What Chinese threat?

While a holistic assessment of Chinese objectives on roads, railways and ports around India remains to be carried out, it is interesting to ask how do the Indian populations living in proximity to these developments interpret them?

In late 2009, the author undertook a trip to the border areas in Arunachal Pradesh — with much appreciated assistance from government officials there — as part of a wider trip that included China. Field research threw up some unexpected conclusions: most surprisingly, that the perception of Chinese threats that pervades the Indian policy community’s psyche is not shared by the border populations.

On the other hand, local people largely feel neglected by the Indian government. They think that if the Indian government is serious about developing the roads in the region (and thus helping to develop the region itself), this could be done faster by inviting global tenders and by using advanced technologies. Instead, the government is relying on the Border Road Organisation (BRO), which seems incapable of delivering timely projects in Arunachal Pradesh.

From China’s point of view, the subcontinent offers a long and inviting coast, giving China’s western regions commercial access to the seas. For these Chinese regions, such access is important in order to achieve economic growth and resource diversification. Chinese politics on access to the Indian Ocean revolve around two basic ideas. First, significant investment in such access aims to broaden China’s economic rise. Second, these new routes of transportation will be bearers of Chinese influence. China’s western regions lag economically far behind those of its own coastal regions. Hence, transport networks in China, and those Beijing helps fund and build in neighbouring countries, are aimed at reducing inter-regional inequality, improving resource supplies and ensuring national security and unity.

China’s outward-oriented policy towards its subcontinental neighbours should be seen as partially addressing the key sources of domestic instability, including ethnic violence, unemployment, income inequality and cross-border criminal activity. Beijing wants to maintain a stable external and internal environment to continue its economic development. China thus mostly wants peace and tranquility on its periphery. More importantly, the Chinese do not see their relations in region as focused only on a competition with India.

The growing Chinese transport network aims to achieve its own economic purposes, not the strategic encirclement of India as argued by many analysts. It is largely driven by commercial interests and aims to secure supplies of energy, natural resources and minerals over the long term.

India’s strategic thinkers prefer to believe otherwise. They argue that for the last several decades, China has been engaged in efforts to create an anti-Indian sentiment and capability in surrounding countries, through military and economic assistance programmes tied to a stepped-up diplomacy. Unlike China’s ties in East Asia, where they accept that China’s objectives are largely economic, they believe that in South Asia, China’s aims are primarily geo-political and military in content. For them, China remains the most threatening factor for Indian national security.

Photo: Raj Kumar

Voices from the field in the border region, however, bring a different perspective. Local people see Chinese roads and railways as an opportunity for India. China’s economy, finance, and exports are all much more globalised than those of India. Many view talk of ‘strategic encirclement’ and a Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy (involving naval installations on India’s periphery) as misinterpretations of Chinese strategy and as over-reaction to some facts on the ground. And China, of course, like India but on a larger scale in keeping with its greater resources, is investing in its military capability and undoubtedly seeks to extend its strategic reach.

Though there may well be a military component in Chinese activities in countries on India’s borders, this author’s research suggests that it is not the primary motive. China’s priorities are protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity, promoting economic development and generating international respect and status. Areas where roads and railways penetrate are opened up and greater contacts between peoples are established. Are India’s priorities much different?

Perhaps as a legacy of the Raj, it was long held that an undeveloped border region in the North-East enhanced the security of the heartland as roads and bridges might provide easy connectivity for inimical forces—not necessarily armies but a variety of subversive elements, arms and drug-runners, smugglers and even legitimate traders who might overwhelm the national economy by dumping cheap consumer goods. But for the local population, whose development has lagged painfully, roads and bridges mean fresh possibilities for trade, quick supply of goods, closer linkages with the rest of India and a great expansion of inter-village amity in the interior. Their needs should be recognised and respected by India’s strategic community, while local populations must accept that borders more open to economic intercourse with China will offer some risks to the country beyond the obvious opportunities involved.