January 15, 2001


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Brahma Chellaney Brahma Chellaney on the main obstacle in Sino-Indian relations
The People's Liberation Army is the main obstacle to a stable relationship with Beijing

In 1991 when no major foreign dignitary was willing to shake Chinese Premier Li Peng's hands bloodied during the Tiananmen Square massacre two years earlier, India feted him and carried out a brutal police assault on Tibetan demonstrators in New Delhi. Nearly a decade later, the still-hated Li is again being welcomed in New Delhi, ironically when the newly-revealed Tiananmen Papers bear out his instigator-style role in the killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student-led protestors.

Li, although replaced as Premier, remains a key member of the ruling clique in Beijing, thanks to the support he enjoys of the People's Liberation Army, China's hyper-nationalistic guardian that keeps the Communist Party in power. It is the PLA's assertive role that has given rise to hard Chinese nationalism, aggressive territorial claims and a difficult-to-read strategic culture.

Li, the PLA's hatchet man, is China's real political face. Beginning with the 16th Party Congress next year, the Jiang Zemin-Zhu Rongji-Li Peng triumvirate will retire or semi-retire. The man most likely to take over the top state and party positions is Li's mirror image, Vice-President Hu Jintao, who as party boss in Tibet suppressed Tibetan resistance and enforced a 14-month martial law.

The PLA's grip on the Chinese power structure is likely to further tighten. As China's spreading political awareness starts to question the Communists' legitimacy to monopolise power, the party will increasingly depend on the PLA for survival.

The PLA's clout has grown despite Beijing's admission that its external-security environment is the least threatening since the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949. China today is enjoying an unprecedented period of peace: There is no Soviet Union, China faces no visible military threat, its land borders are peaceful and it has full diplomatic relations with all its neighbors for the first time in history. Yet it is engaged in an ambitious military modernisation programme.

For India, however, the PLA remains the main obstacle to a peaceful, stable relationship with Beijing. It is the PLA that spearheads the containment of India behind the cover of political engagement with New Delhi.

Li's week-long tour of India is an example of how Beijing employs a high-level visit to convey the impression that relations with India are improving while quietly persisting with its inimical activities. If high-level visits could banish bilateral problems, there would have been no 1962 Chinese invasion of India.

While some Indian concerns over Chinese activities would no doubt be conveyed to Li by his hosts, New Delhi's main handicap is that it has failed to establish dialogue with the PLA and influence its thinking on India. The PLA, for its part, has been loath to participate even in Track II, or non-official, dialogues with India.

The PLA's top leaders are an insular and xenophobic lot, comfortable only with other militaristic states. Not only have they maintained a long-standing supply relationship with Pakistan, they also have helped foster North Korea-Pak missile collaboration and Pak-Burma intelligence sharing. The PLA has also signed a defence-co-operation pact with the thuggish Taleban in Afghanistan. It looks at the Indian military -- marginalised in policy-making in a manner uncommon in other democracies -- with puzzlement.

China's most powerful institution is the Central Military Commission. The CMC's seven military members and their principal deputies in charge of the four "general headquarters" are distrustful of India, vengeful towards Japan and deeply suspicious of the United States. This old guard comprises officers in their 60s and 70s who fought in the Korean War or the 1962 conflict with India or the 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Despite their provincial outlook, this leadership is building a high-tech PLA and has overseen the largest expansion of missile capabilities by any nation in the last one decade.

To understand Chinese behaviour towards India, one has to understand the PLA.

Why has China reached land-border agreements with all its neighbors except India? Why has it taken 19 years of negotiations before Beijing exchanged maps of just one sector with India? Why does China insist on being an international loner on Sikkim by treating it as an independent nation? What makes Beijing repeatedly break its promises to halt nuclear and missile aid to Islamabad? What prompted China's controlled press to publish disparaging comments on India on the eve of Li's current visit?

The PLA, with its ruthless pragmatism and balance-of-power traditions, holds the key to all these questions. The PLA is the central impediment to India's efforts to build bridges of understanding and co-operation with Beijing.

India today is getting hemmed in by China from three sides -- Pakistan, Tibet and Burma. Chinese military facilities have come up at Burma's Coco Islands, just 30 kilometres from India's Andaman island chain. Yet Beijing has made it clear that it can continue its engagement with India only if New Delhi does not cite it as a threat. As part of its strategy to emerge as the unchallenged power in Asia, China wants to be free to pursue containment with engagement in relation to India.

The PLA keeps the Indian Army under pressure along the disputed, 400-kilometre-long Himalayan frontier through intermittent cross-border forays. India and China have only a "line of actual control" separating their forces, but that line has not been yet defined although it is supposed to represent "actual control" positions on the ground. Not only does the PLA want to pin down large numbers of Indian troops along the frontier, it apparently wants to also preserve the option to create future troubles along the border if India attempts to play the Tibet card.

Li's visit is a reminder of how little has changed between India and China despite the growing contacts between the two Asian giants. Obviously, it would be more profitable for India to find a way to deal directly with the PLA top brass than with an aging and tainted hatchet man who appears to have outlived his utility.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs expert based in New Delhi, contributes regularly to

Design: Dominic Xavier

Brahma Chellaney

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