Krassimir Ivandjiiski
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India-China tensions- far bigger

Tibet is one thing, but India and China tensions spell bigger disaster India and China are booming and will shape the 21st century, but old tensions between the two could spell disaster for the region

Few of his contemporaries think of George Walker Bush as a visionary American president, unless they are using the term to imply a touch of madness. Yet early in his second term Bush launched a bold initiative to try to establish closer American ties with India, the world's biggest democracy, in what may eventually be judged by historians as a move of great strategic importance and imagination.

It recognised the fact that while Al-Qaeda and its cohorts pose the biggest short-term and perhaps medium-term challenge to America, in the long term it is the expected shift in the world's economic and political balance towards Asia that promises to have the greatest significance.

That is why this month's events in Tibet, as well as the purchase by India's Tata Motors of Land Rover and Jaguar from Ford, need to be seen in a wider context.

Bush, meanwhile, has managed to cast aside 40 years of hostility and suspicion between America and India - and even agreed to start collaborating over nuclear energy - in the hope of strengthening India and its economy. And all for a special reason: the rise of China.

Economists at Goldman Sachs reckon that if China carries on with pro-growth policies and manages its economy reasonably well, it could overtake the United States as the world's biggest economy as soon as the late 2020s. By 2050 India might also have overtaken the United States if it pursues vigorous economic reforms in this decade and beyond. India, at present the world's 11th-largest economy, has long been thought of as a laggard compared with China: good at information technology and outsourcing but incapable of the sort of manufacturing that has powered China's economic emergence.

That is changing. These days India is beginning to follow the Chinese model with investment soaring as a share of GDP, with trade booming and with manufacturing expanding faster than services. Its biggest companies, of which the Tata Group is in the lead, are achieving global reach, capabilities and prominence far faster than their Chinese counterparts.

If a Chinese car maker had sought to buy Jaguar and Land Rover, it would almost certainly have encountered opposition in America's Congress - but India, unlike China, is seen as an ally.

India, however, needs help in financing the construction of its roads, airports and power plants and it needs help with technology. In fact, it is already being helped by Japan - egged on by America - with its infrastructure financing. And Bush's civil nuclear deal was aimed at providing the technology that India desperately needs.

So even if the dates and figures in forecasts such as Goldman's are wrong, Asia is going to get richer and stronger, probably for a long time to come. The reason why Tibet and Tata come into the picture is that the rise of Asia is not just going to pit Asia against the West. It is going to pit Asians against Asians. This is the first time in history when there have been three powerful countries in Asia at the same time: China, India and Japan. That might not matter if they liked each other or were somehow naturally compatible. But they do not and are not. Far from it, in fact.

An array of disputes, historical bitternesses and regional flashpoints weigh down on all three countries. Conflict is not inevitable but nor is it inconceivable. If it were to occur - over Taiwan, say, or the Korean peninsula or Tibet or Pakistan - it would not simply be an intra-Asian affair. The outside world would be drawn in.

Such a conflict could break out suddenly. This month's unrest in Tibet has shown just how volatile China can be - and how easily one of those flashpoints could cause international tension.

In 1962 China and India fought a border war that humiliated India and left an enduring legacy of bitterness and suspicion. Both countries are now increasing their military spending and trying to modernise their armed forces.

The border dispute remains unresolved.

China claims an entire Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh, which borders southern Tibet and is roughly the size of Portugal. India claims that China is occupying 15,000 square miles of what is rightfully India - in Aksai Chin, an almost uninhabited plateau high in the Himalayas.

You can see these disputes as relics of colonialism. They involve two areas of limited strategic importance which, while large, are not heavily populated and do not as far as we know contain hugely valuable mineral resources. The other way to view these disputes is that they are not about specific border demarcations at all. In truth, they are about Tibet.

China invaded Tibet in October 1950 and annexed it to Mao Tse-tung's newly declared people's republic. The Chinese say that Tibet had historically been part of China since the 13th century. But in practice the reason why it is now an "autonomous region" within China - that is, run by the Chinese Communist party - is that it is on the eastern side of the Himalayas. Strategically, China feels safer with the world's highest mountain range as its border.

In the early 1950s China encroached on Aksai Chin in order to build a strategic road connecting Tibet and its eastern province of Xinjiang. In 1958-9 it brutally suppressed a substantial uprising by armed Tibetans, some of whom had been supplied and trained by either the CIA or India. Afterwards China proposed a border settlement that would have involved India giving up Aksai Chin and all hope of regaining influence over Tibet. Naturally the proposal was rejected.

In 1960-2 India tried to push forward its military positions in the disputed areas. China responded with attacks that left 3,000 Indians dead. Beijing had taught Delhi a lesson: India should not mess with China and its control over Tibet. Only a fool would challenge China's control over that region now and India formally recognised in 2003 that Tibet is part of China.

On the face of it the two sides have since made progress. A border crossing was opened to trade in 2006 for the first time since the war. That year, however, the Chinese ambassador to Delhi caused outrage by publicly emphasising that China claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh.

Ten months ago a "confidence-building" visit to China by more than 100 Indian officials had to be cancelled after China acted in a typically provocative way: it refused to grant a visa to a member of the Indian delegation from Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that he was Chinese and did not need one.

It is conventional to assume that the disputed areas are no longer flashpoints but just irritatingly unfinished business. Which is largely right - provided there is no substantial uprising by Tibetans against being ruled by the Chinese. But that, of course, is exactly what began to occur on March 14, when Tibetans celebrated the anniversary of their 1959 uprising by launching the most violent and destructive riots since that date. Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities stamped out the protests efficiently and brutally.

It was an embarrassing event to have taken place in the year of the Beijing Olympics, that great celebration of China's emergence as a modern nation. But it is also a harbinger of trouble to come.

Why? Because a further possible trigger for Tibetan unrest lies ahead: the death of the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, or, rather, the choice of his successor. In Tibet the Buddhist monasteries are the closest things to an alternative organising force to the Communist party. The Dalai Lama has not only traditionally been the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism but in practice the political leader, too. He has lived in exile in Dharamsala in India since 1959, but remains the focus of Tibetan identity and memory.

He will be 73 this year and, inevitably, thoughts have been turning to what happens when he dies. In Tibetan Buddhism it is believed that the Dalai Lama is reincarnated - which means that after his death there will be a search for the child who will be his successor. It often takes several years before agreement is reached on who that successor should be.

Whenever the next succession takes place there will be three extra complications. The first is that in 2007 China announced new regulations to govern the reincarnation of all Tibetan clergy: it has said it will have the last word in determining whether someone has been reincarnated. In other words, atheist party officials will govern Tibetan spiritual decisions.

In response, the Dalai Lama said he was considering naming his chosen successor before he dies. But - and this is the second complication - he has also said he will not be reincarnated in land under Chinese control. So if his followers abide by that statement they will not accept any successor who has been found inside China.

The third complication is that traditionally the second ranking lama, the Panchen Lama, has played a central role in choosing the new Dalai Lama. But after the previous Panchen Lama died in China in 1989, two successors were chosen: one by the Dalai Lama's selection committee; the other by a selection committee imposed by China. The Dalai Lama's choice was arrested. His whereabouts is unknown but he is thought to be a political prisoner.

If - or when - the Tibetans are faced with a dispute over the successor to their spiritual leader, serious unrest could break out. The likelihood is that China would crack down hard on Tibet, as it always has in the past and as it did this month. But if the unrest were more widespread and substantial than before, and if it coincided with a period when the central Chinese government was weak - in the wake of an economic downturn, perhaps - then it may be hard to regain control.

At such a time, unrest might break out all around China, making it harder simply to crack down in Tibet alone.

Two risks could then arise. One, admittedly unlikely, is that in the face of Chinese repression, perhaps involving the wholesale slaughter of Tibetan militants, India might feel obliged to do something: to send aid, agitate for collective international intervention or even to try to create safe havens near Arunachal Pradesh.

The other risk is that either China or India might decide to send a military force into the disputed border areas. That might be a diversionary tactic; it might be opportunism, in India's case; it might reflect China's sense of insecurity about Tibet; or it might be a Chinese effort to seize Tawang, an area of Arunachal Pradesh directly associated with Tibet and with Tibetan Buddhism. If any of these events occurred, the stakes would be high.

Remember: this is part of a greater Asian drama that is going to be a permanent feature of world affairs and arguably the most important single determinant of whether or not those affairs proceed peacefully and prosperously.

There are two different images of how Asia might look in 2020: the first could be termed "plausible pessimism" and the second called "credible optimism".

The plausibly pessimistic view begins with the risk that China will suffer a bruising recession and asset-price collapse, perhaps exacerbated by a recession in the United States. This will lead to public pressure for political reform, posing the biggest challenge to Communist party rule since Tiananmen in 1989. That pressure will again be violently rebuffed and the party will accentuate its nationalist credentials in order to retain its grip on power.

Such a nationalist move would produce increased tension with Japan, a reduction in cooperation with the United States over North Korea and a spate of mutual truculence between China and India.

In these awkward times the deaths of Kim Jong-il of North Korea and the Dalai Lama could both occur, prompting China to install a new military government in Pyongyang, to reject proposals for unification of the peninsula and to use brutal methods to suppress an uprising by Buddhist monks in Tibet.

What would Japan do? If it became even more worried about North Korea and China, it would revise its constitution to permit expanded military capabilities. Then there is Taiwan, which would be an ever-present worry over an imminent conflict between China, Japan and America. There could even be a short, exploratory exchange of fire over that very issue.

The warm glow of the 2008 Beijing Olympics would be remembered only through a thick smog of tension.

Now look on the brighter side. The credibly optimistic view is that by 2020 China's economy could be at least three times larger than it is today; the same could well apply to India as it uses its rising tax revenues to build modern infrastructure and a proper system of primary and secondary education.

Japan, with more market-oriented reforms and a corporate sector galvanised by the prospect of Chinese competition, could experience a productivity surge similar to that enjoyed by the United States during the 1990s, enabling it to become more confident in international affairs.

In such a climate China, Japan and India would work together to build pan-Asian institutions within which to manage their disputes and differences. When the North Korean regime collapses and the Dalai Lama passes away, their first instinct would be to talk and exchange ideas rather than to act unilaterally.

The introduction of the election of Hong Kong's chief executive by universal suffrage, a step made possible by this harmonious atmosphere, could increase interest in the use of democracy in China itself. The emerging Chinese middle class, irritated by its rising tax burden and lack of political rights, would put pressure on the Communist party through protests and through the media to follow Hong Kong's example.

The party's fifth and sixth generations of leaders might decide it was time to make concessions, reasoning that they could repeat the success of Japan's Liberal Democratic party and maintain power even in a multi-party system. The first elections would be called late in the 21st century's second decade or early in the third.

Clearly, whether the pessimistic or optimistic scenario prevails, what is happening in Tibet does not stand in isolation. The stakes in Asia are enormous - for all of us.


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