Counter China’s Designs
16 Jan 2008, 0000 hrs IST,Brahma Chellaney
One issue emblematic of the Sino-Indian strategic dissonance is Burma. Indeed, there are several important parallels between Burma and the vast territory whose annexation brought Han forces to India’s borders for the first time in history – Tibet. India and China may be 5,000-year-old civilisations but the two had no experience in dealing with each other politically until Tibet’s forcible absorption made them neighbours. In contrast, India has had close historical ties with Tibet and with Burma, part of the British Indian empire until 1937. The majority people of Burma, the Burmans, are of Tibetan stock, and the Burman script, like the Tibetan one, was taken from Sanskrit.
Today, Tibet and Burma are at the centre of the India-China relationship. Having lost the traditionally neutral buffer of Tibet, India sees Burma as a hedge against China’s authoritarian rise. It is significant that the resistance against repressive rule in both Tibet and Burma is led by iconic Nobel laureates, one living in exile in India and the other with close ties to India but under house arrest in Rangoon. Equally remarkable is that the Dalai Lama and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel peace prize in quick succession for the same reason: for leading a non-violent struggle, in the style of Mahatma Gandhi.
Yet another parallel is that heavy repression has failed to break the resistance to autocratic rule in both Tibet and Burma. More than half a century after Tibet’s annexation, the Tibetan struggle ranks as one of the longest and most-powerful resistance movements in modern world history. With no links to violence or terror, it actually stands out as a model.
Similarly, despite detaining Suu Kyi for nearly 13 of the past 19 years, the junta has failed to suppress the democracy movement, as last September’s monk-led mass protests showed.
For the autocrats in Beijing, who value Burma as an entryway to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, the demonstration of people’s power in a next-door state was troubling news because such grass-roots protests could inspire popular challenge to their own authoritarianism. Having strategically penetrated resource-rich Burma, Beijing is busy completing the Irrawaddy Corridor involving road, river, rail and energy-transport links between Burmese ports and Yunnan.
For India, such links constitute strategic pressure on the eastern flank. China is already building another north-south strategic corridor to the west of India – the Trans-Karakoram Corridor stretching right up to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port, at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz – as well as an east-west strategic corridor in Tibet across India’s northern frontiers. In Burma, Beijing is also helping construct a 1,500-km highway leading to Arunachal Pradesh.
Such links hold serious implications for India because they allow Beijing to strategically meddle in India’s restive north-east and step up indirect military pressure. Operating through the plains of Burma in India’s north-east is much easier than having to operate across the mighty Himalayas. In 1962, Indian forces found themselves outflanked by the invading People’s Liberation Army at certain points in Arunachal (then NEFA), spurring speculation that some Chinese units quietly entered via the Burmese plains, not by climbing the Himalayas.
The potential for Chinese strategic mischief has to be viewed against the background that the original tribal insurgencies in the north-east were instigated by Mao’s China, which trained and armed the rebels, be it Naga or Mizo guerrillas, partly by exploiting the Burma route. During World War II, the allied and axis powers had classified Burma as a “back door to India”. Today, India shares a porous 1,378-km border with Burma, with insurgents operating on both sides through shared ethnicity.
Tibet and Burma are going to stay pivotal to Indian security. The centrality of the Tibet issue has been highlighted both by China’s Tibet-linked territorial claim to Arunachal and by its major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects in the Tibetan plateau, the source of all of Asia’s major rivers except the Ganges. By damming the Brahmaputra and Sutlej and toying with the idea of diverting the Brahmaputra waters to the parched Yellow River, Beijing is threatening to fashion water into a weapon against India.
The junta has run Burma for 46 years, while the communist party has ruled China for 59 years. Neither model is sustainable. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union.
But while Burma has faced stringent sanctions since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the post-Tiananmen sanctions against China did not last long on the argument that engagement was a better way to bring about political change – a principle not applied to impoverished Burma.
India cannot afford to shut itself out of Burma, or else – with an increasingly assertive China to the north, a China-allied Pakistan on the west, a Chinese-influenced Burma to the east, and growing Chinese naval interest in the Indian Ocean – it will get encircled. Just as India has not abandoned the Tibetan cause and indeed remains the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile despite doing business with China, India will continue to support the Burmese democracy movement and remain home to large numbers of refugees and dissidents despite a carefully calibrated engagement with the junta aimed at promoting political reconciliation and stemming the growing Chinese clout.
(The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.)