Why India Fears China

By Kahn, Jeremy | Newsweek International, October 19, 2009 | Go to article overview

Why India Fears China


Kahn, Jeremy, Newsweek International


Byline: Jeremy Kahn

On June 21, two Chinese military helicopters swooped low over Demchok, a tiny Indian hamlet high in the Hima-layas along the northwestern border with China. The helicopters dropped canned food over a barren expanse and then returned to bases in China. India's military scrambled helicopters to the scene but did not seem unduly alarmed. This sort of Cold War cat-and-mouse game has played out on the 4,057-kilometer India-China border for decades. But the incident fed a media frenzy about "the Chinese dragon." Beginning in August, stories about new Chinese incursions into India have dominated the 24-hour TV news networks and the newspaper headlines.

China claims some 90,000 square kilometers of Indian territory. And most of those claims are tangled up with Tibet. Large swaths of India's northern mountains were once part of Tibet. Other stretches belonged to semi-independent kingdoms that paid fealty to Lhasa. Because Beijing now claims Tibet as part of China, it has by extension sought to claim parts of India that it sees as historically Tibetan, a claim that has become increasingly flammable in recent months.

Ever since the anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet last year, progress toward settling the border dispute has stalled, and the situation has taken a dangerous turn. The emergence of videos showing Tibetans beating up Han Chinese shopkeepers in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities created immense domestic pressure on Beijing to crack down. The Communist Party leadership worries that agitation by Tibetans will only encourage unrest by the country's other ethnic minorities, such as Uighurs in Xinjiang or ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, threatening China's integrity as a nation. Susan Shirk, a former Clinton-administration official and expert on China, says that "in the past, Taiwan was the 'core issue of sovereignty,' as they call it, and Tibet was not very salient to the public." Now, says Shirk, Tibet is considered a "core issue of national sovereignty" on par with Taiwan.

The implications for India's security--and the world's--are ominous. It turns what was once an obscure argument over lines on a 1914 map and some barren, rocky peaks hardly worth fighting over into a flash point that could spark a war between two nuclear-armed neighbors. And that makes the India-China border dispute into an issue of concern to far more than just the two parties involved. The United States and Europe as well as the rest of Asia ought to take notice--a conflict involving India and China could result in a nuclear exchange. And it could suck the West in--either as an ally in the defense of Asian democracy, as in the case of Taiwan, or as a mediator trying to separate the two sides.

Beijing appears increasingly concerned about the safe haven India provides to the Dalai Lama and to tens of thousands of Tibetan exiles, including increasingly militant supporters of Tibetan independence. These younger Tibetans, many born outside Tibet, are growing impatient with the Dalai Lama's "middle way" approach--a willingness to accept Chinese sovereignty in return for true autonomy--and commitment to nonviolence. If these groups were to use India as a base for armed insurrection against China, as Tibetan exiles did throughout the 1960s, then China might retaliate against India. By force or demand, Beijing might also seek to gain possession of important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries that lie in Indian territory close to the border. Both politically and culturally, these monasteries are seen as key nodes in the Tibetan resistance to Chinese authority.

Already Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at undercutting Indian sovereignty over the areas China claims, particularly the northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh and one of its key cities, Tawang, birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama in the 17th century and home to several important Tibetan monasteries. Tibet ceded Tawang and the area around it to British India in 1914.

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