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India's real threat comes not from Pakistan but China, says defense analyst Brahma Chellaney

Ghosh Subcontinental Drift's Aparisim Ghosh presents Conversations

Listen to the full conversation streamed in a choice of audio formats...
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Brahma Chellaney is a professor of security studies at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research and is a well-known commentator on defense matters. He recently spoke with TIME Asia associate editor Aparisim Ghosh. Excerpts from the interview:

TIME: Dr Chellaney, when India conducted its nuclear tests in 1998, Defense Minister George Fernandes said the main security threat came not from Pakistan but from China. Most commentators were amazed, but you agreed with Fernandes. Two years have passed since the tests, do you still feel that way?
What the defense minister said was what a majority of people in the government and the country believe--that the emphasis in India has been on Pakistan, but the real concern is China. There has been an unwritten policy in India that you don't speak out. It's fine to engage in Pakistan-bashing, but you don't bash China. And George Fernandes' sin, so to speak, was that he spoke out on China. He was the first cabinet minister since 1962, the year China invaded India, who spoke out on China. The first reactions were of shock. It rattled a lot of people here, but the message that he delivered was not any different from the popular thinking, especially the thinking of the government.

TIME: Does India feel more secure in its relations with China now that it has nuclear weapons?
There certainly has been a greater degree of security as perceived by Indians than was the case two years ago. India is feeling more confident, a little more secure. And India's international clout and influence has gone up since the tests.

TIME: What are the points of conflict with China? Why does India feel threatened? Apart from the 1962 war, there have not been the border skirmishes that seem to take place all the time with Pakistan. And in the international stage, China hasn't made any noises about wanting pieces of Indian territory. Where does this threat perception come from?
The main dispute is territorial. Unlike the China-Russia dispute, which has now been resolved, the India-China dispute involves large chunks of territory. And there has not been much progress towards resolution, although talks have been going on for nearly two decades. Neither side has been really willing to make any important concession. The Chinese are not even willing to define the Line of Control (LOC) with India, let alone resolve the border dispute. I think their motive is to keep India under strategic pressure. They think that if they were to reach an agreement with India--by defining the LOC--that would allow India to reduce its troop deployment along the border with China, and then those withdrawn troops could beef up India's strength along the frontier with Pakistan. And they don't want India to put greater pressure on Pakistan, which they regard as an 'all-weather' friend. So there is a third party involved here which influences Chinese conduct towards India. But I think the one important point that we have to bear in mind is that while the border has been relatively calm, for the last...

The Subcontinental Drift message board -- sound-off about the news in South Asia to TIME

TIME: Thirty-eight years?
Not really. There were serious border skirmishes in 1967 and in 1986-87. The two sides had some serious showdowns, including in the Thawang area.

TIME: Can you explain where that is for our readers who are not familiar with that area?
Thawang is in Arunachal Pradesh, India's most north-eastern state, which is claimed by China. And there is a place in Arunachal called Wangchung, where there was a major incident in 1986-87. The border has been a bit calm since 1987 but last year, during the Kargil war between India and Pakistan, the Chinese engaged in provocative military maneuvers and intrusions. Kargil is very close to where the borders of India, Pakistan and China meet. The Chinese, while the war was raging, were constantly testing India's defense preparedness by repeatedly crossing theLOC, and then withdrawing whenever they were challenged. This was to ensure that the Indians maintained forces in sufficient numbers against them and did not redeploy those forces to fight against the Pakistanis. Last October, there was a showdown between Indian and Chinese military forces in Arunachal. They came close to a major fight but they pulled back from the brink. So while publicly there isn't much talk about such incidents, forays across the LOC by the Chinese keep occurring at regular intervals. One could say that in the last couple of years Chinese military incursions have increased, compared to the first eight years of the 1990s. Why has this happened? One explanation could be that the Chinese are venting their anger at India's defiant nuclear weapons tests. Another is that relations between India and China have gone through a bad patch. Or maybe the Chinese are just trying to keep India on its toes. When President Jiang Zemin went on an overseas trip to Europe last year, and met one of the heads of state there, he said very uncomplimentary things about India, and I think taken together these show that China is still a very unfriendly neighbor. The proof of that is China's continuing nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan. That has been going on for quite some time now, and it's really aimed at helping Pakistan to take on India, and to keep India confined to the subcontinent.

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The story behind today's news from the editors of Asiaweek

From Our Correspondent
Personal perspectives on the news

TIME: You have traveled to China frequently and you interact with academicians and people from think tanks. Since the nuclear tests were conducted, have you spotted any signs of a shift in the Chinese perception of India? In other words, if the tests were meant to send a message to China, did the message reach its destination?
The initial reaction of the Chinese was stridently harsh, but once things cooled down and they realized what had happened could not be undone, they made the first move. The first batch of Chinese academics, who were basically officials in academic garb, came to New Delhi last year for a dialogue with us and then we went to Beijing last October. Compared with the talks we had before the tests, there has been a clear change in the Chinese approach in the talks we're having now; they are taking us more seriously. Secondly, they are seeking to address issues that they were earlier dismissing offhand. For example, when we would say that China's continuing nuclear missile assistance to Pakistan was a serious threat to India's security, and that this had to stop, they would not take us seriously at all. They would just say: "This is all false, we have given them no assistance whatsoever." Now they say: "What happened in the past is past. You should not worry too much about that; there were certain compulsions on the part of China to engage in special cooperation with Pakistan, but in the future China will be different." The message coming from them is that if we are willing to let bygones be bygones, the Chinese could change. So we've been asking them: "If we let bygones be bygones, when will this cooperation cease? When will we see the first results?" All they say is: "Give us some time." But that's the usual Chinese tactic--they've been saying that for the past 30-40 years. On the border issue, they say: "This is leftover from history. Patience is important, we need time to resolve it."

TIME: There is a perception now in Pakistan that the United States, in the aftermath of Bill Clinton's visit to the subcontinent, has abandoned its old friend in Islamabad. And that Pakistan is now isolated in the international arena. Does this open up the stage for China to play a greater role in subcontinental matters? Have you sensed a desire in China to do so?
Well America's policy shift, if it can be called a shift, certainly worries China no end. The last thing the Chinese want is a strategic partnership between India and the United States. We have noticed that the one issue that excites the Chinese the most is such a relationship. They are always very curious to know what's happening, because any kind of strategic partnership would bring about a fundamental change in geopolitics. Strategic cooperation with the U.S. might prompt Beijing to be more cautious in its open support for Pakistan. I expect that China, in the next couple of years, will publicly put on their best face towards India, but privately they will continue to aid and abet Pakistan. They will continue to arm Pakistan and continue to provide nuclear missile technology to the Pakistanis, but publicly they will not seek to do anything that could be construed as direct Chinese support to Pakistan.

TIME: So there is no question of India and China being friends?
I would be most surprised if India and China became real friends. There will always be an uneasiness between the two. In the best of times, there will be an uneasiness; in the worst of times, there could be competition and conflict. Conflict should of course be avoided and that can only happen if the competition remains healthy and does not spill into something nasty. But the disputes between India and China are more than territorial. There is a fundamental conflict of interest at work: these two large societies are competing for influence, in Asia and elsewhere. They are competing for foreign direct investment, for concessional loans from international financial institutions, for customers of their productsŠAnd this competition is going to pick up steam in the years to come. Whether this competition remains healthy or whether the competition actually triggers conflict of a serious kind is something that only time will tell.

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