3rd Article in the 2011 Flashpoint – Asia Series | Beijing’s aggressive “String of Pearls” strategy of securing the sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to China is alarming the powers currently dominating the region, and is already severely jittering India’s complacency. And here precisely lays the root of the next conflict flashpoint in South East Asia. The soaring “Indian Tiger” facing the rising “Chinese Dragon” will eventually grow into two regional giants, both competing with rapidly dwindling strategic assets, vital for their survival, transforming the geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific region – and challenging American hegemony as a global superpower.

The Karakoram Highway is connecting China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s north. The highway, called the 'ninth wonder of the world' by some, because of its altitude, was completed in 1986 after 20 years of construction. The road opened up China-Pakistan trade and gave both of India’s rivals a fast route through the mountains, not far from the controversial "Line of Control" in disputed Kashmir.

China’s resurgence in recent years has jolted the leading powers of the world out of their stupor – and India’s case is no different. Today, forward-looking Indian mandarins are no longer obsessed only with Pakistan. New Delhi has started developing strategic plans for dealing with China by 2020 or 2030. Many Indian think tanks are already working on this mission objective.

What transpired last August was an eye opener for China-watchers in the Indian government. On 5 August 2010, The People’s Daily reported that two days previously “important combat readiness materials” (read missiles) of the Chinese Air Force were transported safely to Tibet via the Qinghai-Tibet Railway – the first time since such materials were transported to Tibet by railway. It was a clear demonstration by China, of its capability to mobilize in Tibet, in the event of a new Sino-Indian conflict. China already has four fully operational airports in Tibet, the last one started operations in July 2010.

Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s recent seafaring activities and maneuvers have revealed Beijing’s intention to increase its control of the maritime sea lanes in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The latter is an obvious cause of concern for India. China’s new-found aggressive posturing and maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea – which Beijing has begun to describe as an area of its “core interest”, a term that the Chinese have been using for Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang – is of no less concern in New Delhi.

China knows very well that it is not dealing with the India of 1962, when the two countries fought a one-sided war. Then India had deliberately not used its air force against the Chinese to minimize loss of territory and restrict Chinese military gains to the far-flung border areas. India is rapidly expanding and modernizing its military air, land, naval and missile forces, investing in establishing a nuclear deterrence, through a ‘Triad’ of land and surface launched missiles as well as submarine launched missiles, expansion of its air bases along the northern border, positioning of early warning radars on mountain along the North-Eastern border with Tibet and more.

Though China retains a decisive lead, New Delhi is determined to stay on Beijing’s heals. In the economic race, India could already outpace China in 2011, to become the fastest growing economies, according to the latest World Bank forecast.
But Beijing has one dominant ace along its sleeve. Being a strict authoritarian regime, it is pushing rapidly forward with aggressive modernization of its industrial and military machine, while India’s administration inherent bureaucracy is much slower in getting things done.

But the highest point of tension in the Asian Subcontinent still remains the decade-lasting animosity and suspicion existing between India and Pakistan. Here remains the most potential trigger for a regional conflict. Historically, China has been Pakistan’s strategic and military ally for nearly five decades. It was Beijing who gave Pakistan the designs for a nuclear bomb in 1984 and then helped them build it. China’s has two purposes behind its strategy assisting Pakistan. First, it takes Pakistan as a secure friend and ally in the Indian Ocean and second, they share a common interest to contain India, which, by its huge economic potential, demographic size and geopolitical position, is challenging Beijing’s ambition for regional hegemony.

Within this strategy, China has stepped up its military presence in Tibet, primarily to contain India. Their aim is to capture as much Indian territory as possible, including the town of Tawang – the birthplace of the Dalai Lama – in case of renewed hostilities. A secondary purpose for this buildup is to help Pakistan in any future military conflict with India. Indeed the Sino-Indian border region remains one hotly disputed area since the 1962 India-China war.

The core of territorial disputes between India and China converge at Kashmir, which also ranks as the worlds’ largest militarized zone of contention. The Chinese army, perched on its geographical vantage position, atop the towering peaks and glaciers of the strategic trans-Karakoram tract and Aksai Chin, dominates the Indian positions below. Moreover, the geopolitical ramifications of China’s forceful annexation of Tibet, which had for centuries, posed a natural barrier for India, gave Bejing a tremendous strategic starting point for any military operation against India. The 2006 opening of the China-Tibet rail-link further strengthened China’s potentially offensive capability.

On the other hand India’s quest to enhance its military potential, with active aid from Washington, could reignite a new  Indo-China Himalayan border war – with acute danger from its escalating into a terrifying regional nuclear-weapons conflict.

From a strategic perspective, China is hemming India from all four sides- Tibet, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma) – all within Beijing’s zone of interest. As the deteriorating geopolitical dynamics between Beijing and New Delhi increase, as both are struggling for global superpower status, the role of the United States in this region faces sharp competition.

Although from military perspective, the US will continue to remain a key player; its influence in the region will wane considerably as the troop withdrawals from Afghanistan conclude. With Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean on the rise and its “string of pearl” strategy advancing towards key positions in the Persian Gulf, the strategic importance of India will become crucial for Washington, to prevent a most dangerous development in this part of the world.

2011 Flashpoints: Asia features include the following topics:

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