Beware of the tiger on the mountaintop

India prefers to surrender the ‚Äėmountaintop‚Äô to China on almost every contentious issue of national interest apart from a few rare cases

The People‚Äôs Republic of China has once again hammered home to India its inflexible hardline on the status of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, considered by China to be their ‚Äúlost territory‚ÄĚ of Xhang Nan or Southern Tibet. A Chinese visa was recently refused to a senior Indian Air Force officer, a Group Captain from Arunachal Pradesh, proceeding to China as a member of an Indian defence delegation, on the grounds that being a resident of Arunachal Pradesh the concerned officer was actually a Chinese citizen and hence did not require a visa.

The Government of India, instead of taking offence at such a deliberate and calculated wrongdoing to its sovereignty, once again dutifully swallowed its national pride and knuckled under, sending a smaller delegation after removing the officer. Probably those ‚Äúin the larger picture‚ÄĚ at New Delhi felt that ‚Äúthe good work which had been done so far in regard to China should not be undone‚ÄĚ.
However, there are many amongst the general public of this country who are aware of such an incident as reported in the media, and are concerned about the negative ‚Äúsmaller picture,‚ÄĚ it projects about India. They feel that the whole issue regarding denial of visa and the manner it was handled was something which left many Indians feeling more than somewhat ashamed of their government and its leaders.
So what is it between India and China? Like all relationships, whether inter-personal or inter-national, the issue has multiple aspects and different levels which all flow concurrently. At the root is China‚Äôs classic ‚ÄúMiddle Kingdom‚ÄĚ syndrome, now strongly resurgent under the powerful centralised government of the Chinese Communist Party.
China is determined to live up to the old Chinese saying ‚Äúthere can be only one tiger on the mountaintop‚ÄĚ, the other tiger in the region being India. It is a picturesque turn of phrase to which India has no equivalent, and generally prefers to surrender the ‚Äúmountaintop‚ÄĚ to China on almost every contentious issue of national interest apart from a few relatively rare cases.
Amongst the latter must be noted India’s challenge on the issue of freedom of navigation and prospecting for oil in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own core area of interest. Overall however, China raises the temperature of its rhetoric at will, to which India generally refrains from responding with an appropriate rejoinder. Indeed it can also be argued that while rhetoric alone can perhaps be disregarded, India should never lose sight of the possibility, howsoever remote, of follow up action on the lines of 1962 in an as yet undetermined future, but with much enhanced technological as well as nuclear capability. The country must remain prepared accordingly.
China has long visualised proactive military power as its prime agent for pursuance of the Middle Kingdom vision, in which India and Vietnam are seen as continental rivals, in addition to a transoceanic, out-of-area threat from the United States and its historic enemy Japan. China has developed its capabilities accordingly. Paradoxically, having comprehensively defeated India in 1962, China now regards India as a potential but only subsidiary adversary, which can be handled and contained by its strategic ally Pakistan, without disturbing China’s focus on the United States as its major opponent.
Today, there should be no doubt that China’s military machine and indigenous defence-industrial complex are quantitatively and technologically more advanced than those of India. The possibility of a direct military conflict between the two countries can be considered unlikely in the foreseeable future, but of course nothing can be definitively said in this context.
China believes that in the event of any such eventuality, howsoever unlikely, India can again be ‚Äútaught a lesson‚ÄĚ as in 1962 but it must also be remembered that much water has flowed down the Namkha Chu since the dark days of the Sela Pass, and the ground situation in Arunachal Pradesh and along the rest of the Sino-Indian border has changed. India‚Äôs military capabilities are in the process of being enhanced, albeit to a limited extent only and that too after inordinate delays in the process. Amongst these are the raising of two new mountain divisions for the Sino-Indian border and forward positioning of two squadrons of Sukhoi-30 aircraft at airbases in Assam, but these accretions, important as they are, are dwarfed by the corresponding quantum enhancement of China‚Äôs capabilities in the same region. This has been both in terms of Chinese troops available in situ within Tibet, as also capabilities for out-of-area reinforcements from the mainland through a dual-purpose network of strategic infrastructure comprising new highways (3,000 kilometres), railroads (the 1956 km Qinghai-Xizang railroad linking Beijing and Lhasa) pipelines (the 1,080 km Golmud-Lhasa oil pipeline) and airfields (an additional eight are now under construction).
India‚Äôs military capabilities along the Sino-Tibetan border have been quantitatively and qualitatively enhanced since 1962, but so too have those of the Chinese forces in Tibet. Also, ‚Äúface‚ÄĚ, particularly on all matters with an international dimension, is considered important by the People‚Äôs Republic of China but appears to be less so for India.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the traditional ‚Äúchalta hai‚ÄĚ Indian mindset, but it is nevertheless an old, sad story which loses none of its essential exasperation in retelling.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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