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Sunday, Feb. 3, 2002

Judge Beijing by its deeds

NEW DELHI -- At a time of growing U.S.-Indian strategic engagement, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's unusually conciliatory tone during his visit to India last week reflected his country's desire to decelerate that process by emphasizing areas of potential Sino-Indian cooperation. China is suddenly signaling its intent to be more responsive to Indian concerns in an effort to dissuade New Delhi from building a close military relationship with the United States.

Beijing's overtures to India come when the Asian strategic landscape is rapidly transforming to China's disadvantage in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In the name of fighting terrorism, the U.S. has strengthened its strategic role from Central Asia to Southeast Asia. It is setting up long-term military bases in Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan; it intends to stay strategically engaged in Pakistan; and it has returned to the Philippines with its special forces.

The fast-changing strategic scene not only undercuts Chinese ambitions to dominate Asia, but also puts greater pressure on China's Leninist rulers at a time when the Jiang Zemin-Li Peng-Zhu Rongji triumvirate is set to retire one by one by the end of next year.

Despite their heavy strategic investments in Pakistan, the Chinese now find themselves supplanted there by the Americans. Such has been the cost to China of the Pakistan military's alliance with terrorism. America's new military presence in Pakistan and formidable leverage over President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's regime have even complicated China's construction of a Pakistani naval base at Gwadar.

Gwadar and Chinese radar facilities and other naval equipment on islands off Myanmar's coast have been part of China's strategy to position itself along the key sea lanes from the Arabian Sea to the disputed Spratlys and control traffic between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Given the altering landscape and its fear of encirclement, the last thing Beijing wants is a U.S.-India military tieup. But it is likely to reap what it has sowed. Just as it pushed India to go overtly nuclear through its proliferation at home and abroad, China is driving New Delhi closer to the U.S. by seeking pre-eminence in Asia through balance-of-power politics. It uses Pakistan against India, and North Korea against Japan.

Just as Sept. 11 has helped institute new norms and priorities in international relations, the Dec. 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament by five Pakistani gunmen has given birth to a new tenet guiding Indian foreign policy -- deeds, not words. Although this principle was fashioned in relation to Pakistan, India needs to apply it also to China.

China's India-related actions have always spoken louder than its words, with the expressions amiable and the deeds inimical. It was in keeping with those traditions that after quietly rushing jet-fighters and other weapon systems to shore up Pakistani defenses in the current face-off on the subcontinent, Zhu declared in New Delhi that "China has never viewed India as a threat nor do we believe India will regard China as a threat."

A down-to-earth, result-oriented approach toward China is necessary because Beijing is a skilled practitioner of classical balance-of-power politics. Since the end of the Cold War, China has also been employing nationalism as a unifying and power-enhancing force to vigorously assert its rights.

Hemming in India from three sides -- Pakistan, Tibet and Myanmar -- is one of the ways Beijing has sought to impose limits on the capabilities of its potential rivals. China makes no secret of its desire to dominate Asia by forestalling the rise of any peer competitor. While seeking a multipolar world, China aspires for a unipolar Asia, with itself as the sole pole.

Despite its strategy to publicly simulate amity with India while privately working to tie it down south of the Himalayas, Beijing's saccharine talk gives way to rough talk whenever New Delhi has asserted its rights, including by conducting the 1974 and 1998 nuclear tests. Few Indians can forget Chinese ultimatums to India in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, and the 1999 Chinese military forays across the line of control in Ladakh while the Kargil war was raging between the Indian military and Pakistani invaders on Buddhist Ladakh's opposite flank.

In recent years nothing has better exposed Beijing's true attitude than Jiang's dirty dig at India in a private conversation with French President Jacques Chirac in late 1999. Referring to the Chinese military forays earlier that year to test Indian defense preparedness, Jiang mockingly told Chirac: "Each time we tested them by sending patrols across, the Indian soldiers reacted by putting their hands up." Jiang raised his own hands to drive home the point to a horrified Chirac.

Blaming the 1962 Himalayan war on Indian "aggression," Jiang warned: "If India were to attack China again, we will crush it." He squeezed his hands together to stress the word "crush" in what was a live demonstration to the French side of Chinese arrogance.

The wide gap between what the Chinese Communists say publicly and what they mean in actuality is so obvious when you compare those leaked remarks with Jiang's advertised statements on India, or with Zhu's latest soothing declarations on Indian soil. In the 1950s, the covert Chinese encroachment on Indian territories occurred under Beijing's comforting lullabies that the Indians and Chinese were "brothers."

Yet sweet talk, however feigned, has its benefits: China can sell missiles to Pakistan while at the same time access the best India can offer -- high-tech software -- as Zhu did, by inviting the top Indian firm, Infosys, to set up its capabilities in Shanghai.

During his Indian tour, Zhu stressed the broad-spectrum principles shared by the two nations on international trade, environment, labor and other developing-world issues. But he deliberately avoided making any reference to the bilateral problems or to China's continuing military transfers to Pakistan and Myanmar.

India and China are together home to one-third of the human race, but their relations are characterized by deep distrust. After more than two decades of continuous border negotiations, India and China still do not have a defined line of control -- the only neighbors in the world without a mutually recognized or understood frontier.

Since Beijing annexed Tibet in 1950 and brought its forces to the border with India, the divide in the Indian debate on China has been between those who believe that New Delhi should proceed on the basis of Beijing's word and those who caution that policy be founded on Chinese actions. That remains the dividing line between the quixotic and pragmatic schools of thought on China. Zhu's calculatingly placatory tone was partly intended to influence the internal debate in India, especially on strategic cooperation with Washington.

India, however, can persuade Beijing to focus on engagement without containment if it insists on deeds, not words. China should know that its protestations of friendship have to be tested by its actions. New Delhi's evolving Asia policy reflects the need to build an arc of strategic partnerships with China's key neighbors, including Japan, to help neutralize the continuing Chinese military assistance and activity around India.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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