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POLITICS-INDIA: Waiting to Hear Clinton on AfPak, China

Analysis by Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jul 8 2009 (IPS) - It is hard to say whether U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will find herself being quizzed more on Washington’s ‘AfPak’ strategy to contain global terror or her appeasement of a financially muscular China, when she lands in India mid-July.

Already much is being read into the fact that Clinton’s visit comes a full five months after she landed in Beijing where, to the consternation of international rights groups, she refused to allow human rights to “interfere” with talks on more pressing issues such as the financial crisis, climate change and security.

Abandoning the George W. Bush policy of ‘containing’ China through building up strategic ties with India (as well as with Japan and Australia), Clinton has described U.S.-China relations as “the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.”

But when she gets to India, Clinton will be expected to spell out the future of the landmark Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement which was seen in China as part of the ‘containment’ strategy. Beijing had therefore opposed the special waiver sought by the U.S. from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to enable India to resume nuclear commerce.

Clinton will also be asked to explain the AfPak policy of jointly dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan to contain terrorism with the focus on providing Pakistan more economic and military aid – though there have been complaints that it was being funnelled into militancy in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

“At a time of deep economic crisis and when the spectre of terrorism looms large over the world, India can only be supportive of the U.S. initiatives in engaging China and Pakistan,” says Prof. Sujit Dutta, an expert on India-China relations and currently attached to the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi.

“On the other hand,” Dutta told IPS, “engaging with China must not lead to a reversal to the time during the late 1990s when the U.S. was beginning to look favourably at parcelling out hegemony over Asia to Beijing.”

Dutta pointed to the dramatic revelation by the U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Timothy J. Keating during his visit to India on May 14 that a top-ranking Chinese naval official had sounded him out on a proposal to split control over the world’s seas between the navies of the two countries.

Keating was reportedly told: “You (the U.S.) take Hawaii East and we, (China) will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean. Then you need not come to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean and we will not need to go to the Eastern Pacific.”

China’s new maritime ambitions were on display last month when it formally laid claim, under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Seas, to thousands of square miles of maritime territory in the South China Sea based on its unilateral claims to offshore islands off the coasts of Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Recently, in the name of dealing with piracy, the Chinese fleet sailed into the Indian Ocean. It has also been steadily building facilities and bases along the Indian Ocean rim through partnerships such as at the ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Sittwe in Burma.

India’s quest for better relations with the United States took a dramatic upswing when it stormed into the ‘nuclear club’ with weapons tests in 1998 and then explained to then U.S. president Bill Clinton that the reason the tests were carried out was China.

Although Pakistan followed those tests with its own nuclear explosions two days later, India’s status was quickly ‘dehyphenated’ from Pakistan and it was accorded strategic parity with China – at least on the nuclear issue.

According to Prof. Brahma Chellaney at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), an independent and respected think tank in New Delhi, Washington under President Barack Obama has once again begun looking at India “through the AfPak lens rather than the Asian geopolitical prism.”

Chellaney says this reality is unlikely to be changed during Clinton’s stop in New Delhi. “While re-hyphenating India with Pakistan and outsourcing its North Korea and Burma policies to Beijing, the U.S. wants China to expand its geopolitical role through greater involvement even in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

This approach spells trouble for an India that has been unable to call Pakistan to account for such spectacular acts of terrorism as the November attacks on the western port city of Mumbai by a suicide squad sent in by the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba group that left behind a trail of death and destruction at two of the city’s landmark hotels and at the main railway terminus.

Following the November attacks, the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS) stated, in an analysis dated Dec. 4, 2008, that in the event of war breaking out between India and Pakistan, Beijing could “firmly support Pakistan” and even speculated on the possibility of “strategic military action in Southern Tibet (India’s Arunachal Pradesh state) to thoroughly liberate the people there.”

A second CIISS analysis on the following day stressed the importance of an ongoing China-Pakistan project to link the disputed territory of Kashmir with China through the Karakorum highway project. China already holds 8,000 sq km of territory in Kashmir ceded to it by Pakistan.

Interestingly, the CIISS analysis admits that the main aim of the Beijing-Islamabad alliance is to give advantage to China on the long-standing Sino- Indian border dispute.

The seriousness of China’s territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh became clear in April when Beijing held back board approval for a 2.9 billion dollar loan sought by India from the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) on the grounds that 60 million dollars of the loan were intended for a watershed development project in the north-eastern state.

Analysts in India believe that China’s new territorial aggressiveness is the direct result of cosier relations with the United States.

India’s response has been to deploy some 50,000 additional troops in the remote Himalayan state, induct a squadron of advanced, nuclear-capable Sukhoi Mk1 fighters into the area and begin work on building airstrips and military infrastructure closer to the 1,000 km border that Arunachal Pradesh shares with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.

While India and China have signed a treaty to maintain ‘peace and tranquillity’ along their 3,500 km common border, a political solution is yet to be found to disputes over large chunks of Himalayan territory that erupted into full-scale war between the Asian giants in 1962.

That war was also the price that India paid for giving support and asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers as they fled across the high Himalayas to form a government-in-exile at Dharamsala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

“India has been supportive of many issues that are supposed to be dear to the U.S., such as making democratic changes in the Xinjiang and Tibet regions, but these have been relegated to the status of long-term issues while attention is being paid to the economic crisis and terrorism,” Dutta explained.

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