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India-China Ties Just Got Chillier

The cancelation of the latest talks over their disputed border, allegedly due to Chinese pressure on India over the Dalai Lama, is likely to stoke growing tensions.

By Nitin Gokhale for

Clear signs of an approaching chill in India-China relations had been evident for the past couple of months. But the final confirmation that it may have arrived came Friday, when the two sides called off a crucial round of talks on their complicated boundary dispute, just two days before they were to begin in New Delhi.

Although officially both sides maintained that scheduling issues were to blame for the postponement of talks, sources in the Indian establishment said last minute and “unacceptable” demands by Beijing forced New Delhi to call off this round of negotiations.

Both sides have tried to play down the abrupt postponement.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said: “We are looking forward to the 15th round of special representative talks in the near future, and the two sides remain in touch to find convenient dates for the meeting.”

In Beijing, too, the China’s Foreign Ministry maintained a similar line. Spokesperson Liu Weimin said: “Currently the two sides are still in touch with the specific arrangements, including the date of the meeting. I don’t have information at this stage.”

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The countries’ two special representatives, India’s National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, were supposed to oversee the finalization of the “Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs” resolving disputes in certain pockets on the 4,000 kilometer-plus line of actual control (LAC). The stalled defense dialogue was also expected to restart in the aftermath of the New Delhi meeting.

But it has emerged that one of the key reasons that India has walked away from the talks is that Beijing asked India to prevent the Dalai Lama from speaking at a Global Buddhist Congregation starting in New Delhi on November 27. When India refused, China reportedly demanded cancellation of the conference itself, which India refused outright to do, arguing that it was a religious meet and not a political one.

Analysts in India also feel Beijing has raised the pitch in the wake of a tense East Asia Summit in Bali last week when most ASEAN nations, India and the United States asserted their right for a multi-lateral solution to disputes in the region, including those in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Beijing’s increasing presence in Pakistan-held Kashmir – something that India has objected vigorously to in recent months—is another wrinkle in the already complex relationship.

Belligerent statements in China’s state-run media have, in India’s view, only added to the tension.

“India jitters at the sight of China gaining prestige in Asia, in particular, in South Asia and Southeast Asia, and takes China's ever-growing regional influence in recent years as a strategic encirclement to target and contain India,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on its website earlier this week. Referring to India’s “Look East” policy of consolidating its ties with Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Japan, the commentary said New Delhi is trying to “instigate” China's neighbors to contain its influence. 

But Chinese media is also frustrated at an Indian plan to raise a Mountain Strike Corps (that includes more than 100,000 soldiers) along their border. According to the People’s Daily, the “action is completely not worthwhile. Currently, India has 40,000 troops in the disputed area, and if the further 100,000 is deployed, the total number of the troops will reach 140,000. In an era when precision-guided weapons are developing rapidly, everyone with common sense knows that concentrated troops could be eliminated easily.”

Influential Indian analyst Jayadeva Ranade, a former top official in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, notes: “Interestingly, Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (the China Youth Daily), the Chinese Communist Youth League's official newspaper, first published the article that was later reproduced in the People’s Daily.” According to Ranade, Communist Youth League First Secretary Lu Hao, author of the original article, is reputedly on a fast-track up the ranks of the ruling Communist Party. 

“China's military literature confirms that China intends any future conflict to be of short duration. China’s armed forces will open future conflicts with massive offensive cyber and electronic-jamming operations to cripple the adversary's infrastructure, equipment and command systems,” Ranade wrote in an opinion piece published by DNA. “This will be followed by precision missile attacks to overwhelm the military and political leaderships’ resolve. Ground-based attacks will follow.”

“The latest People’s Daily article underscores this. Recent articles in China’s official media have additionally publicized major military exercises conducted by the People’s Liberation Army in the remote vastness of the Tibetan Plateau opposite India.”

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India’s recent forays into Southeast and East Asia, including a resources exploration deal with Vietnam,  haven’t gone down well with Beijing, and have further added to the growing chill in a relationship that appears headed for a period of significant strain if not outright hostility in the coming months. 

Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7