Thursday, June 18, 2009


Forget the threat from the Taliban or Pakistan. The real threat upon India is not from the West. It is from the forgotten, far away East. The Chinese have just signed a deal that will complete the encirclement of India on land and sea from all sides. The Chinese Army will soon be within breathing distance from India's border with no Himalayas to stop its march into India whenever China wants, as one day it certainly will, to bag claimed Arunachal Pradesh.

The latest development, facilitated by decades of neglect of Myanmar by India, may well prove to be an even more colossal a blunder than was the "gifting" of Tibet to China by Nehru in the fifties. At that time, in one fatal stroke, Nehru blindly converted India's buffer against China into that nation's buffer against India, without securing India's interest in any manner whatsoever. That enabled China to move its troops forward by more than a couple of thousand kilometers to sit right on India's head and inflict on it, in 1962, a humiliating defeat, a rout so complete that any self-respecting nation would have vowed never to forget and allow to happen to it again. Not India, which, instead of learning any lessons, chose to simply bury its head in the sand and pretend as if China did not exist.

The Chinese have just signed an agreement with Myanmar's military junta to build an 1100 km long oil and gas pipeline from Kyaukryu on the West coast of Myanmar to Ruili in the Yunan province of China. Construction will start as early as September this year. The pipeline will transport 20 million tons of crude coming from the Middle East and Africa annually to China. The gas pipeline, which will be further extended by another 1700 kms within China, will transport 12 billion cubic meters of gas annually, to be increased to 100 billion cubic meters in a few years. Compare this with the 29.2 billion cubic meters that will flow eventually from the KG basin gas wells of Reliance Industries and you will get an idea of the enormity of the deal. There is also talk that later more oil, not just for China but for Korea and Japan too, could flow through this pipeline. This agreement comes on the heels of China beating India to win a 30 year concession from the military junta besides launching construction of hydroelectric projects in that country.

For long, as India has known too well, China has been eyeing a shorter trade route to Europe via Myanmar because not only will it reduce the transportation route by over 1200 km and cut shipping time to Europe by over a week, it will also enable it to avoid the pirate infested and strategically significant Malacca Straits. The signing of this pipeline agreement is only going to accelerate development of this trade route.

China's National Road 320 presently ends at the border town of Ruili. The construction of the pipeline to that town will certainly be followed by a road from there to a sea port on the Myanmar coast. Once the railway line between Kunming and Mangshi is also ready, Myanmar railway, which ends at Lashio, will be only 143 kms away from China. It will then be only be a matter of time before the two networks are linked, enabling Chinese freight to be carried right up to and from a Myanmar port to China without any transhipment. Myanmar has also proposed a tri-nation road network between China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, which China is much interested in setting up.

The security and strategic implications posed by these developments for India are so grave that it is a wonder that there has been virtually no national debate and no media interest. The focus of the nation has not been allowed to move beyond the Tailban and Pakistan, both of which pose not even a fraction of the danger that these developments will in the next few years. If things move at the speed Chinese have shown recently, within a decade or so, a large percentage of Chinese freight traffic from other ports further east will get diverted to least two Myanmar ports that will then perhaps handle more Chinese freight than any other port. This freight will move to China through the entire length of Myanmar by road and rail. More oil and gas will also start flowing along the pipeline.

With so much of its economic activity becoming dependent on Myanmar, China will get the perfect excuse to expand its military presence in and around that country. That will, first of all, lead to deployment of Chinese Navy in considerable strength in the Bay of Bengal, within handshaking distance of the Andaman Islands and a little more than shout away from the West Bengal coast. Let no one be in any doubt that it is only a question of time before China gets Myanmar to give it a permanent Naval base on its soil. On land too, the Chinese will get proactively involved in protecting the pipeline and the rail and road traffic, necessitating the stationing of at least some military personnel in Myanmar.

In any case, thanks to these excellent lines of communication, the Chinese Army, known as the People's Liberation Army (PLA), will be in a position to roll straight into the Brahmaputra Valley through Myanmar, bypassing the harsh and high Himalayas completely. Winter will cease to India's friend against China, forcing it to physically deploy a large number of troops in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram to meet this new threat. What the Chinese might do to inflame insurgency at that stage or get into some sort of a military pact with Bangladesh is anybody's guess. One thing is sure: they will do whatever it takes to hem India militarily and make it easy for China to simply lop the North East off.

It is not an accident that China has supported the military junta since it came to power 21 years ago and vetoed all Security Council resolutions against it. It foresaw long back that it needed Myanmar in its national interest and stuck to the task of securing that without wavering. India, on the other hand, has remained completely confused, as always. It has been gripped and weakened even more by vague but "supreme" moral pangs that have caused it to place democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi above all else. That is why, it has done nothing except resorting to a weak "engagement" with the junta that has got it nothing and has allowed Myanmar to fall right into the lap of a Dragon that is fully alive to its strategic interests that dictate that it should build and display its military might in the region.

The Chinese may have given up Mao's disastrous economic and social policies but they have not for a moment forgotten his immortal quote: power grows through the barrel of a gun. India, on the other hand, despite having foolishly placed itself at the business end of that barrel once, still hates power as being something "immoral". As a result, over the last 47 years, as China has grown stronger, India has meekly allowed itself to grow comparatively weaker.

This had to happen and will continue to unless India completely overhauls, professionalises and contemporises its national security set up which has been hijacked by selfish and greedy generalist career bureaucrats who advise politicians who themselves have not even a clue of this complex subject. They have proved time and again over the last 62 years that they are no more than ham-handed amateur middle-men who are more interested in asserting their "superiority" over the military - usurped deviously after the British left, thanks to ignorant politicians - than letting accountable professionals and political leaders respond with alacrity to meet the nation's security needs.

Myanmar never wanted to go into the arms of China; it was always wary of the dragon. It wanted India to be its partner. But India, as one Myanmar leaders said, did nothing and just "sold" it to China. The same India that has been embracing a series of military dictators in Pakistan because its national interest demanded it, found it very difficult to apply the principle to Myanmar, ostensibly because of democracy. More disturbingly, however, it seems that it is the obsession of India's career diplomats with the West and its glamour, coupled with their continuing strategic blindness, that has ensured that India's far away East has always remained neglected. The mindset that led Nehru to quickly bid goodbye to the people of the region from India when Chinese troops reached the outskirts of Tezpur in 1962, remains essentially unaltered.

That is why, while China is securing deal after deal in Myanmar and making the country increasingly dependent on it, India which had a large number of Indians living and working in Myanmar till the fifties, initially only helplessly watched them being thrown out, and has since done the same as China has shown increasing interest in that country. As a result, focused and result oriented Chinese government officials working with a clear strategic vision, have beaten India comprehensively to acquire not just a foothold but what is going to turn out to be near complete control over Myanmar.

See the irony? China is going to start building pipelines, highways and railways through the length of Myanmar soon. India, on the other hand, has not yet been able to finalise a contract for a gas pipeline from there either overland through Bangladesh/Assam or across the Bay of Bengal. Now that the Chinese have beaten them to the contract, they will undoubtedly buy up any spare gas that Myanmar might think of selling to India, killing India's project completely. While the Chinese have been making inroad after inroad into Myanmar, some Indians led by former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, once a career diplomat, have been pushing for a gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India, despite the fact that it will prove to be a huge security disaster. Criminal neglect of the East by India continues.

The British had envisaged Tibet as India's buffer to the North. In the East, that role was to be played by Myanmar (then called Burma). In the fifties, India lost Tibet to China. Almost half a century later, the same script is being written in Myanmar. India's obsession with a much smaller country, Pakistan, its puppy love for all things Western and its inward looking mindset that has cost it heavily all through history have led it to lose Myanmar too to the Chinese. India's encirclement is now complete.

The price for this inexplicable and absolutely inexcusable strategic blunder is going to cost India so heavily that 1962 will pale into into insignificance. India's failure to prevent Myanmar from going into the Dragon's mouth will ensure that Bangladesh will also follow suit soon, and very willingly. Even the thought of what the situation will be 20 years hence is disturbing.

Will India's leaders and their generalist, colonial henchmen learn any lesson and do what it will take to keep India secure, no matter what the cost of this near-Himalayan blunder? A leadership and bureaucracy that have not got for India new artillery guns for over 25 years and that routinely take decades to provide weaponry required to meet even huge existing shortages, can hardly be expected to start being visionary, proactive and quick in decision making. Thanks to them, India, now surrounded by hostile powers from all sides, is more vulnerable than it ever has been since Independence. And the way things are, the situation is only going to get worse.
Readers may also like to read:
1. Facing the challenge of China's military modernisation
2. China and India:winning wars vs defending the country
3. India's 'Power': weakness=virtue, strength=immorality
4. China and India: bully and forever bullied
5. Democracy, morality and national interest