited by Zheng He and every other global mariner of consequence before and since. It was for long regarded as the greatest port and emporium in the Indian Ocean and, maybe, worldwide. Everybody called there for its calicoes and spices. Oceanic India mattered.

Yet, everything said, both India and China remained continental powers. Western curiosity and envy at their reported riches, however, brought travellers and merchants to both their shores. The Feringhis were tolerated. But as trading stations or "factories" needed protection, forts were built and gradually developed military muscle with offshore naval support. Inevitably, rising influence led to alliances with local powers. Interventions followed, leading to conquest or the assertion of extra-territorial rights. The era of Western dominance and Imperialism had arrived. Competing Western powers established spheres of influence after years of armed rivalry to establish distinct empires - British, French, Dutch and Portuguese among them.

British India's relations with China were protected by the Himalayan wall and a large buffer zone in Tibet and the desolate Mongol lands beyond. The Russians were more belligerently kept at bay by the English and prevented from expanding southwards to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea as the Great Game was played out in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Though Chinese suzerainty over Tibet was occasionally asserted, for all practical purposes it remained hermitically aloof. Its temporal independence was buttressed by the unquestioned ecclesiastical supremacy of the Dalai Lama whose spiritual writ ranged far beyond the confines of that country on both sides of the Himalayan divide. The Chinese Emperors and the Dalai Lama mutually acknowledged the spiritual and temporal supremacy of the other in order to pacify the nomadic tribes who respected the one and feared the other.

Nonetheless, a longer term Chinese political strategy remained in play. This was to send ambassadors bearing gifts to other lands. When the courtesy was reciprocated as a matter of diplomatic correctness, Chinese scribes would officially record it as tribute paid by a vassal ruler to the Emperor, thereby laying a so-called historical basis for subsequent territorial aggrandisement!

Interestingly, India hosted a unique Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in March 1947 at which both Tibet and Nationalist China were separately represented. The KMT Chinese representative protested; but the only concession made to him was that a disputed map was covered. Both delegations, Tibetan and Chinese Nationalist, participated.

The People's Republic of China occupied Tibet in 1950. India like others sadly accepted the fait accompli following Chinese assurances of respecting Tibetan autonomy as elaborately spelt out in the 17-Point Agreement of 1951 between the PRC and Tibet. Tragically, that autonomy has yet to be honoured. For the first time, China's boundary touched India's. Asian geo-politics had changed.

The 1954 Sino-Indian Treaty on relations between India and the Tibet Region of China spelt out the famous Panch Shila or Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that became the banner of the non-aligned movement that India championed. However, Sino-Indian relations deteriorated over demarcation of their mutual boundary, with China occupying virtually all of Aksaichin and contesting the McMahon Line. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet and found asylum in India in 1959 and in 1962 the Sino-Indian border conflict dramatically ended the short-lived era of Hindi Chini bhai bhai.

Meanwhile, the US endeavoured to use Sikkim, Nepal and Indian groups through the CIA to spy on Chinese activities in Tibet and to arm and train Tibetan guerrillas. India was indirectly involved briefly through clandestine intelligence operations and, after the Chinese nuclear test explosion in 1964, a radio-active seismological sensor was planted atop Nanda Devi to monitor any tell-tale tremors. Two years later, the device was reported "lost", having perhaps been swept away by an avalanche. Searches proved abortive. The project was abandoned.

The Chinese were not inactive and by the early sixties had begun to respond, first, to Naga, then Mizo and Meitei and, subsequently, other Northeast Indian insurgents who solicited arms, training and sanctuary, both directly and through East Pakistan and ISI contacts in Dhaka. Those who sought Chinese diplomatic recognition for rebel governments in exile in the Chittagong Hill Tracts or in Burma were, however, rebuffed. Mao reportedly told Laldenga, the Mizo National Front leader, that seeking independence was not a credible option. Pakistani and even Bangladeshi assistance to India's NE insurgents (especially during BNP regimes) continued until a major reversal of policy by Sheikh Hasina's Awami League administration around 2009.

The Indian Maoists, however, got short shrift from China after an initial welcome in 1967. This followed the Naxalbari peasant uprising which it described as "a clap of Spring Thunder". The Chinese repudiated the Naxals' description of themselves as Maoists. Yet, should opportunity beckon, supping with the devil is not to be ruled out.

Pakistan burst on the scene in 1947. It had for some time been conceived of and was soon built up as an anti-communist Anglo-American cold war bastion against the rising power of Soviet and Chinese communism and to defend the West's oil and other strategic interests in West Asia. The formal slogan of pitting the "Good Muslim" against the godless and evil Soviet empire was coined in 1979 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The meaning was clear. Radical Islam or fundamentalism had been inducted as an instrument of realpolitik. This was soon to become a game-changer, with the sub rosa arming and religious indoctrination of a whole people to unleash a mercenary army of jihadi, non-state actors and deadly terrorists controlled by Pakistani handlers but otherwise unaccountable.

Pakistan became a US military ally and a can-do-no-wrong "frontline state" in the early 1950s, a counterfoil to a non-aligned and assumedly pro-Soviet India. It became a member of both CENTO and SEATO. Its pro-West posture ensured that Britain and the US batted for it on the Kashmir question in the United Nations so that it was never brought to book for its proven aggression there, thus defeating the UN Resolutions and keeping the so-called Kashmir "dispute" alive. Many consequences were to follow. Pakistan, post-1962, gradually developed into a close ally of China and a conduit for improved relations with the United States.

Sino-Soviet relations had begun to sour by the mid-1960s and, having extricated itself from the Indo-China quagmire, the US turned to mending fences with China, now a nuclear power. The Sino-Pakistan rapprochement made Pakistan an ideal conduit for quiet negotiations. In 1971, Pakistan led the successful call for ushering the PRC into the UN. Henry Kissinger visited the sub-continent, ostensibly to cool Indo-Pakistan relations over rising tensions stemming from the Bangladesh liberation struggle, but essentially to make a clandestine detour from Islamabad to Beijing to prepare the ground for a Nixon-Mao summit that, indeed, followed in 1972.

The notorious “Nixon tilt” against India in the run up to the 1971 war was countered by the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The "Kissinger Transcripts" published by William Burr in 1999 discloses that the US Secretary of State went as far as to suggest to the Chinese Ambassador to the UN in New York, Huang Hua, with whom he was by now in close touch, to move militarily against India to prevent the liberation of Bangladesh and the dismemberment of Pakistan, a mutual ally! He added that a naval flotilla led by the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise had been ordered into the Bay of Bengal to deter Indian adventurism, although this might ramp up tensions with the Soviet Union. Should Russia react, America would intervene.

It was during this same period that the US Defence Mapping Agency, that sets international cartographic standards, decided to re-draw the 1949 UN-determined Cease Fire Line/Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. It departed from the agreed UN-mandated injunction to extend the last demarcated grid reference NJ 9842 "thence north to the glaciers”. Instead, it drew a line running north east from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass. This gratuitously annexed and gifted 250 square kilometres of Indian territory to Pakistan, that suited China as well. Astonishingly, there was and has to this day, been no Indian demur or protest against this perfidious act despite India being shown as an aggressor in J&K to stir up a "dispute" within a "Dispute". All major global atlases now show the US Defence Mapping Agency line as the authentic LOC-border despite the Office of the Geographer in the US State Department ruling this alignment to be mistaken.

Worse was to follow. In order to gain US access to Afghanistan and Pakistani participation in fighting the "evil (Soviet) empire" and, subsequently, the Taliban and the so-called War on Terror, Pakistan in 1980 demanded that American assistance to Afghan fighters and the newly raised Taliban be channelled via the ISI and that no questions be asked of Pakistan's nuclear programme. In the result, a good part of US military aid was diverted to promote cross-border terrorism in J&K and elsewhere in India. Simultaneously, the infamous A.Q Khan was let loose to build an illegal, underground network to develop Pakistan's military nuclear capability and set up a retail nuclear WalMart outlet open to all.

Khan had earlier stolen the highly-prized Dutch, Franco-German, British centrifuge technology from URENCO, a secret multi-national research facility in the Netherlands, while employed there. He now traded this with China, enabling it to enrich uranium more quickly, cheaply and efficiently than by means of the older gaseous diffusion process it possessed. In turn, the Chinese gifted Pakistan advanced nuclear technology, including the critical trigger mechanism it had employed to detonate its nuclear explosion in Lop Nor in 1964. The "collaboration" not merely continued but deepened. By 1983 Pakistan had the Bomb, well before India.

Later, in his search for a matching delivery system, A.Q. Khan turned to North Korea. A deal was clinched when Benazir Bhutto visited Pyongyang in 1993.The sordid A.Q. Khan story is elaborately documented in the book "Deception" by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark. (Walker, 2007).

The Americans and British were again well aware of what was going on but preferred silence. Iraq was made the fall guy. Richard Barlow, a US operative who tracked Pakistan's nuclear trail, was sacked and ruthlessly hounded by the CIA when he turned whistle-blower.

Sino-Pakistan relations have since remained close and cordial – a strategic friendship that Beijing picturesquely describes as higher than the Karakoram and deeper than the Indian Ocean. Nuclear collaboration continues and extends to supply of military hardware for all three arms, apart from industrial and trade collaboration in a variety of fields. China has helped build infrastructure: it raised the height of the Mangla dam and is assisting construction of the proposed Basha-Diamer and Neelum-Jhelum hydro projects. It built and is now upgrading and elevating the Karakoram Highway. It constructed Gwadar Port – a site originally offered to India on lease in the early 1950s by the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, but refused - and is now working on a proposed trans-Karakoram railway and pipeline to Karachi. A few thousand Chinese security personnel are reportedly involved in guarding these project sites and assets, especially as Chinese workers have been set upon by radical Islamists. The KK Highway has had to be periodically closed on account of jihadi infiltration into Xinjiang, where the Uighurs are in revolt.

Though resource rich, China's galloping economy is hungry for more resources, especially hydrocarbons and minerals. The vast bulk of its oil and gas imports come from the Gulf and must traverse the busy, pirate-ridden Straits of Malacca choke point before entering the Pacific Ocean and home waters. China therefore seeks safer and more economical passage for these and other exports. Hence the attraction of alternative ocean outlets nearer home.

Meanwhile, new challenges have arisen in the South China Seas as China's claims to various islands and potentially promising offshore oil and gas fields are being contested by a whole lot of players and foreign collaborators. India is currently contracted to drill in a Vietnamese offshore concession in Paracel Island waters that Beijing disputes.

How quickly and how far the Arabian Sea onshore links to the Chinese mainland will mature remains to be seen.

In the Bay of Bengal, China has an ocean outlet for offshore gas and potential oil imports are to be piped from there to Yunnan via a new deep sea port at Kyaukpyu. A little to the north, India is rejuvenating the derelict port of Sitwe (Akyab) and building an inter-modal waterway and highway, the Kaladan corridor, to Mizoram.

Political and economic support for the former Myanmarese military junta, after the rejection of the democratic elections of 1990 that Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD won overwhelmingly, enabled China to extend its influence in the country as it battled severe sanctions. India changed tack in 1995 and improved trade and military ties with Myanmar given the compulsions of border security. This was done in the face of clandestine cross-border movements of insurgent groups, illicit narcotic and arms flows, smuggling, money laundering and espionage activities affecting India's Northeast. It was also necessary to prevent what could have been an irreversible takeover of the Myanmarese economy, with open and illicit Chinese in-migration to boot.

Many have criticised India's posture at the time. But the fact is that Delhi was able to exercise friendly influence on the military junta to exercise moderation and restore democracy. A former Myanmarese Ambassador in Delhi reminded me not many years ago that the Burmese attire consists of a "Chinese" blouse and an "Indian" lungi, in almost equal proportions. His lament was that the blouse had got longer and longer while the lungi was shrinking!

India's economic assistance to Myanmar has not been insignificant and is currently marked by aid programmes to develop the Tamanthi (1200 MW) project on the Chindwin cascade, the Kaladan corridor and Sitwe port and some new east-west highways. Other human development and capacity building programmes are planned. Chinese assistance to Myanmar was, however, brought up short last year with suspension until 2015 of the Myitsone dam on the Upper Irrawaddy, the first of a seven-dam cascade to develop as much power as the Three Gorges but intended mainly to supply power to Western China. Nonetheless, India and China will remain in competition in Myanmar, Southeast Asia and Central Asia as well as in Africa and Latin America where the Chinese - like India more modestly - are in search of long term mining and natural resource contracts.

Though China is for the moment well ahead of India in terms of economic growth, its future is masked in some uncertainty. There is little transparency in its system, a mismatch between economic liberalism and political control and growing disparities of various kinds. Alongside rising corruption, these tendencies are generating protest and tensions. Tibet and Xinjiang are restive as also parts of the countryside.

India is likewise in transition from an agrarian to an industrial and urbanising society with growing empowerment of disadvantaged groups. It too faces a million mutinies. It is today the fifth largest economy in the world after the US. China, Japan and the European Union with the potential to become No. 3 a few decades down the road. It is going through a time of troubles but has the resilience to come through. The question arises whether in a world of climate change and the growing need for sustainability, should endless growth be the goal or a more inclusive, egalitarian, contended society that offers its people a better quality of life? A hundred years ago, Gandhi said that there was enough for every man's need but not enough for everybody's greed. It is to that principle that we must return.

China's "peaceful rise" is feared in many quarters as it is seen as an expansionist, irredentist power, unlike India. It claims most of Arunachal as "Southern Tibet"! Pakistan in turn has pretentions to ideological and territorial frontiers that are inherently expansionist. China and Pakistan have in recent years come together to mutual benefit but their paths might diverge as Pakistan faces implosion from its own misconceived policies. The religious fundamentalism it has fostered and used as an instrument of policy, is gnawing at its vitals. It pleads that it is not a terrorist state as it itself faces a most brutal terrorist challenge to its very existence. The truth is that Pakistan deliberately fostered and continues to nurture the monster that devours it. It officially hosted Osama bin Ladin while even now pretending injured innocence over how the man came to find a safe haven in Abbottabad! Full play is even today being given to murderous sectarianism and what Islamabad’s Jinnah Institute in April 2012 described as a "curriculum of hate" against India, propagated through school textbooks that distort and caricature history and social studies.

Pakistan has denied itself a positive identity and has instead, by default, chosen to portray itself as the "Other" to a hated "Hindu" India in terms of a paranoid and pernicious two-nation theory. The "Ideology of Pakistan" (Nazariya-e-Pakistan) sets up India as a permanent enemy that can only be countered by a bloated Army and the Bomb in violent defence of a still incomplete Islamic nation or Eastern Caliphate of jihadi imagination. Kashmir is thus not the "core issue" or cause of Indo-Pakistan friction but a territorial illusion conjured up to complete the "unfinished business of Partition". Liberal Pakistanis and, increasingly, other disillusioned elements have begun to see through the lies, deceit, indoctrination and denials through which a tortured nation has been led through three generations to find themselves on the brink of becoming a failed State.

Hence General Kayani's statement last April that development must march with defence and that Pakistan’s greatest enemy is lack of internal cohesion and extremism. These expressions echo a dawning sentiment that India is not a permanent enemy and that trade and cooperation with it could not merely ensure huge economic and social gains, but make Pakistan whole. The tipping point is clearly still some distance away. Too many in Pakistan have invested too much in the past and it will take a while to see through the cobwebs and envision the future. But Pakistan's budding democracy is getting there and must be assisted by India and the world to do so. Despite continuing barbs, and going beyond 26/11 and so much else, India must engage with Islamabad. However, the planned American military withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen by Taliban-jihadi elements and sections among Pakistani hardliners as an opportunity to bring India to heel. This could complicate matters.

The answer to the Jammu and Kashmir question lies in the formulation first put forward by Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah in 1964. This was to convert the Cease Fire Line (now the LOC) into a soft boundary that would permit cross-border movement, trade and exchange. Dr Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf refined the idea between 2004 and 2006 to include joint management of common institutions involved in such exchanges between largely autonomous regional entities embedded within the existing twin, de facto Indian and Pakistani sovereignties. Considering that India and Pakistan both adopted the recommendations of the SAARC Eminent Persons Group in the late 1980s to build a Seven-Nation South Asian Community with free trade and a common currency, a mini non-sovereign Indo-Pakistan condominium in all or part of J&K is not totally far-fetched.

Dr Manmohan Singh has gone further in hinting that the impasse over Indus Waters can be overcome by activating Article VII of the IWT. This envisages "Future Cooperation" in the form of joint exploration, development and management of the waters of the Indus system in order to optimise and harness its full potential to mutual benefit. This could, over time, result in restoring an integrated Indus Basin water, energy, drainage and ecological grid straddling both countries in the face of a common threat from water stress and climate change.

Such a vision of the future is probably what Nehru and other Congress leaders had in mind when they most reluctantly agreed to Partition in 1947 in order to avoid further sectarian bloodshed. It was hoped that after a cooling off period, the estranged brothers would come together, not as a single nation but as a cooperative commonwealth. That hope remains, howsoever remote or fanciful it might appear to some.

Meanwhile, though China continues its onward march, the gap could close over the next two decades during which period India will enjoy the demographic dividend, which China will soon exhaust, of a youthful labour force and a lower dependency ratio. But this will only happen provided India rapidly improves its dismal human development record in education, health and capacity building. India must also upgrade its agriculture and vastly enhance its infrastructure and manufacturing and technological capabilities.

For all its seeming flabbiness, Indian democracy is well rooted and, despite transitional turbulence, long term political and social stability seem reasonably assured. Can the same be said of China, where significant contradictions lie below the surface? A smooth political transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jingpi was confirmed at the 18th Party Congress in Beijing last November, notwithstanding some ripples. But the next decade could prove more difficult to negotiate.

Global relationships are changing. Obama's initial G-2 proposition in 2005 of an Asia (or even the world) overseen by the US and China, was quickly abandoned. India has emerged as a possible American strategic partner. That relationship has, however, yet to mature, not least on account of American AfPak foul-ups that have caused India brutal collateral damage.

Too much is read into China's efforts to develop a "String of Pearls" in the Indian Ocean alongside a growing naval and presence and development of ports and related strategic assets in and around these waters. But it would be wise to be wary. China is similarly extending its maritime presence deep into the mid-Pacific. It has entered into partnerships with tiny island nations to develop ports and fisheries in order to exploit the potential of their vast extended economic zones. It has also registered a sea-bed mining lease in the Pacific.

Fears of China diverting the "Brahmaputra" north towards the Gobi desert and the north Beijing plains is a bogey that needs to be laid to rest. Rather than periodically betray unnecessary alarm, a more pragmatic riposte would be for India to propose that the countries of the Yarlung-Tsangpo-Brahmaputra Basin (China, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh), together with the World Bank, ADB, ESCAP and Japan invite China to collaborate in joint development of the assessed 48,000 to 54,000 MW potential of the Great inverted U-Bend as the river tumbles almost 8000 feet from Tibet to Assam.

The Electric Power Development Corporation of Japan did a desk top study of this possibility in the late 1980s on behalf of the Global Infrastructures Foundation and posed it to China and India for further ground level investigations. Both Governments demurred. If feasible, the power thus generated could form the nodal centre of a SAARC-ASEAN energy grid with spurs going north to China, where possible, or equivalent trade-offs elsewhere, on a mutual cost-benefit sharing basis. The Annual substitution of 200 m or more tonnes of dirty Indian coal-based thermal power with clean, cheap hydro-electricity would be a major contribution towards combating climate change.

Meanwhile, avoidable alarms about Chinese intentions indicate woeful failure on the part of successive Indian Governments to communicate basic information on issues that matter. This constitutes a huge chink in our armour, morale and preparedness at home and abroad. It is noteworthy that the further development of China's military doctrine, spelt out in broad terms in Hu Jintao's 18th Congress Report, not merely attached great importance to maritime, space and cyberspace security, but laid special emphasis on "winning local wars in an information age".

The staggering sweep of the continuing communications revolution has created an instant and virtual world in the palm of one's hand. This truth is simply not recognised either by the civil or military authorities in India. Archaic classification and cartographic rules and chain-of-command information flows still prevail, while the speed, reach and mischief of disinformation are not fully appreciated.

India and China have yet to settle their boundary. The only practical resolution can be recognition of the currently prevailing status quo, with marginal adjustments that exclude any transfer of populated areas such as Tawang. The "Tibet" problem will not go away with the passing of the Dalai Lama. A democratic, political succession has been ensured by His Holiness. Chinese insensitivities and callous disregard of its treaty obligations have only fanned Tibetan nationalism while Tibetan Buddhism and culture continue to flourish in India. The Dalai Lama has clearly stated his acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, subject to corresponding acceptance of complete local and cultural autonomy and internal administrative freedom within Tibet as agreed in 1951. The only practical compromise could be to limit this arrangement to the Tibet Autonomous Region while assuring the Dalai Lama's ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Greater Tibet regions of Kham and Chamdo, now spread over five Chinese provinces.

The Tibetan government-in-exile would also wish to reverse the demographic and cultural imbalance created by Han Chinese settlements in Tibet as well as the nuclearisation of the Tibetan plateau.

Tibet is today a military bastion, with the Golmud-Lhasa railway and new highways and military establishments in place. Yet 1962 will not be repeated again though there is never any substitute for being adequately prepared. At the same time, there is no reason to suppose that India and China cannot remain benign partners in building and cooperatively managing a peaceful Asian Century.

Notwithstanding any of this, China is today a major Indian trading partner and that relationship is steadily growing. India's recent articulation of its "Look East" Policy also entails looking North along new land bridges between the eastern Indian quadrant and Southwest China, such as envisaged by the Kunming Initiative, a semi- official Track-II dialogue between Southwest China, Eastern India, Bangladesh and Myanmar that commenced soon after the turn of the century.

All said, a quiet rebalancing of China in under way. Strategically, China has opened up a whole web of new trans-Eurasian connectivities by rail, road, air, pipeline, power grids and optic fibre links. These are more extensive and far more weather-friendly than the Russian trans-Siberian links, with spurs moving south to the Indian Ocean. In other words, the old geo-strategist, MacKinder's, Eurasian heartland or "World Island" and "geographical pivot of History", as he categorised it, has begun to throb as never before.

The Silk Road and the Spice Route have been and are being connected in novel ways to create new geo-political partners and new geo-strategic threats and opportunities. The upgraded, multi-facility Karakoram Highway strategic corridor from Xinjiang to Pakistan, with hydro-power and mineral hubs alongside and multiple ocean outlets, could work for the creation of a new regional concord should the project fructify. India too is building new ocean-land connectivities through Iran and Afghanistan to the Caspian Sea. The proposed Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway are also coming into being by slow instalments. India must join these emerging dots and refurbish its strategic thinking.

China is making the transition from being an exclusive continental power to becoming a maritime and space power with superpower ambitions.. Conscious of this trend, and potential threat, Japan, South Korea, the ASEAN and the ANZAC nations are gearing to join with the US and possibly Russia to hold the balance. India would be a natural partner in this purely defensive entente, especially as projected into the future as it too emerges from its Continental repose to assume its place as a maritime power, with a pivotal role to play in the Indian Ocean and in safeguarding its growing global assets. An increasingly important Fortress Command in the Andamans-Nicobar chain could, 20 years from now, grow into to something akin to what Pearl Harbour is to the United States.

If an Indo-Pakistan rapprochement matures – and this is entirely within the realm of near-to medium term possibilities - current equations would stand transformed and the China-Pakistan pincer that has confronted India, would disappear. SAARC would be invested with new life and vigour, within which an Indo-Pakistan entente would constitute an immensely powerful and influential player in Central and West Asia, the Indian Ocean arc and in the councils of the world.

Great challenges but greater opportunities lie ahead. Grasp the Opportunities. Seize the Future.

back to the top


See also

11-C Dewan Shree Apartments, 30 Ferozeshah Rd, New Delhi 110001, India