Why India needs to take on China's challenge
From posing tensions in the Indian Ocean to now being in league with the Sri Lankan government, we need to do something about it.
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The docking of a Chinese submarine at the Colombo port two times in recent weeks highlights the challenges we face in handling China as well as our neighbours. Both challenges are interlinked.
China is active in our neighbourhood, politically, economically and militarily. Notwithstanding the argument that China too has the right to establish close ties with countries that are also its neighbours, and that India cannot object to this as encroachment on its sensitive periphery, our concerns about China intruding into our neighbourhood are legitimate for several salient reasons.
Our border with China is not only unsettled, it remains the source of periodic tensions. That we have in recent years avoided an actual military clash despite competing claims and patrolling may be a diplomatic accomplishment, but it is no guarantee that a crisis can be permanently avoided in an inherently fraught situation. China has strengthened its military infrastructure in Tibet enormously. This gives it the means to sustain pressure on India on the border and induce us to more cautious in challenging its moves on our northern periphery, undercover of which it continues to deepen its engagement with Pakistan and Nepal in particular, while also subtly propping its overtures to Bhutan.
China is keeping the territorial issues with India aggressively alive, with the PLA (People's Liberation Army) and the Chinese foreign office objecting most recently to our decision to establish additional posts on our northern border and build an east-west highway across it, even though China itself continues to incessantly improve the military infrastructure on its side. It has also cautioned India to ensure that its off-shore oil exploration agreements with Vietnam do not include territory China disputes, unmindful of its past projects in POK as well as ambitious new ones which fall squarely within the territory that Pakistan claims is “disputed”. These objections have come after President Xi Jinping’s visit to India and the expectations raised that China may be less assertive on border issues with India in the interest of expanding economic ties between the two countries.
China’s strategic investment in Pakistan has been almost unprecedented, with no country giving nuclear weapon and missile technologies to another to the extent that China has given to Pakistan. China is now an active political player in Nepal, seeking parity with India there. China has long tried to tempt Bhutan into a territorial bargain that would involve exchange of its claims in the north with concessions in the Chumbi valley that would outflank India’s defences there. The grand design is to gain a strong strategic hand vis-à-vis India across our land frontiers, even as it begins to establish its strategic presence in the Indian Oceanaimed at eroding our dominant position there.
Here again, the argument can be that China has the right to acquire port facilities for its commercial shipping and that its bid to independently protect the sea lanes through which its enormous trade in goods and commodities flows is legitimate. For long many have sought to explain China’s initiatives to build and control ports in Sri Lanka and develop facilities at Gwadar as dictated essentially by commercial considerations. Sri Lanka too has been assuring us that China’s port building activities are purely commercial in intent and that it will safeguard our security interests. Now that Chinese military vessels are docking in Sri Lanka, both Sri Lanka and China now argue that such port calls are normal and in line with international practice. Some of our own commentators see nothing objectionable in this development and advise that we look at it realistically as a fact of life.
Sri Lanka is aware of our sensitivities about China’s increasing presence on its territory. It disregards our concerns as it has played the China card against us successfully for long. Those who berate India for mismanaging relations with neighbours, of being overbearing overlook such provocative moves against us.
The facts are that on September 7 the Chinese submarine docked at the Colombo South Terminal, operated by a Chinese company for 35 years on a BOT basis, on the same day that Japanese Prime Minister Abe arrived at Colomboa move clearly coordinated by the Chinese government. The same submarine docked again on October 31 at the same terminal for rest and replenishment after “anti-piracy duty” in the Gulf of Aden. During President Xi's Sri Lanka visit in September, the two countries signed an agreement for Phase 2 of Hambantota port that gives the Chinese operational control over 4 of the 7 berths in the new terminal for 35 years.
The Colombo Port City project that they also signed involves reclamation of 235 hectares of land from the sea outside the port and gives the Chinese company 20 hectares as freehold and 88 hectares on 99 year lease in lieu of investment. The Chinese have now got more than one site from which they can carry on their activities without much control by the Sri Lankan government. 70 per cent of the transhipment cargo handled by Colombo port is Indian.
China and Sri Lanka have also agreed on cooperation in searching for Admiral Zheng Hi's ship wrecks, which may give China the opportunity to scour the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar or the waters outside Trincomalee. In these circumstances repeated assurances that the Chinese are in Sri Lanka to make money and will leave, and that the Sri Lankan government will not allow its territory to be used by any country against India and its strategic interests seem hollow. These challenges to our security in the Indian Ocean mounted by China in league with the present Sri Lankan government need an adequate and timely Indian response.