China factor in South Asia

CHINA'S PRIME MINISTER, Mr. Zhu Rongji, has reaffirmed his country's strategic proximity to Pakistan in the present context of an expanding international debate on the new U.S.' plans for a missile defence system. Mr. Zhu's task became easier during his latest visit to Islamabad even as Pakistan's Chief Executive, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, adopted a nuanced stance of opposing the current U.S.' move on the ground of `principle' - any plan that could reignite a missile competition or a nuclear arms race on the international stage must be disfavoured. Mr. Zhu's visit to Islamabad might have been planned well ahead of Washington's policy pronouncement on missile defence; but the eagerness of both China and Pakistan to seize the occasion to tune themselves to the same wavelength is hardly surprising, given their enduring strategic bonhomie of several decades. On the latest occasion, it was truly a Hobson's Choice for Pakistan after the Vajpayee administration had controversially committed official India to a policy of welcoming Washington's new ideas about a global strategic framework. It hardly mattered to the military-led Pakistan Government that New Delhi did so without even appearing to have evaluated the long-term implications of the American gameplan. In these circumstances, the coincidental visit to India by a ranking Chinese Communist Party mandarin, Mr. Li Chang Chun, acquired diplomatic overtones unrelated to his status in Beijing's official hierarchy. In any case, Mr. Li advocated that ``pragmatism'' should transcend the strategic and political differences between the two countries. New Delhi harped on the need for ``sensitivity'' by the two sides towards their respective ``concerns''. Shorn of the euphemistic niceties, the reality is that official New Delhi's latest honeymoon with Washington has induced Beijing and Islamabad to reinforce their equation.

It is indeed too early to foresee with absolute certainty whether the present Bush administration in Washington will risk a full- scope cold-war-style antagonism with China sooner or later. Unlike during the earlier Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, the Chinese leadership is in no position now to count on a bloc of its own, comprising a plurality of `satellite-states', in a manner the old Kremlin did for a number of decades. Viewed in this perspective about Beijing's overall strategic disabilities, New Delhi can probably seek to downplay its new discordant notes that reverse its own recent attempt at singing a tune of `multipolar' politics on the global stage. Another argument that seems to enthuse official India is that China will, in a quintessential autonomous move, seek to meet the threat it perceives from the U.S. For China, the argument goes, the policy imperative is not determined by the Vajpayee administration's recent action of welcoming Washington's mega- plan for a missile defence network on account of America's related goal of downsizing its enormous nuclear arsenal.

The empirical reality that should not be missed, however, is that the Vajpayee administration has chosen to make light of India's legitimate right to strategic independence. The contrast with China cannot have been more vivid, whatever be the immense differences between the respective political systems as also styles of the two countries. The schedule of Mr. Zhu's latest visit to a few states bordering India could have been sketched out before the current international controversy erupted over the anti-missile question. It is, therefore, possible that China has not signalled any intention now to encircle or contain India in a strategic sense. Yet, two questions will need to be sorted out in India's national interest in this specific context. To be addressed are the issues arising out of Washington's new calculus of ``friends and allies'' as also post-Soviet Russia's eventual response to it. Moreover, New Delhi should, in time for Mr. Zhu's planned visit to India later in 2001, reconcile the pros and cons of coexistence with China in the strategic sphere.