Tensions Simmer Between Asian Giants Over China’s Regional Intentions

By Patrick Goodenough | September 1, 2010 | 4:48 AM EDT

The Chinese Navy destroyer Guangzhou arrives in the port of Thilawa near Yangon, Burma on Sunday, August 29, 2010. (Photo: China Ministry of National Defense/Xinhua/Jin Fei)

(CNSNews.com) – The Indian government is closely watching China’s activities in its neighborhood, the country’s foreign minister has assured lawmakers, following a first-ever visit by Chinese Navy ships to Burma and reports claiming China-Pakistan collusion in disputed Kashmir.
Analysts view the Chinese moves as part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at expanding its influence in Asia while securing alternative sources of and routes for vital energy supplies.
“India has come to realize that China has been showing more than the normal interest in the Indian Ocean affairs,” Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna told parliament in New Delhi on Tuesday. “So we are closely monitoring the Chinese intentions.”
Two Chinese warships have been docked at a port near Yangon since Sunday, in what Chinese reports say is the first port visit to Burma since relations were established between the two countries 60 years ago – two years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The vessels are on their way home from anti-piracy patrols in the Aden Gulf and waters off Somalia, China’s first-ever naval deployment beyond the Pacific Ocean.
Their five-day visit will include exchanges between the two navies, state media reported.
Veteran Indian security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman said Wednesday the port call in India’s eastern neighbor “proclaims openly the beginning of Chinese activism, if not assertiveness, in the Indian Ocean region.”
He said India should discuss China’s regional intentions with President Obama when he visits New Delhi in November.
U.S. concerns about China’s naval activity and goals in the region were voiced by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen during a visit to India in July, and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a regional security forum in Hanoi that same month.

A People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition drill in the South China Sea in late July, 2010. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Pu Haiyang)

China has close trading ties with Burma, and has frequently backed Burma’s military regime at the United Nations, going so far as to veto a 2007 Security Council resolution critical of rights abuses in Burma. (It was only the sixth time Beijing had used its veto since joining the council in 1971.)
China’s primary interest in the country relates to energy supplies for its fast-growing economy. Burma lies between China’s southern Yunan province and the Indian Ocean, and last year the two countries agreed to build pipelines linking Burma’s coast to Yunan.
One will carry natural gas from offshore Burmese gasfields and the other will pipe crude oil arriving by ship from the Middle East – an alternative to a significantly longer voyage through the vulnerable Malacca Strait and then north through the South China Sea.
‘Fledgling power testing its wings’
China is helping to build or modernize a series of ports in friendly countries, including Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where a strategic deep water port is located at Gwadar, near the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
The goal of this “string of pearls” strategy, American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Auslin told a congressional panel last year, “is to facilitate China’s constant maritime presence in Asia and link it to a growing network of regional states that benefit from China’s economic and military support.”
In an editorial Wednesday, Beijing’s Global Times, a paper affiliated with the Communist Party organ People’s Daily, derided India’s reaction to the ships’ visit to Burma.
It compared the “noise and speculation in India” with Japan’s uneasy reaction when Chinese navy vessels passed through waters near the Okinawa island chain earlier this year, saying that “every step the fledgling power makes to test its wings has been met with suspicion.”
The editorial scoffed as the notion “that China may flex its muscles from one ocean to another, and eventually become a frightening superpower cruising around the world’s blue waters.”
“Conspiracy theories aside, China’s navy has been growing stronger over the past few years, and has been reaching places it has never reached before,” it acknowledged. “Not surprisingly, Japan, South Korea, India and some Southeast Asian countries are concerned.
“These countries should be more concerned about the U.S., the only real super power, which could cause trouble by stoking feelings of discontent.”
The editorial went on to say that Beijing may try to set up a communication mechanism with other Asian navies in a bid to build trust.
Himalayan flashpoint
India has long been leery of the regional intentions of its giant northern neighbor. The two fought a brief but bitter war in 1962 and disputes over border territories persist.
Beijing is also a close ally of Pakistan, India’s nuclear-armed neighbor and longstanding rival. China is helping Islamabad to expand its nuclear reactor sector, and Indian experts believe the port at Gwadar will enhance Pakistan’s naval capabilities vis-a-vis India.
The 1962 war left China in control of a small portion of Kashmir, the Himalayan territory most of which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in its entirety by both.
India and Pakistan fought wars over Kashmir in 1947 and again in 1965, and came close to a third full-out war in 1999. The region remains a flashpoint and both countries are sensitive about the other’s activities there.
India was shaken late last week by a New York Times report claiming that Pakistan was giving China access to a remote region of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, and that China had deployed up to 11,000 troops there.
The report, by Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, said the troops were expected to help build a railroad that would link eastern China to Gwadar port while others would work on extending a highway which links Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang province.
The Karakoram highway, built decades ago by the two countries, is said to be the world’s highest paved international road. It would play a key role in transporting goods from Gwadar port overland to China.
The Indian government said Monday it would investigate the report which, if true, “would be a matter of serious concern.”
But Pakistan’s foreign ministry called the report a “gross misrepresentation of facts” and said China was helping Pakistan repair the Karakoram highway which had been damaged by recent monsoon floods.
Still, Indian media reported that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called a cabinet security committee meeting Tuesday to discuss China’s recent activities.
They cited both the claims of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan and China’s recent decision to deny a visa to an Indian Army general stationed in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The visa snub has been widely interpreted as marking a shift in China’s position on India’s claims to the area, and New Delhi responded by suspending a defense dialogue with Beijing which the general was meant to have led.
“Is China’s rising economic power and growing political influence across the Himalayas morphing into a threat to India’s territorial sovereignty in [Kashmir]?” leading foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan wrote in a column in the Indian Express on Tuesday.
“If China does not show sensitivity to India’s core interests, the current spat on visas could escalate to a dangerous contestation of mutual sovereignties in the vast and turbulent frontiers that they share,” he warned.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow