The China connection


back to issue

THE Indian subcontinent was an exception in the historical Chinese vision about its core and peripheries where people outside the control of the Emperor – Sun of Heavens – were condemned as barbarians. Instead, Chinese epics described the Indian subcontinent as the ‘western heaven’ (Tian Zhu). It had been a major attraction for travellers and a subject of Chinese folklore, murals and rituals. This positive view has since been endorsed by a series of archaeological discoveries that trace India-China diplomatic interactions since 221 BC if not before. No doubt, these interactions were few and far between as also confined generally to culture and commerce, yet they constituted great influence on their mutual image-building and moulded their evolution over the ages with Buddhism emerging as the strongest link between the two ancient civilizations.

This positive image of the Indian subcontinent received its first serious jolt with the arrival of European colonial powers. Especially since the latter half of 19th century, the expansionist drive of the British in India brought them into direct competition with Russian and Chinese empires. Since the 1840s, the Chinese vision of the Indian subcontinent was particularly distorted following their experience of the Opium Wars. South Asia was now seen as a facilitator, if not the nucleus, of this hurricane-like cultural and military onslaught by the British.

Attempts by the British in India to openly manipulate between China and Tibet since early 20th century, especially their semantic orchestrations around ‘suzerainty’ at the Simla conference of 1904 followed by the brute Younghusband military expedition during 1905 were to forever scar Chinese memories about British India. These colonial legacies became the core of much of South Asia’s problems with the Chinese and vice versa. As India’s peaceful transfer of power marked no clear break from colonial institutions and policies, Beijing was bound to nurse skepticism about independent India’s motives. The contrasting nature of their liberation struggles, as also of their post-liberation political systems, only added to their difficulties. And, given the Cold War politics that followed World War II, it became impossible to develop any positive mutual understanding or trust.

China and India tried to rectify the colonial legacy of mutual suspicions and disputed borders by launching a euphoric bhai-bhai spirit under Panchsheel, but this experiment proved too superficial to rectify deep-rooted biases. India’s historical links with Tibet and the asylum given to the Dalai Lama in India was to push India and China into a border war in 1962. China’s ties with Pakistan had begun as part of its compulsions to befriend an Islamic neighbour to ensure peace in its problematic Muslim dominated Xinjiang region. But given Pakistan’s problems with India, this completely changed the tenor of China’s relations with Pakistan, making their ‘special relationship’ the hallmark of a New China’s policies in South Asia.



In a way China’s failure to befriend India partly facilitated its security-centric ties with other smaller South Asian countries. It was only in the late-1980s and early 1990s that China has attempted a return to its original historical position of considering India the hallmark of its South Asian vision. Against this backdrop, this article attempts to first highlight the critical components that make China integral to the South Asian security environment and goes on to examine China’s contribution to South Asian security trends in the more recent years.

Before making any elaborate analyses of China’s role in the evolving South Asian security environment in recent times, it may be useful to broadly underline its major components. In brief, the following can be cited as some of the fundamental issues in the South Asian security environment.

First, conventional wisdom tells us that boundary disputes have been the most dominant cause of inter-state suspicions and threat perceptions in Asia. Of the seven South Asian states, China shares common borders with four which makes it integral to the region. All these borders had been disputed to begin with and have sparse yet overlapping populations. China’s unresolved boundary with India makes these states critical buffers, thus increasing their strategic significance for both New Delhi and Beijing. Similarly, China’s border settlement of March 1963 with Pakistan remains provisional to the final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Some confusion also remains on the China-Bhutan border demarcation. Even a country like Bangladesh, which was not in the scene until 1971 and does not directly share boundaries with China, remains important for its physical proximity to China. At one stage, Beijing even toyed with the idea of using Bangladesh to find an outlet into the Indian Ocean. The same is also true of China’s other neighbour, Myanmar which, despite not strictly being part of the conventional British definition of South Asia, provides China tremendous leverage in determining the tenor of South Asian security.



Second, the ethnic Chinese community which has been a major cause of concern as also a potent instrument of China’s policies in various parts of the world, is virtually non-existent in South Asia. Except for Calcutta and the few old settlers in India’s Northeastern region and some 300,000 ethnic Chinese in Mauritius, China has had no major presence in South Asia. Even these ethnic Chinese have been far less active in local economic and political systems and barely organised as a distinct group or a lobby that might influence policy-making. Conversely, the presence of Tibetans in large numbers in India has been a major source of irritation and has greatly influenced China’s handling of this region. Sporadically, some communities in Bhutan, Nepal and India’s Northeastern region emphasize their racial affinity with the Chinese ethnic minorities though these have rarely played any role in China’s South Asia policy. Sometimes, the smaller states of South Asia also overplay their China connections in search of counterweights to deal with fears about India’s overarching size and stature or simply to bargain for more concessions.



Third, ideologies have formed a major influence in determining the nature of the China connection to the South Asian security environment. This despite the fact that apart from Mao’s populist rhetoric condemning post-colonial South Asian political regimes as reactionary bourgeoisie and lackeys of the United States, real ideology had little to do with China’s policies towards its South Asian neighbours. Given China’s sensitivities about Tibet and Xinjiang, seen by the Chinese as their ‘soft strategic underbelly’ since their confrontation with the British in India, China’s South Asia policy had always been guided purely by an aim to ensure its territorial integrity as a nation. These trends were clearly visible in China’s military invasion and fortification of Tibet and later by its tilt towards the military regimes of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar which became part of China’s indirect approach in dealing with any potential for trouble from India and its suspected backers.

Fourth, even among China’s ‘special relationships’ with South Asian military regimes, the Sino-Pakistan nexus perhaps presents a unique example of inter-state relations which has no comparison whatsoever anywhere around the world. In many ways this relationship can be categorized as one of the dominating aspects of China’s role in the South Asian security environment. Indeed, it represents a unique case where one nuclear weapons state has been primarily responsible for propping another nuclear weapons state by providing all assistance in its nuclear and missile programmes. Similar attempts made by China with other military rulers (especially in Myanmar) did not succeed. Given the proximity and historical interdependence of these smaller South Asian countries with India, Chinese indulgence has not resulted in any formal military alliance with any of India’s neighbours. Nevertheless, China’s indulgence did play a major role in determining South Asian threat perceptions as also their prospective strategies to deal with intra-regional problems. This has often provided a pretext for outside powers to seek influence in South Asian security matters.



Fifth, despite this lack of attraction among smaller South Asian states for either China’s ideological alternative or its military alliance, China sustained its ties with all of them by exploiting their common fears about India. It was also the only state that could provide moral and material support to some of South Asia’s undemocratic regimes despite global norms or pressures. During 1956-1973, for example, when China’s ties with India were at their lowest ebb, nearly 20 per cent of China’s total world aid was targeted to these South Asian countries, with Pakistan receiving 13.1 per cent, Sri Lanka 3.5 per cent and Nepal 2.9 per cent.

The main focus was generally on supplying these countries with military equipment, resulting in China emerging as the single largest supplier of military equipment to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This extreme indulgence has to be understood in terms of Beijing’s strategic vision of emerging as the Asian leader and its fears of India trying to counter it. China’s rise as a major power during the last two decades has since marginalized this argument and made China less paranoid about India. But similar fears were echoed following India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and since then China has, for the first time, begun to see a direct security threat from what it perceives as nuclear competition on its southern frontiers. Therefore, unlike the past when it wanted to encourage India’s neighbours to keep India tied down to South Asia, China today has its own genuine security compulsions to ensure peace in this region.



Finally, given China’s limited success among South Asian countries, Beijing has continued to modulate its South Asian policy to suit its larger regional and global security perspectives. For this, China has increasingly articulated its South Asia policy in terms of pious principles. For example, failing to force India’s smaller neighbours in becoming pawns for China, Beijing has repeatedly resorted to emphasizing their ‘independence’, implying that they should not allow New Delhi more influence than absolutely inevitable. But following improvements in Sino-Indian ties since the early 1980s, Beijing has gradually lost the motivation to prop up these smaller states against India. Recent years have witnessed China encouraging these South Asian states to improve their ties with New Delhi on their own. This shift is most clearly reflected in China’s views on South Asia’s most visible problem – Jammu and Kashmir – on which China has moved from its pro-Pakistan stance to neutrality, which favours the Indian stand.

It is in the backdrop of these enduring fundamentals of the China connection that one must analyze its current relevance to the evolving security situation in South Asia and draw a map for the future. Two distinct developments that have forever changed the security profile of South Asia and China’s role in it in recent years include (a) the decision by both India and Pakistan to exercise their nuclear option and (b) the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., making transnational terrorism the new global agenda. To recall, though most South Asian countries and China have been longtime victims of these inflictions, they have not been able to come together to either share their experiences or evolve joint strategies to address their security problems. These new developments have completely altered the nature of China’s compulsions and motivations in dealing with South Asia. Both sides today find it easier to work together to seek regional security rather than chase individual goals by playing one against the other.



To begin with, China had never looked at South Asia as a possible partner in evolving any joint efforts for cooperative security, not the least in matters nuclear. At best China’s ties with these South Asian states were expected to discourage them from directly aiding and abetting resistance by China’s minorities or facilitating great powers from doing the same. Also, given the fear that western powers would exploit such information in their anti-China campaign, Beijing was never comfortable admitting that it had any security problems, let alone building joint strategies with South Asian countries.

This was further reinforced by China’s unpleasant split with the former Soviet Union during the early 1960s. Ever since, Beijing continued to stand alone playing one superpower against the other and was extremely cautious in joining any multilateral forum. For South Asia, the threat of nuclear weapons was further complicated by China’s special relationship with Pakistan. This also made China extremely reluctant to discuss any such issues with India, even though Pakistan’s nuclear programme was visibly aimed at India.



As a result, China’s first reaction to the nuclearisation of South Asia following the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998 was one of shock as Beijing had expected India and Pakistan to remain forever entangled below the nuclear threshold. This initial shock soon turned into anger because, at least in the beginning, India sought to justify these tests by citing China’s nuclear weapons and its transfer of these technologies to Pakistan.

China’s first knee-jerk reaction, therefore, was to underplay these events in the same old regional framework of India-Pakistan nuclear competition and appoint itself the security manager for the region, seeking endorsement from other major powers. But to recall, China had been the only nuclear weapons state to support India in its sovereign right to decide on nuclear matters. Pakistan, of course, had the advantage of being China’s closest friend and the second to conduct tests and was not really the target of China’s initial criticism. So at least in the initial phase, China’s reactions to the nuclearisation of South Asia appeared to be perfectly in line with its traditional policy of Pakistan being the bulwark in its India-centric South Asian policy initiatives.

However, the nuclearisation of South Asia had also strengthened cross-currents of China’s rethinking that had begun to germinate since the early 1990s following India showing positive trends of stabilizing its coalition politics, managing noticeably better growth rates and opening up its economy. Simultaneously, China launched a wide-ranging reassessment of its South Asia policy facilitated greatly by patient diplomatic footwork by the Indian leadership as well as an increasing acceptance of a nuclear South Asia by all other major powers. Indeed, this period also witnessed India coming closer to the U.S. which has been another worry for the Chinese thereby pushing its pro-India tilt in its South Asia policy. Indeed, many Chinese scholars see China evolving, for the first time, an India policy distinct from its traditional focus. The most visible indicator of this change lies in Chinese leaders now planning their South Asia visits separately from their India visits as also by bilateral trade where India now contributes about half of China’s total trade with South Asian countries. This is in contrast to earlier Indo-China interactions where China would often omit India from its South Asian itinerary. Also, Pakistan used to be China’s largest trading partner in South Asia. With the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan, China now sees peace between the two countries as a critical prerequisite for its own national security.



The second major episode that has changed China’s role in the South Asian security environment is the WTC terrorist attack on 11 September. Since then China has begun to see the benefits of evolving a cooperative and regional approach to its internal security problems. The most formidable trend that has since dominated China’s strategic debates is the sudden acceptability of America’s increased military presence on its southern frontiers – in Pakistan and Afghanistan – and increased American strategic cooperation with India in particular and other countries of South Asia like Bangladesh and Nepal.

China is now far more open about discussing its internal security problems and external linkages as well as initiating discussions with South Asian countries and evolving joint strategies. China has since initiated an inter-governmental joint working group on terrorism with India and adopted a more subtle response to terrorism in Kashmir, Maoists in Nepal and in ensuring the stability of the Hamid Karzai regime in Afghanistan. With the recent Bush-Putin bonhomie and Russia welcoming American forces in Central Asia, China feels a moral responsibility to provide an alternative to American dominance around the world. Though China is not expected to behave as it once did by opposing U.S. forces in Korea and Vietnam, these trends have influenced China’s perceptions and policies about South Asia, dictating greater caution and discretion as was seen during President Musharraf’s visit to Beijing on 2 August this year.



China today sees itself as involved and affected by even a local arms race or war in South Asia and its hardheaded cost-benefit security analysis dictates a positive interference in ensuring peace in South Asia. Recent Chinese overtures of offering to facilitate Indo-Pak dialogue in the face of the recent military standoff and its continued low profile in situations like the one following the Maoist attacks in Nepal, clearly convey a change in Beijing’s perceptions and policies towards the region. This change may have been partly provoked by greater American indulgence in South Asia but augurs well for the future of South Asian security. China’s heightened involvement can only work to ensure a better understanding among South Asian countries.