China wary as India looks East – South China Sea

In China, smaller publications in landlocked provinces are a better guide to the actual thinking of the immense cadre of the Chinese Communist Party than the bigger media outlets, especially those in English. The latter usually give a more restrained and assessment of situations, which is why it was a surprise to South Block (home of the Prime Minister's Office and the External Affairs Ministry) to note the harsh language of even leading English-language publications in Beijing ( such as "Global Times") about India's outreach to Myanmar and Vietnam. The ire was mostly against the oil prospecting contracts signed by state-owned Indian companies with their Vietnamese counterparts.

The Chinese media saw this as "interference in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea)", all of which is claimed by China and parts are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam & Other ASEAN neighbors. The sea has immense deposits of hydrocarbon and other minerals essential to a fast-developing and large economy such as India; hence it is not likely that Petroleum Minister Jaipal Reddy will abandon the joint venture with Vietnam. The policy of Delhi is that the disputes between different countries in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea) is a matter for them to settle, but that in the meantime, India will undertake commercial and other transactions with each of the governments whose territories about the sea. Beijing wants all countries to deal only with itself in any such activity; an in effect wants a monopoly over the resources of the Sea.

Apart from the vituperative articles against Vietnam, the Philippines and India written in English-language and Mandarin publications published from China, numerous China-based internet sites have gone much further in their verbal attack on the three Asian neighbors of China. Some have even alluded to the "racial inferiority" of people from India, Vietnam and the Philippines when compared to Han Chinese, and called for them to be slaughtered by military might "in the manner of roadkill" ie animals killed by vehicles while crossing a road. The overwhelming majority of the Chinese people are highly cultured, steeped as they are in a civilization which goes back 5000 years, but clearly there are some who in their thinking resemble followers of Adolf Hitler. Although such arrogant and aggressive voices are almost certainly not representative of the view of the Chinese Communist Party, yet the frequency with which they have appeared in the Chinese media have led to calls to strengthen Indian defenses on the border with China, a border which has been tranquil except for four brief instances since the 1962 war.

Since 2009, the Indian Air Force has moved a squadron of Sukhoi-35s to the China border, while the army has placed nuclear-capable missiles within easy reach of PLA fortifications and concentrations. On both sides of the border, there is hectic increase in activity relating to the creation or the strengthening of infrastructure, although as yet conditions on the Chinese side are far superior. Even in relation to equipment, PLA forces are much better off than their Indian counterparts. They have lighter bulletproof vests, better rifles and night-fighting capabilities, all of which has been documented in a recent issue of "India Today". Where India's military scores lies in the fact that it is battle-hardened. Constant sorties against hostile elements within the borders of the country has improved the fighting capacity of the Indian soldier, and made him or her better able to prevail, even against a better-equipped enemy. In this sense, even NATO soldiers are better prepared for war than troops from countries that have been at peace for long periods, such as China, which last fought a war in 1979 (against Vietnam). In the case of Pakistan as well, its soldiers are battle-hardened as well, because of action seen in numerous conflicts, some within the country.

However, this columnist is among those who believe that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has the wisdom to avoid war. There is a huge difference between the China since the time Deng took full control of the party in 1981 and the past, when Beijing was involved in the Korean, Indian and Vietnamese conflicts, besides skirmishes across the Taiwan Straits and with (the then) USSR. There is no doubt that Deng Xiaoping was a great statesperson, who is responsible for modern China.

During his time, civilian spending was emphasized and military budgets reduced. Deng made it clear that he favored a policy of peace, and although China was a huge country, took a very conciliatory line on external disputes. He was also searching for a solution to the Sino-Indian boundary dispute when ill-health and age forced him to take a much more reduced role in governance by the start of the 1990s. While his successor Jiang Zemin occasionally adopted a tough line, General Secretary Hu Jintao has reverted to the wise policies of Deng Xiaoping, stressing the importance of harmony in relations between states. However, since China is much richer today than it was during Deng's time, Hu has presided over an immense quantitative improvement in the capabilities and provisioning of the PLA.

The rapid economic growth since China took firmly to the Path of Peace is evidence that conflict may not be the best way to promote the national interest. Those who glibly talk of going to war against Vietnam and India, for instance, ought to examine the condition of China during the 1950s or the 1960s and see it in the 21st century, the second-biggest economy in the world, with $3 trillion worth of cash reserves, almost higher than the rest of the globe combined. Indeed, Sino-Indian trade has zoomed over the past decade, now crossing $60 billion and headed to $100 billion in two years time. In fact, the prospects are for trade between India and China to cross $300 billion in ten years, providing income and employment to millions of people on both sides of the border. This prosperity would be at risk, were there to be the cataclysmic event of a fresh Sino-Indian war.

Both the leaders of India as well as China are aware of the centrality of peace and friendship to the economic health of both countries. Which is why the hotheads who write vituperative essays against the other country are ignored by the top leadership in Beijing or Delhi? Indeed, both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao are to meet in the beautiful island of Bali on November 19, when they attend the East Asia Summit. Both will also be meeting (albeit separately) with President Obama of the US. Such meetings will help ensure that temperatures remain cool and that differences over the South China Sea get resolved peacefully, and in a way that ensures access to resources and economic development for all sides.

M D Nalapat—The writer of this article is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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