Shaun Randol: Nukes in the Himalayas

By Shaun Randol

The past two months have seen some interesting developments in Sino-Indian relations. Immediately after India’s official entrance into the group of nuclear states sent shudders through the nonproliferation community worldwide, the latest round of discussions between the Asian giants came and went with little fanfare. Taken together, these developments further confound rather than illuminate understanding of the lurching relationship between the world’s two most populous states.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress approved a deal that allows American companies (like General Electric and Westinghouse) to sell India atomic fuel and nuclear technology. A month before Congress made the deal official, member states of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) had waived the usual restrictions to entry into the elite club, warmly welcoming India as the newest nation to openly possess nuclear weapons; this despite the fact that India is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The move landed with a whimper in the U.S. media, but has made a huge splash in Indian news, where the event was largely celebrated as something of a coming out party—India, no longer the shy debutante. Others took notice too: companies in Canada, France, and Russia are salivating at the opportunity to sell nuclear-related material to India, a country once denied such privileges.

Many in the NPT crowd are worried about the implications of this NSG deal. Adam B. Kushner of Newsweek warns that the NSG agreement may spark a nuclear arms race with the likes of Pakistan and Iran. Likewise, Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association says the move blows “a huge loophole in the global non-proliferation system that’s going to make it harder to persuade the Irans and the North Koreas—an already difficult task—to abide by their obligations; and it’s going to make it more difficult to strengthen this global non-proliferation effort which is already fraying at the seams.” But both analysts largely overlook the serious implications with regard to China.

After all, it was China who threatened to sink the deal. At one point, Beijing was said to have walked out of the NSG negotiations after demands (alongside Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand) that the waiver be rescinded should India detonate another nuclear device met stiff resistance. In the end, however, China relented (the NSG must agree unanimously on any decision), agreeing to allow the deal to progress so long as India promises to uphold the ideals of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Beijing views these developments as a Washington-New Delhi counterweight to the rise of China. “With India entering the NSG, a new strategic equation has been introduced into Asia, and this clearly has caused disquiet to China,” claims C.U. Bhaskar, former head of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (New Delhi). As such, China may use the U.S. brokered deal to leverage a similar bilateral deal with, say, Pakistan—a move that would require two hands and two feet to count the unsettling potential global implications.

No doubt, the latest nuclear deal inked between the United States and India has something to do with Beijing’s hesitancy to resolve the outstanding border issue. There were no major breakthroughs in September’s twelfth round of talks, discussions that came quickly on the heels of the NSG deal. The 42-year-old border dispute is no closer to being resolved than it was in 2003 when talks resumed in earnest.

In 1962, India and China skirmished in the heights of the Himalayas. When the shooting stopped, India troops parked in what is now Arunachal Pradesh, an area the size of South Carolina bordering Bhutan, Tibet, and Burma. China laid claim to a chunk of Indian land (Aksai Chin) less than half that size to the west, touching Pakistan’s border at the Karakorum Pass. Despite having reached a consensus in 2005 to solve the matter from a “political perspective,” having formed 14 working groups, and conducted 25 years of discussions, little has changed. The Chinese claim much of Arunachal Pradesh belongs to them, while New Delhi claims China’s possessions. The idea of solidifying the status quo, where New Delhi recognizes China’s sovereignty over Aksai Chin and Beijing does the same for India regarding Arunachal Pradesh, has been around since the 1950s. Alas, the area of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh seems to be the sticking point: Tawang has a substantial settled Indian population with representation in New Delhi. At the same time, Tawang is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, making it an attractive keepsake for China. Neither party appears to be budging.

Does it matter that the issue remains unresolved? The border dispute is by no means a precondition for furthering the Sino-Indian relationship by other means. After all, besides coming to terms with the NSG, India and China are actively increasing bilateral trade ($60 billion by 2010; $100 billion by 2013), high-level diplomatic exchanges, science and technology transfers, student and cultural interactions (2006 was “China-India Friendship Year”), tourism (2007 was the “China-India Friendship Year through Tourism”), and joint military exercises. They are even cooperating in efforts in the mad grab for energy resources in Central Asia and Africa.

Which begs the question: if India and China can come to terms on arguably one of the world’s most divisive political issues (access to nuclear technology), and can cooperate in the search for earth’s most precious natural resource (oil), why can’t the relatively small matter of a border dispute in rugged Himalayan territory be put to rest?

China’s foreign policy mantra of a “peaceful rise” shows no intention of hampering India’s own ascent. Relations between these two Asian giants may not entirely hinge on the resolution of this border dispute, but how can they rise in concert when the tug of war constantly opens old wounds? Indeed, it seems the only thing experts can agree on is the frustrating complexity of the situation. Sun Shihai, an expert on Sino-Indian affairs with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says, in China’s usual perfunctory matter, “The issue is a long-term and complicated one, and cannot be resolved overnight.” Writing for Asia Times, journalist Pallavi Aiyar was more poetic, noting that the latest round of negotiations took place “against a geopolitical tapestry of burgeoning complexity.”

The next round of border talks is scheduled to take place in India. The meetings may now take on a different tone, as it will be a discussion between two officially recognized nuclear powers. If it wasn’t for China’s acquiescence in the NSG talks, India might not be enjoying its elevated status. It appears, then, that the ball is in India’s court to return the favor. But don’t expect a game-changer.

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Shaun Randol, a former intern at the World Policy Institute, is an independent research consultant and a research assistant at the India-China Institute at the New School.

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