Thursday, September 22, 2011

Asian giants edging towards confrontation

The Straits Times Singapore
September 20, 2011 Tuesday

India beefs up security along border with China; builds ties with Vietnam
Ravi Velloor, South Asia Bureau Chief

NEW DELHI: For more than two years, top Indian officials have downplayed persistent media reports on aggressive patrolling by the Chinese along their disputed frontier by pointing out that it had been remarkably peaceful for over 20 years.
Analysts who spoke of a Chinese 'string of pearls' strategy of encircling India with bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar were told pearl necklaces made 'pretty ineffective' murder weapons.
Now, New Delhi cannot stop raising red flags over the China threat. What is more, it seems ready to jut its chin out at its larger and more powerful neighbour.
Last week, India, which is rapidly building a strategic relationship with Vietnam and, some say, even eyeing a naval presence in Cam Ranh Bay, made it clear that it would undertake joint oil exploration activity with Vietnam in the South China Sea, ignoring Chinese objections.
Meanwhile, two strike forces that can penetrate Chinese defence lines in Tibet are being raised, along with steps for a general improvement in defence infrastructure along the China boundary.
Some strategic experts say it is important to cool the rhetoric, before Asia's two great tectonic plates rub too hard against each other.
China expert Sujit Dutta said: 'The last two to three years have not been easy, with China putting all sorts of pressure on India.
'While I do not think either side will be too foolish, it is also important to be prepared. With China, you just cannot be too careful.'
Both nations fought a brief border war in 1962, at a time when India's military was woefully unprepared. Memories of that defeat continue to rankle Indians, though the border has been largely peaceful for decades and trade ties have improved swiftly.
Indian officials have also acknowledged that China, which once backed insurgent groups in India's remote and restive north-east, seemed to have ended that policy in 1988. No longer though.
Last week, Indian Intelligence Bureau director Nehchal Sandhu told a conference of state police chiefs it was time to discuss 'fresh evidence of intrusive Chinese interest in the affairs of Indian insurgent groups'. It was the clearest indication of New Delhi's mounting concerns, weeks after it had warned Beijing to cease building dams and roads in the part of Kashmir that is in Pakistan's control.
The worry is that a fresh wave of insurgency in the north-east would require India to commit large numbers of troops, stretching the army's resources even thinner. Besides, it would add to the current internal security nightmares when a third of the nation's districts are faced with Maoist threats of varying intensity.
Analysts also say that while Kashmir has been relatively peaceful for most of the past year, there is every possibility that jihadist groups will turn their attention to the state once United States troops begin a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan. That might require India to keep hundreds of thousands of troops in Jammu and Kashmir. More than a third of India's army is currently stationed there.
Aside from the military build-up along the Tibet frontier, a key element of Indian counter-pressure has been the building of ties with Vietnam, which has a history of testy ties with China. Last week, Hanoi hosted India's Defence Secretary and Foreign Minister in quick succession.
There is talk that India is seeking access to the naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay when the base opens in 2013, and will meanwhile start training Vietnamese officers in submarine warfare.
India also has shrugged off Chinese objections against plans by its overseas oil exploration arm, ONGC Videsh, to conduct joint prospecting in the South China Sea with PetroVietnam in blocks vacated by the energy giant BP. It says the Chinese objections have no legal basis because the blocks belong to Vietnam.
An official from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said: 'The Chinese had concerns, but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us, and have conveyed this to the Chinese.'
Analysts say this amounts to New Delhi tacitly accepting Vietnam's position on its dispute with China, which could have consequences. Strategic analyst Bahukutumbi Raman of Chennai's Institute for Topical Studies warned: 'The ultimate result may be a confrontation with China in the seas adjacent to the Chinese mainland, which India cannot hope to win, and an overall deterioration in relations.'
Some Indian officials acknowledge the dangers, but say backing off would be more dangerous in the long term.
One official said: 'Other nations' claims to the area's resources are equally valid. By playing to their own sense of hyper-nationalism and reconstructed history, the Chinese are inflaming public opinion in India as well. All this makes accommodation that much more difficult.' /.

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