After Fighting Over Mountains, India and China Lock Horns in the Indian Ocean

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mark RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese paramilitary police march past the gates of the Indian embassy in Beijing on May 9, 2013

In mid-April, a platoon of Chinese soldiers trooped some 20 km into territory considered India’s and pitched tents and unfurled banners. When detected by Indian forces, the Chinese refused to leave, triggering a tense three-week standoff between the two Asian giants that ended only after both sides backed down from their windswept Himalayan posts and returned to the pre-existing status quo. The incident was the most dramatic flare-up between India and China in recent years, the latest reminder of how things can heat up along a vast, snowbound border that has for decades remained in dispute.

Top officials in both New Delhi and Beijing tried to play down what happened. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid described the border tensions as “acne” on the otherwise “beautiful face” of Sino-Indian relations. On a recent trip to Beijing, Khurshid insisted both countries “were on the same page” and “don’t have prickly issues of significant difference” regarding the unsettled border. Ahead of newly installed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s May 19 visit to India — his maiden foreign mission — the two countries have made conciliatory noises over resolving the thorny issue of the border, even though over a dozen rounds of talks have failed to achieve any real progress. In a measure to build trust, the two countries laid plans during the standoff to hold joint military exercises for the first time in five years.

(PHOTOS: India’s Wild East)

The Indian government described the incident as “localized,” which suggests that it was the fault of an errant Chinese official or local military commander, and not that of Beijing. Official talking points in both capitals tend to emphasize shared economic interests — annual bilateral trade is expected to reach $100 billion by 2015. Why should colonial-era quibbles over glaciers and desolate mountain passes get in the way?

But while the Indian and Chinese governments have grown accustomed to managing a conflict frozen on the roof of the world, a whole new terrain of contest is emerging far away from the Himalayas: the Indian Ocean. An Indian Defense Ministry report published last month warned of the “grave threat” posed by an emboldened Chinese navy in India’s maritime backyard. China’s rapidly expanding submarine fleet — it counts 45 such vessels to India’s 14 — has widened its orbit of patrols beyond Chinese territorial waters. The “implicit focus” of China’s navy, the report suggests, is to jockey for control of “highly sensitive sea lines of communication” in the Indian Ocean. Last year alone, the Indian Defense Ministry documented 22 “contacts” in the Indian Ocean with vessels suspected to be Chinese attack submarines on extended patrol.

These concerns add to an existing paranoia in the Indian media of China’s “string of pearls” — an array of ports, listening posts and naval bases that Beijing is supposedly setting up in countries around the Indian Ocean, ostensibly in a bid to encircle India. China has a stake in naval facilities in Burma, Bangladesh, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka and most notably in India’s old foe, Pakistan, where the Chinese-built port at Gwadar has furrowed many a brow in New Delhi. Chinese state companies are also developing key strategic ports in East Africa, including Lamu in Kenya and Bagamoyo in Tanzania. The day may not be too far off when a Chinese aircraft carrier makes routine pit stops at cities along the Indian Ocean littoral.

(MORE:: Report: There Are 3,000 Child Soldiers in India)

China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean began in earnest in 2006, when Chinese vessels joined the international task force aimed at curbing Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden and securing pivotal global shipping routes. Much of China’s booming economy is fueled by oil shipped from the Persian Gulf, through the Indian Ocean, and Beijing policymakers see the necessity of securing sea-lanes and access beyond the Strait of Malacca. It’s a typically realist posture, one which can be gleaned from the first ever Chinese “Blue Book” on India — a semiofficial policy document — published this month. It says New Delhi is preparing for the eventuality of a “two-front war” with China and Pakistan and notes the developing strength of India’s blue-water navy. It warns, as the Chinese often do, of the inherent instabilities of India’s democracy, which could lead to further tensions.

Many Indian strategists do seem to accept now that China’s widening naval scope is a natural consequence of its growing global presence; its expanding operations are that of any budding power seeking to safeguard far-flung economic interests. “There’s a maturation of Indian thought on the string of pearls,” says Jeff Smith, an expert on Sino-Indian relations at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. “Many recognize now that these are genuine [Chinese] commercial interests. The biggest reason India is also looking seaward is its own growth.”

But the parallel rise of China and India is still taking the world into uncharted waters. Theorists and analysts squint back at the era of Great Game rivalries, pointing to the now in-vogue writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a 19th century American naval officer and geostrategist who has become popular in both New Delhi and Beijing.

(MORE: The Sino-Indian War: 50 Years Later, Will India and China Clash Again?)

Mahan championed the need for a state to protect its merchant fleets with robust naval power — the blueprint for global domination used by the British Empire and later the U.S. But if China and India follow that same path, they’ll surely bump up against each other. Away from China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean, India has caused alarm in Beijing by stepping up its economic interests in the South China Sea and military ties with Vietnam, the main rival claimant to a body of water Beijing considers its sovereign territory. “Neither [India nor China] is really capable yet of operating in each other’s backyards,” says Smith. But the current course of action suggests further tensions may lie ahead.

In Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, a book published in late 2012 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, veteran Indian geopolitical analyst C. Raja Mohan deploys a parable from ancient Hindu mythology to explain the current strategic conundrum between China and India. Rival gods and demons churn the oceans in search of heavenly ambrosia, but the process yields poison. It takes the subtle interventions of the Lord Vishnu to first deal with the poison and then help manage the discovery of ambrosia.

In Raja Mohan’s metaphor, Vishnu ought to be interpreted as the U.S., still the dominant power in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But it remains unclear to what extent Washington, burdened with shrinking defense budgets and complex relationships with both China and India, could or would want to smooth out the hard edges of Sino-Indian competition. It’s certain that such a role would be unwelcome not just in Beijing, but also New Delhi, where policymakers have no desire to be drawn into the orbit of a Western superpower. And American ambivalence was on display last month as well. “Through the whole border dispute, there was not one word mentioned out of Washington,” says Smith. It’ll be up to Indian and Chinese politicos to make sure the geopolitical churn of the Indian Ocean doesn’t become poisonous.

MORE: India vs. China: Whose Economy Is Better?

78 comments
kraleti.rajasekhar
kraleti.rajasekhar

CHINA  dont want to capture INDIA  any time they are the worlds friendly border sharing countries !! and the 2 gaints of the Asia holding 68% worlds population in their accounts!! they both know that they will loose if fight with each other as China and India are growing in all means compared to the "so called" developed countries if europe and America!!! they want to create disputes between these 2 brothers!!!  USA has already took their base in a border sharing country (Pakistan) of both China and India to get their base in ASIA ! these games will never be held in Asian brothers good luck west!

ajaynewsman
ajaynewsman

There is factual error .  (1) There is no border that is demarcated between India and China so how could China  intrude  ? (2) The two countries have a Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the 4057 km divide. (3) Now comes the real part, the alignment  of the LAC is not demarcated on ground hence  the two sides have varying perceptions of the LAC this means troops on either side patrol upto their own perceived LAC when faced with each other. they return back. (4) THis is variation in perception is between 2 kilometres to 20 kilometres and the land between the two perceptions is known as the disputed section of the LAC . (5)   what had happened was that the Chinese had camped in the disputed section. It surely cannot be called the Indian side.

Regards

RafaSantos
RafaSantos

Even in an article about India and China, the American writer manages to make it all about the US. The US is a source for instability in the world - neither India nor (specially) China will take you as a mediator for their rival claims; not now when the US relative power over those two countries (specially China) is on the decrease. Honestly, get over yourselves, Americans.

edwardsmythe1970
edwardsmythe1970

It was actually Lord Shiva that dealt with the poison.  Epic fail.

duduong
duduong

I was traveling for a few days, and Time promptly descends back towards "fact-free zone". Sigh.

Prior to 1960, there was a de facto control line between China and India. It was Nehru's attempt beginning at 1961 to push the border forward a few hundred yards at a time (called the "Forward Policy") that sparked the 1962 border conflict (really a small scale but nonetheless thorough spanking inflicted on the Indian front line brigades by local Chinese garrisons). China was considered an enemy to both the US and the USSR at the time, however, so as soon as the Cuban missile crisis was resolved, Mao withdrew the troops. 

In another display of his egomania, Mao pulled his troops not to the old de facto control line but to 20 km behind, expecting the losing Indians to reciprocate. The Indians, of course, ignored him, and so we have a 20km wide demilitarized zone, created and maintained unilaterally by the Chinese.

What triggered the latest confrontation was the Indian military's attempt at improving the logistics of supplying one particular outpost. The road was simply too costly and difficult to use, so the Indians decided to build a small airstrip next to the outpost. This would have been all rather routine had the construction work not spilled over to the Chinese side. Although it looked like no-man's land, the Chinese are quite rigorous in keeping the Indians out of this neutral zone created solely out of China's share of the front line. They sent one platoon to stand nose-to-nose against the Indians until the offending structure was demolished.

Although the original decision to build across the de facto border was probably made by mid-level military officers without supervision from the top, the Indian government soon realized that the Chinese had a legitimate cause to act. It had to lie and obfuscate to its own people, however, in order to continue the cover-up after the 1962 defeat. You see, Nehru was too embarrassed to admit his mistake, so he came up with a story about the Chinese launching a "pearl-harbor" style surprise attack. The fact that the Chinese created a 20km neutral zone at their expense is simply incongruent to this story, so it has to be erased from Indian social consciousness also. As a result, the story presented to the public now is that the Chinese strangely send a platoon to threaten the Indian outpost and mysteriously withdraw after diplomatic negotiations. The demolishing of the offending structure has to be covered up too.

This long-running cover-up of the truth behind the 1962 war is the true barrier against improved relationship between China and India. The US wants to keep the countries apart, so it is not surprising that its media simply plays along with the Indian stories. But for their own sake, Indians really need to ask their government to come clean with truth and history. They can start by asking the government to lift the censor on the Henderson-Brooks Report, which was commissioned by Nehru to summarize the events in the 1962 conflict and subsequently banned by Nehru himself when he found the report too forthcoming for his liking. For the rest of us, the report is easily found on the net. Read it and learn. There is no need to be fooled by government cover-ups.



AazobaYuzuki
AazobaYuzuki

next war would be india vs china ... 3 billion people between them .... this future war would helped reduced over population

Wellsaid
Wellsaid

Truth is always bend when national interest is at stake. This is why U.S. media has viewed China as rival and take side against China. In this case, Time bought Indian story without practicing the due diligence.

FOR_SURE
FOR_SURE

China is a greedy land grabbing country..taking advantage of other nations. No wonder Karma always has China in mind when it wants to visit some land.

Wellsaid
Wellsaid

China is a peace loving nation, and this is reflected by the way it handles border conflicts. The PLA tents were erected along the LAC which is still not demarcated. I don't see there is anything wrong.

My question is, why did Time magazine publish this article written by an Indian? How much credit is in it?

Wellsaid
Wellsaid

It was the right decision to stop my subscription of Time Magazine two years ago. Time has consistently published unchecked, biased artcile targeting China. This one is no exception. BTW, the title pictures shows the Chinese Security  Personnel employed by the Foreign Ministry guarding foreign embassy. Time picked up this picture with the intention to show China is a militarized state, how misleading and pathetic!

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

I couldn't believe it when I learned a few months ago that china borders India. I was really shocked as I always thought is china is really huge like the u.s. and very far from India.

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

I couldn't believe it when I learned a few months ago that china borders India. I was really shocked as I always thought is china is really huge like the u.s. and very far from India.

AbrahamYeshuratnam
AbrahamYeshuratnam

Why India is afraid to recover the lands captured by the Chinese during Nehru's premiership?

kintoy
kintoy

China is the new Hitler Germany

ysprefer
ysprefer

Western world wish there is a war between China and India, so that the two developing countries will exhaust each other, and the western world may laugh, and enjoy it as a comedy. Perhaps, even win some money by selling weapons to both sides. So, it is the mind of the present western media, who like chaos around the world. For the minor millitary conflict happed half a century ago, Chairman Mao said, it will guarantee a peace for 50 years. More than 50 years has past now, the peace of this time will depend on the present generation's effort. Dangerous, the malicious mind of western media.

arealgoodfellow
arealgoodfellow

China is the new Frankenstein that the world has created.

India is doing the world a favor by trying to contain it !!!!!!.

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

......Mark 13:8
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows....

........Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved....

moko
moko

China refuses to demarcate the LAC. If there is no LAC, then how do you define intrusion ? They play with words and laws, without respect for the spirit of the law. If the West had not made China the monster it is by economic freedom, it would not be breathing fire like this. 

moko
moko

India has been ingratiating since it is much weaker than an aggressive China. It was an act of cowardice to accept Chinese hegemony over Tibet. Capturing Tibet was illegal, but the cultural neutralization was immoral. Why should India be like a poodle before the Chinese bull dog ? 

DKen0
DKen0

India has neither economic nor military strength nor the political will to do anything except whine. They could repeat the Nehru fiasco from 1962 when he sent Indian soldiers without even winter coats (let alone good weapons) to fight at high altitude places. Otherwise, they can just shut up and accept the terms China dictates.
There is no place in the world for the weak. Get some sort of might first and then talk.
Even in this case, India had to agree to Chinese demands to tear down the bunker in her own territory. Last time they had to "give up" territory that they never controlled and hadn't even visited. It was a British spy spying in Tibet who told Indian government about the intrusions before they even knew that the territory they claimed had Chinese soldiers in it.

rorywong654
rorywong654

The West paint China as aggressor in all aspect.In fact China always try to be reasonable and want to solve things peacefully throughout history.Before republic,China was invaded and humiliated by the West. China lost the war and give compensation even as victim.In modern history, China won the battle against Vietnam and India but withdraw without occupied any territory and prefer settle the issue by negotiation. Is there anybody write about it in the western media? NO

AndresArcesioTorresCano
AndresArcesioTorresCano

The problem is that the two are looking to expand and that generate friction, but there is something more than war and that both have suffered the indignities of oppression of Western powers which will make it limen rough, so they founded the BRICs

http://www.cantagirone.com/

Soham
Soham

Correction : It was Shiva, not Vishnu who drank the Poison.

people4sharks
people4sharks

hmmmm democracy or Communists - I'll side with the democracy, no one even knows what the hell goes on in China - millions disappear or are murdered and you don't here a peep from the sheep, there is something wrong when a cadre of a few hundred rule a billion people.

JamesOng
JamesOng

The article failed to mention that there was a 2005 border protocol and India had violated the protocol by building a bunker in Chumar before China's intrusion.

mathewr
mathewr

World need not worry. China will be ruling Asia. Indians are talkative without action. They are light years away even to know the meaning of nation building. Indians speak a lot words flow like the flow of water from a broken pitcher. Indians are satisfied as long as DRDO proclaims of a mission to mars. They are satisfied, to hear of a  50 decades old Tejas  joining the air force. Above all they have a special weapon called appeasement and cajoling the foe and give all what the foe wants. Therefore the world need not worry about a war between the Asian giant China and the Asian mouse India.

vstillwell
vstillwell

Two grossly overpopulated countries with very strange cultures and a serious male-to-female ratio problem to boot. That doesn't bode well for the world.