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The New Great Game

Why the Bush administration has embraced India.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By DANIEL TWINING
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Independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, shared Curzon's expansive vision, declaring India "the pivot round which the defense problems of the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia revolve." Wary Chinese strategists perceive a continuity of strategic design from Curzon to the Congress party today, accusing Nehru at that time of harboring ambitions for a "greater Indian empire," and more recently criticizing India's aspirations for "global military power."

"China and India," writes the Carnegie Endowment's Ashley Tellis, "appeared destined for competition almost from the moment of their creation as modern states."

The taproots of modern Sino-Indian conflict, argues historian John Garver, are found in the overlapping claims of traditional Indian and Chinese spheres of influence in Asia, and in "conflicting nationalist narratives that lead patriots of the two sides to look to the same arenas in attempting to realize their nations' modern greatness." These conflicts create acute security dilemmas as India and China compete for influence across Central, South, and Southeast Asia, where strategic gains by one power magnify the vulnerabilities of the other.

Indian officials perceive a Chinese design to box India into its subregion, curbing India's ability to project power beyond its borders. China's 1950 invasion of Tibet, traditionally the buffer between China and British India, established the trend. Beijing maintains pressure on New Delhi by politely declining to resolve their 2,500-mile border dispute, a legacy of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. China has deployed nuclear weapons along its disputed border with India in Tibet. "The potential political and psychological impact" of nuclear-armed missiles "literally a few miles from India's border . . . cannot be underestimated," argues political scientist Amitabh Mattoo. China has refused to extend its nuclear "no first use" doctrine to include India.

China's military assistance to Pakistan, including the extensive transfer of nuclear and missile components, inflates the power of a state with which India has fought three wars, enabling Pakistan to challenge Indian primacy in South Asia. Since the 1990s, China has pursued a consistent policy of encircling India by supplying military assistance and training to its neighbors. The top three recipients of Chinese arms exports are Pakistan, Burma, and Bangladesh; China has also established military supply and exchange relationships with Nepal and Sri Lanka. China seeks to create "a string of anti-Indian influence around India" that is "designed to marginalize India in the long term," according to one Indian strategist. Prime Minister Singh laments "the desire of extraregional powers to keep us engaged in low-intensity conflicts and local problems, to weigh us down in a low-level equilibrium."

China is also expending money and manpower to construct strategic road and rail links in India's backyard. A high-altitude rail line linking Qinghai in China with Lhasa in Tibet, which began transporting Chinese military personnel in early December, reportedly features a planned southern spur leading to the disputed Sino-Indian border, enabling the rapid movement of Chinese military forces in the event of conflict. Beijing and Islamabad are conducting surveys for a rail line across the Karakoram mountains linking western China to northern Pakistan, which would tie up with Chinese-funded roads and railways leading to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea. China is reported to be considering construction of a rail link to Nepal, traditionally a buffer state under India's influence.

China has reportedly constructed 39 transport routes from its interior to its contested border with India--which Indian planners perceive as more of a military threat than a commercial opportunity, since much of the border is closed to trade. China's program of road and rail works along its border with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims as Chinese territory, has led New Delhi to accelerate "strategically important" road construction in the region. China is also funding extensive road and rail projects in Burma, traditionally the land corridor for both commerce and armies between East and South Asia.