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   November 2, 2002


The Rediff Special/Dr John W Garver

COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN? Dr John W Garver The probability of another war between China and India is not great. But it does exist.

Armed conflict on the scale of 1962, possibly greater, might arise out of three situations, singularly or in combination: Chinese intervention in an Indian-Pakistan war, a major uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet, and the unresolved border dispute.

Chinese intervention in an India-Pakistan war is perhaps the most likely scenario. Since the early 1960s, a fundamental goal of Chinese policy in South Asia has been to maintain a balance of power between India and Pakistan --- to keep Pakistan strong enough to be willing and able to challenge India's ambitions in the South Asian region and beyond.

A Pakistan strong enough to challenge India will, perforce, prevent any Indian government from concentrating its diplomatic energies and/or its military forces against China.

A strong and anti-India Pakistan compels Indian defence planners to keep the better part of Indian forces on guard in India's west and away from China's borders. Indian preoccupation with South Asian challenges also greatly hinders India's ambition of acting as an Asian or global equal to China; it keeps India chained to the subcontinent.

Internecine conflict between India and Pakistan forces world capitals to view both those states in a regional context, leaving China alone on a higher global plane, as the only truly Asian power. Finally, the realities of the existing distribution of subcontinental power keep India cautious when dealing with problems relating to "China's Tibet".

China did not create the animosity between India and Pakistan. But China's strategists recognize the enduring reality of that enmity and use it to China's advantage.

China's strategic interest in a strong and self-confident Pakistan explains its robust assistance to Pakistan's military-industrial development efforts over the years. It explains Beijing's long record of assistance to Pakistan's missile and nuclear development efforts. It explains Beijing's insistence that China's various sorts of military co-operation with Pakistan will continue independent of improvements in Sino-Indian relations. It probably explains, too, China's decision, circa 1974, to covertly assist Pakistan's nuclear weapons effort.

At that point, the "great nuclear equalizer" probably seemed the last best chance for sustaining Pakistan's ability to resist Indian domination and thus sustain the existing South Asian balance of power.

Would China, then, intervene in an India-Pakistan war? Almost certainly not, unless it seemed that India were about to decisively subordinate Pakistan. Short of that point, Beijing would probably render Pakistan various sorts of material and political support, while pressuring Washington, Paris, London, Moscow, Tokyo and other capitals to pressure New Delhi to cease operations against Pakistan and restore the status quo ante.

What if those measures didn't work? What if India pushed ahead with a determination to settle its Pakistan problem once and for all? What if India persisted, perhaps in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, in a drive to decisively resolve India's Pakistan problem?

Beijing would probably then undertake measures moving up the escalation ladder threatening intervention --- making increasingly ominous declarations, undertaking various troop movements and manoeuvres, taking punitive measures to downgrade Sino-Indian diplomatic relations, creating incidents along the Sino-Indian border in an area distant from Pakistan, and so on.

But what if India still did not cease and desist? Would China then actually enter the war in the hopes of preventing Pakistan's decisive subordination, thereby rescuing the existing South Asian balance of power?

Throughout history nations have often gone to war to prevent the overturning of a particular balance of power favourable to them. That observation aside, it is probably safe to say that China's leaders themselves could not now answer this question.

China's response would probably depend very much on the circumstances at the time. Like, what the battlefield balance between India and Pakistan is and how effective Chinese intervention would be. And what the military balance between the People's Liberation Army and the Indian armed forces is at that point.

One extremely important factor would be the attitude of the United States and its allies. If Washington could be persuaded to adopt an understanding attitude towards Chinese intervention, or to agree to remain neutral, Beijing would be much more likely to intervene.

On the other hand, US and Western disapproval of Chinese intervention would greatly raise the costs for Beijing of Chinese intervention. Chinese diplomacy would probably go all out to secure Western understanding. A great deal would depend on the skill of Indian diplomacy.

Turning to Tibet, Beijing rules there over a people ethnically quite distinct from the Han (the Chinese-speaking, Chinese-culture people constituting 90 per cent of China's population). Moreover, a very large number of Tibetans are dismayed by what they view as a Chinese takeover of their homeland.

Since the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia along ethnic lines, Beijing has lifted earlier restrictions on Han migration into Tibet. The result has been a flood of Chinese into Tibet. Already, perhaps close to half the population of Tibet is Han (this is the estimate of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile in India) and that proportion will almost certainly continue to grow as new roads and rail-lines are built into Tibet.

In several decades Tibetans will probably constitute a small minority of the inhabitants of their ancestral homeland. This process of demographic inundation creates a strong sense among Tibetans that time is running out for Tibet. The possibility of Tibetan resistance movements against Chinese rule --- perhaps armed, but more likely using non-violent Gandhian tactics --- is significant.

Beijing's usual response is draconian repression. But this approach ultimately didn't work in the USSR. It can be safely assumed that Beijing will blame on foreign powers any organized, large-scale Tibetan resistance to its rule. What is at work here is a tendency to project on to hostile foreign forces responsibility for domestic opposition that arises, in fact out of disapproval of the policies of the Chinese Communist Party.

Thus opposition to the CCP's efforts to clamp Leninist controls on China in the early 1950s was blamed on "US imperialism", Tibetan opposition to Beijing's policies of the late 1950s was blamed on India, and demonstrations by students in Beijing in 1989 was blamed on US schemes of "peaceful evolution".

This tendency to project on to foreign powers responsibility for domestic opposition is an extremely deep-rooted cultural construction. It has two taproots: one, the belief that China has been victimized by foreign powers for a century past; the other, a belief in the absolute moral superiority and wisdom of the CCP.

In any case, it is almost certain that organized, large-scale Tibetan resistance to Beijing's rule will be blamed on foreign powers. The only question is whether the power assigned responsibility by Beijing will be India or the United States.

India's first inclination will probably be to dissociate itself from Tibetan resistance. The parameters of Indian domestic politics may make it impossible, however, for India to satisfy Beijing's demands. It might be hard for Indian opinion to stomach Indian co-operation with the suppression of a non-violent Tibetan resistance movement employing the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and appealing to the example of Indian federalism and democracy.

Domestic Indian revulsion at Chinese repression would make it impossible for New Delhi to take more than half-measures placating Beijing, while Beijing would find such half-measures mere camouflage for more sinister Indian purposes.

This, in a nutshell, is what happened in 1959.

Beijing's nightmare is US intervention in Tibet in support of widespread Tibetan resistance, perhaps with the co-operation of India. Unlikely as such a scenario seems it is possible to identify circumstances in which it might occur. Perhaps the most likely would be in the context of a severe deterioration of US-PRC relations, perhaps as a result of a war over Taiwan that became protracted.

Confronted with the difficulty of forcing peace terms on a China defeated in air and naval battles around Taiwan, but still belligerent and ensconced on the continent, Washington might turn to Tibet. Would the moves of the Indian government to dissociate itself from a US effort in Tibet then be adequate to satisfy Beijing? Might there be a government in New Delhi that concluded it would serve Indian interests to co-operate with the US in an effort to restore a measure of genuine Tibetan autonomy, say, as existed prior to 1959?

Beijing might be willing to pay New Delhi a high price for Indian dissociation from the United States at such a juncture. On the other hand, some Indian strategists might conclude that it is unwise to take Beijing's smaller concessions rather than trying to guarantee the continued existence of an ethnically Tibetan Tibet.

It is impossible to predict how these factors might evolve. But it does seem that events might possibly come together in such a way as to produce a second Sino-Indian war.

Regarding the border, Chinese publications and government statements since the late 1950s have convinced Chinese opinion that the southern slope of the eastern Himalayas, roughly corresponding to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, is rightfully Chinese territory.

Indian possession of this piece of land constitutes aggression against China. It behoves Chinese diplomacy not to belabour this point publicly, but the underlying belief remains intact. The possibility of China undertaking a war to recover this lost territory is extremely small.

On the other hand, the intensity of nationalism in post-1989 China combined with the increasing role of nationalism in legitimizing the CCP's domination of the State makes it very difficult for any Chinese leader to "relinquish" large tracts of land that are "rightfully China's".

India too maintains its claim to Aksai Chin. Although the road across that desolate plateau is no longer as important to PLA control of Tibet as it was in the 1950s, abandoning it would diminish PLA capabilities in western Tibet. This would probably be acceptable only if China received major compensation in the eastern sector.

But Indian concessions in the vicinity of Tawang, where the historical evidence of traditional Tibetan administration is strongest, would sandwich Bhutan between Chinese salients in Chumbi and Tawang, greatly complicating the ability of Indian forces to defend the Himalayan kingdom should that need arise.

All this means that the border issue will probably remain unresolved for some time.

Miscalculations by border forces of both sides have become less likely since the implementation of confidence-building measures after 1996. Even if border incidents (due, perhaps, to patrols misreading maps or losing their way) do occur, they are unlikely to lead to war. The governments of the two sides will probably pull back as they did in 1987 over Sumdurong Chu.

But the unresolved territorial dispute involving very substantial blocks of land does add a significant element of suspicion and unpredictability to the New Delhi-Beijing relation. For New Delhi, it means that any prospect of war with China immediately raises the possibility of losing India's geographic defensive shield in the eastern Himalayas, thereby rendering the entire Northeast virtually indefensible.

For Beijing, an unresolved territorial dispute with India provides an effective way of putting pressure on India. If Beijing wishes to demonstrate solidarity with Pakistan, or express anger over Indian policies towards Tibet, PLA moves threatening Arunachal Pradesh could be very effective.

In effect, the unresolved nature of the territorial dispute --- China's standing claim to the area of Arunachal Pradesh --- multiplies the effect of China's coercive threats.

Just as the existence of a strong, anti-Indian Pakistan siphons Indian forces from India's frontiers with China, so the existence of the unresolved dispute over the eastern Himalayas siphons Indian forces away from India's frontiers with Pakistan.

There could well be a meeting of Chinese and Pakistani minds in this regard.

(Dr John W Garver, author of Protracted Contest; Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century and other books, is a professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia.)


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