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Troubling Moves On The South Asian Chessboard

Troubling Moves On The South Asian Chessboard

By Sanjay Upadhya

The Bush administration’s decision last month to welcome India to the “nuclear club” – weeks after the two governments signed a 10-year defense cooperation agreement -- has prompted contrasting reactions from two principal quarters in Asia.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry expressed deep concern that the two developments would destabilize the strategic balance in South Asia. Asserting that it had conveyed its concerns to Washington, Islamabad reiterated its commitment to maintaining a credible deterrent in both conventional and non-conventional weapon systems to rectify any imbalance.

China, on the other hand, has been rather muted in its official comments. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “[T]he international community has reached a consensus on relevant nuclear issues. We hope the relevant cooperation between U.S. and India will be conducive to safeguarding the regional peace and stability in Asia”.

The Chinese media, which hardly veers from the official viewpoint, has been more candid on a central theme: the U.S. strategy to contain China. The prevailing view in Beijing is that the U.S. perceives India as a counter-balancing force to a ‘rising’ China and, therefore, feels the need to draw India into its fold. Another U.S. aim, Chinese analysts and media commentators point out, is to use the influential pro-American lobby within India to affect Sino-Indian relations.

Predictably, Washington and New Delhi prefer to shrug off such interpretations. There is enough evidence in the public domain, however, suggesting that a new American containment policy has been in the works for some years, particularly from neoconservative quarters.

Although China may not be where the Soviet Union was once was in terms of American threat perceptions, the Asian giant is clearly dominating public discourse in a unique way. Toward the end of the 1990s, economics had begun sidelining the democracy and human rights issues that traditionally dominated the U.S. media coverage since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

In the years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, corporate America began investing too heavily in the Chinese economic miracle to want the Communist Party dethroned. The ideals of freedom and liberty amounted to little on corporate balance sheets. The American media, which increasingly came under the ownership of many of these same U.S. corporate behemoths during this period, were understandably reluctant to portray the Chinese regime in a poor light.

President Bill Clinton, who came into office criticizing his Republican predecessor’s “coddling of Chinese dictators” ended a principal front of Washington’s annual foreign policy battles by making permanent China’s most-favored-nation status.

Over time, the Chinese economic challenge began acquiring clear political and security dimensions. Earlier this month, U.S. fears forced a Chinese company to withdraw its $18.5 billion bid for Unacol, America’s eighth-largest oil firm. What would ordinarily have been considered a deepening of the globalization process suddenly became a national security threat. How could precious energy reserves be placed in the hands of a firm still linked to China’s communist government?

The modern-day version of the Red Scare has been fueled by media disclosures about how U.S. intelligence agencies failed to recognize China’s rapid modernization of its armed forces and space program.

Indeed, the U.S.-China relationship has taken an unusual form. In the post-9/11 environment, China and the U.S. have come closer against international terrorism. Washington has all but subcontracted its policy on North Korea to Beijing, the last remaining external influence on the reclusive regime in Pyongyang.

President Bush, deciding the United States and China should begin holding regular senior-level talks on a range of political, security and economic issues, has formed a permanent committee. At the same time, the Chinese have been building relations with regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America that are out of favor with the West – from Nepal to Zimbabwe to Venezuela.

On the surface, the Chinese government’s tepid response to the emerging U.S.-India partnership would seem remarkable. However, Beijing seems confident of options other than public confrontation. China, which inaugurated its own strategic partnership with India during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit in April, appears to bank on New Delhi’s willingness and ability to stand up to American pressure.

Specifically, China expects the deep suspicion of foreigners in the Indian psyche – rooted in the subcontinent’s experience with British colonialism -- to limit Washington’s room for geo-strategic maneuver.

Concurrently, China is expanding its influence in South Asia with its growing economic strength. The largest beneficiaries of Chinese economic aid in the region are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Beijing has long maintained a strong strategic alliance with Islamabad. Financial largesse to the other deprived economies of South Asia has allowed China to deepen its strategic influence in the region.

China views Bangladesh as a gateway into India’s troubled northeastern states. An important part of this region is Arunachal Pradesh, to which China lays territorial claims. Energy-hungry China is also attracted by Bangladesh vast natural gas reserves. Bangladesh's border with Myanmar – with which Beijing already enjoys close ties – ensures that these reserves are accessible to China.

For China, Sri Lanka represents a strategically vital post on the Indian Ocean stretching from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. After the 9/11 attacks, Washington has assiduously sought access to Sri Lankan ports, airfields and air space for its military operations. Beijing shares New Delhi’s desire to keep Colombo out of Western alliances.

Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict between Sinhalas and Tamils has strained relations with India, which has a Tamil-majority state of its own, and limits New Delhi’s options in the island nation. Beijing has the advantage of being unrestrained by any such factor.

Nepal’s strategic location between the two Asian giants makes the kingdom important to both. Nepal borders the Chinese province of Tibet on the one hand and Naxalite-dominated Indian states on the other. China, which successfully persuaded Nepal to crush a brief Tibetan uprising in the early 1970s, is anxious to avoid the kingdom once again becoming a launch pad for the Tibetan independence movement.

Contrary to belief in some quarters, the Chinese government has no political or financial ties with Nepal's Maoist insurgents, who control a vast swath of the countryside. The Nepalese insurgents do have cross-border links with Maoist groups in India, which are believed to have influence in almost 40% of India's 593 districts.

Chinese media have consistently refused to call the rebels Maoists and have voiced displeasure at what they consider an exploitation of their late leader’s good name. Nepalese Maoists, for their part, denounce Chinese communists as counter-revolutionaries.

After King Gyanendra dismissed Nepal's multiparty government and took full political control February, angering India and the western world, China described the move as an "internal matter". Weeks later, Beijing sent Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Kathmandu in a clear gesture of support to the royal regime. Clearly, China wants Nepal to avoid Indian or western influence that could spark fresh trouble in Tibet.

Moreover, Chinese media have voiced concern that an unstable Nepal could provide fertile ground for Islamic separatists active in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang. To forestall such possibilities, China is working to integrate Nepal into the Tibetan economy.

These four South Asian nations affirm that Tibet and Taiwan are integral parts of China. They also support China's entry to join the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation. By far, Pakistan retains the greatest strategic significance for China. A nuclear power -- like China and India -- Pakistan has blocked India from accessing western and Central Asian nations close to China. By keeping up to 700,000 Indian soldiers preoccupied in Kashmir, Pakistan has indirectly relieved some pressure off Chinese forces on the disputed Sino-India border.

The Pakistani port of Gwadar, built jointly by Beijing and Islamabad in the restive province of Baluchistan, provides China a strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The port will enable China to monitor vital energy shipments from the Persian Gulf, through which 80 percent of the world’s oil exports flow.

From China’s perspective, Pakistan will remain the regional pivot. Its outspokenness on the emerging U.S.-India strategic partnership would serve Chinese purposes as well. Islamabad can be expected to mount a strong campaign on Capitol Hill to pressure U.S. lawmakers not to adopt legislation enabling U.S.- India civilian nuclear energy cooperation.

Some American specialists have criticized the deal as a misguided reward for proliferation, especially at a time when Washington is pressuring Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear weapons programs. Islamabad can be expected to intensify this debate.

Pakistan could also seek the help of remnants of the “cold warriors” within the Washington establishment in order to impede greater U.S. military cooperation with a country that was once firmly lodged in the Soviet camp.

With four nuclear powers competing for influence, the South Asian chess game can only get more dangerous.


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