A new book by John Andrews, ‘The World in Conflict’ examines flashpoints around the world. Some excerpts on India and China.
By JOHN ANDREWS
London, February 2016
Pakistani sentry guards a high altitude post near the inhospitable Siachen Glacier where India and Pakistan have clashed a few times.
THE area between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean – one conventional definition of Asia – is too vast for all-encompassing adjectives. Yet some generalisations are hard to dismiss: northeast Asia, with Russia (an Asian as well as a European power), China and North Korea all possessing nuclear arms, is a potential flashpoint with ominous repercussions for the whole world; south Asia is a perennial source of conflict, notably pitting nuclear-armed India (now almost as populous as China) against nuclear-armed Pakistan; Afghanistan and Pakistan are close to the status of failed states, constantly threatening to export Islamist terrorism to the rest of the world; and the states of Southeast Asia find themselves at odds with an increasingly muscle-flexing China in disputes over their maritime borders.
One comfort is that the present is far more benign than the past. Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s led to perhaps as many as 10-20 million Chinese deaths (Japanese troops in their rape of Nanking in 1937 killed some 300,000 Chinese and raped 80,000 women). The Korean war of 1950–53 – still technically unfinished – claimed the lives of at least 1.6 million civilians, along with 36,000 American troops and 600,000 Chinese troops (some estimates for these and other nations’ troops and civilians are much higher). The death toll in the Vietnam war, pitting the communist north against the US-supported south and involving neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, has been estimated at almost 3.5 million – including over 58,000 American servicemen – between 1969 and 1975.
Ironically, though, the cold war helped to foster the Islamist violence that has become such a feature in Asia in the 21st century. The religiously motivated and US-backed mujahideen, who in the 1980s fought to dislodge Soviet troops from Afghanistan, have evolved into an array of jihadist groups in central Asia
By contrast, the continuing conflict in Afghanistan has been far less bloody: from the US invasion of 2001 to the departure of American combat troops in 2014 perhaps 20,000 civilians had been killed and almost 3,500 American troops and their foreign allies had died. The civil war in Sri Lanka, as the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, to use their full title) sought independence for the north of the island, lasted from 1983 to 2009 – and was notable for the introduction by the Tamil Tigers of the suicide bomber as a weapon of war. Yet the death toll compared with the much shorter Korean war was low: some 27,639 Tamil fighters, 21,066 Sri Lankan government troops and 1,000 Sri Lankan police. Even though tens of thousands of civilians (mostly Tamil) were killed, especially in the final months of the war, the full total for the conflict is thought to be around 130,000 dead.
One explanation for this reduction in the harm that people do to one another is that wars between states have more or less disappeared (in the Afghanistan conflict the US-led coalition was assembled to overthrow a Taliban government but stayed in order to support its successors in their civil war with the Taliban). A second, related, explanation is the end of the cold war, during which the United States, China and the Soviet Union were committed to supporting their client states – hence the role of China and the Soviet Union in siding with the north in the Korean war and the role of the US in defending South Vietnam against the communist Viet Cong from North Vietnam.
Ironically, though, the cold war helped to foster the Islamist violence that has become such a feature in Asia in the 21st century. The religiously motivated and US-backed mujahideen, who in the 1980s fought to dislodge Soviet troops from Afghanistan, have evolved into an array of jihadist groups in central Asia. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) and other militant groups, including the Tajik Jamaat Ansarullah (Assembly of the Helpers of Allah), have more or less been silenced by the dictatorial regimes of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; now they mount their operations in perennially unstable Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir (ETIM has always seen its base as China’s Xinjiang province, which is East Turkestan in ETIM’s terminology and home to the region’s Uighur Muslim minority).
Given the enduring influence in the region of al-Qaeda (which has close links with IMU and possibly ETIM), and the attraction to young men of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (the Kyrgyz authorities said in 2014 that at least 50 Kyrgyz citizens were fighting for the self- proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State), violent jihadism will surely remain a leading source of conflict in Asia, from Kabul all the way to Beijing.
However, it would be naive to suppose that wars between Asia’s states will always be a matter for the history books. Economic power is often backed by military power and a willingness to use it. In 2015 China overtook the US as the world’s biggest economy on a purchasing-power-parity basis, and within a couple of decades will overtake it in military spending, too.
Meanwhile, other Asian nations are also increasing their defence budgets (by one calculation Asia-Pacific nations excluding China surpassed military spending by Europe in 2015). Fear of a hegemonic and aggressive China is the reason so many Asia-Pacific states, from Singapore and Indonesia to the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan, view their various alliances with the United States as a security guarantee – a guarantee made all the more necessary by the absence of regional defence alliances. For the moment, however, the conflicts that preoccupy Asia’s governments are mostly internally generated, whether by ideology, race, religion or all three.
CHINA: With a population of more than 1.3 billion the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the world’s most populous nation (although India will overtake it within the next two decades). On the basis of purchasing- power parity it also now boasts the world’s biggest economy. Put the two together, add some well-attested expertise in cyber-warfare (in 2014 the FBI accused China of cyber-attacks on American companies) and China is a power to be reckoned with.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes the navy and air force, has 2.3 million frontline personnel, with another 2.3 million in the active reserve of the armed forces and police; there are more than 9,000 tanks and around 900 fighter jets; and the navy, with more than 60 submarines, one aircraft carrier (with more to come) and around 70 destroyers and frigates, can deploy its might throughout the Pacific Ocean and beyond. When its status as a nuclear-weapons power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is also taken into account, China can clearly inspire the respect of all in the Asia-Pacific region and of Russia and the United States, both of which are keen to preserve their Pacific interests.
It also inspires a certain amount of fear among its lesser Pacific neighbours, even technologically advanced Japan. Competing territorial and maritime claims mean that China is in dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu or Diaoyutai, in Chinese); with Vietnam over the Paracel islands; with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal; and with Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei over the Spratly islands (where China, ratcheting up the tension, in early 2015 began “island building” by reclaiming land in defiance of protests by the US and its regional allies). To add still more complexity, the PRC’s claims are also made by Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China (ROC) and considers itself to be the legitimate government of all China.
China’s claims are not limited to the Pacific region. It has a long- standing dispute with India over the Aksai Chin border region in the Himalayas, claims most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and has an ill-defined (and therefore potentially contentious) border with Bhutan.
Against such a background, it is remarkable how seldom the PRC – founded in 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist legions expelled the US-backed Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek to exile in Taiwan – has resorted to military action.
In the Korean war of 1950–53 it intervened in support of communist North Korea, fighting South Korea and the US-led UN troops to a stalemate.
In 1959 Chinese troops were deployed to crush a rebellion in Tibet, which had declared its independence from China in 1913 but had been formally forced (“liberated” was the word used by Mao) into the PRC in 1950.
In 1962, following several border clashes with India following India’s reception of the Dalai Lama and his followers from Tibet, China sent troops to resolve its disputed mountain frontier with India around Kashmir. After a month of fighting along the Aksai Chin plateau in one of the world’s most inhospitable regions, China emerged with de facto control of Aksai Chin, leaving the rest of Kashmir divided between India and Pakistan.
The final full-scale exercise of Chinese military power in the 20th century was its invasion of Vietnam in February 1979. This was in retaliation for the occupation by Vietnam of neighbouring Cambodia in a successful bid to topple the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, an ally of China.
In March 1969, when tensions between China and the Soviet Union were at their highest, fighting broke out between the PLA and Soviet forces along the Ussuri river, marking the ill-defined border between the two countries. As the clashes continued into the summer, there seemed a real prospect of full-scale, even nuclear, war between communism’s two leading powers. Happily, in September 1969 high- level diplomacy was able to lower the temperature (though a full settlement of the Russia–China border was not reached until 2008).
The final full-scale exercise of Chinese military power in the 20th century was its invasion of Vietnam in February 1979. This was in retaliation for the occupation by Vietnam of neighbouring Cambodia in a successful bid to topple the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, an ally of China. The Chinese action was also motivated by anger at Vietnam’s mistreatment of its ethnic Chinese minority and by a desire to diminish the influence of the Soviet Union, an ally of Vietnam, as a rival power in the communist world.
In the event, though both sides claimed victory in the month-long war, it is clear that the PLA – only just emerging from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution – had suffered relative humiliation at the hands of the battle-hardened Vietnamese. Border skirmishes with Vietnam continued through the 1980s, ending only with Vietnam’s 1989 withdrawal from Cambodia, but it was not until 2009 that the dispute over the Sino–Vietnam land border was eventually settled.
At least according to China’s own rhetoric, even as its military might grows its neighbours will have nothing to fear. In 2014 President Xi Jinping pledged to settle China’s territorial disputes peacefully:
China stays committed to seeking peaceful settlement of disputes with other countries over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.
Xi’s words confirm China’s long-standing view that no country should interfere in another’s internal affairs. This stance conveniently ignores China’s willingness to employ its economic power, whether through politically influential investments in Africa or through its creation in October 2014 of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), an obvious competitor to the US-dominated World Bank. The stance also allows it to stay aloof from conflicts in the Middle East while attacking any outsider who dares to criticise the abuse of human rights within China – or, indeed, any action by Chinese citizens against the state. The most famous recent example of dissent in China was the student-led occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in April 1989, culminating in the brutal clearing of the demonstrators by the PLA on June 4th with a death toll estimated to range from 200 to more than 2,000.
In contrast to the peaceful tactics of the Tiananmen students, China’s Muslim Uighur minority have a proven willingness to use violence to secure their goal of independence for the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the far northwest of the country. Though China recognises some 56 distinct ethnic groups, more than 90 percent of the population is Han Chinese; and the Han are the majority everywhere except in Tibet and Xinjiang, which is home to some 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic people present also in neighbouring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Xinjiang has been fought over by rival powers, notably the Mongols and the Chinese, for millennia, and part of it enjoyed a brief independence from China from 1944 to 1949 as the Soviet-backed East Turkestan Republic. The Uighur cause was cynically exploited by the Soviet Union after the so-called Sino–Soviet split in 1960, an ideological schism finally healed in 1989 with Mikhael Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing (where his policy of openness was applauded by the Tiananmen students). Soviet support included funding for the East Turkestan People’s Revolutionary Party (ETPRF) and the United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (URFET). When Soviet troops in 1979 invaded Afghanistan, China felt it was being squeezed by Soviet power – hence its decision, in company with the United States, to support the Afghan mujahideen.
The geopolitical calculations have long since changed, with the China of Xi Jinping increasingly comfortable with the Russia of Vladimir Putin. What has not changed is the opposition to the Chinese state of the Uighurs, who often use tactics of terrorism to strike beyond Xinjiang. In 1997, for example, the Turkey-based Organisation for Turkestan Freedom claimed responsibility for the bombing of a bus in Beijing, injuring some 30 people. Five years earlier, the East Turkestan Islamic Party was said to be responsible for two bus bombs in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, that killed at least three and injured 23. Most active has been the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), responsible, for example, for a 2008 operation in which ETIM militants drove a truck into a column of jogging policemen in Kashgar, killing at least 16.
One worry for the Chinese government is that Uighur militants will inspire similar actions by Tibetan militants (in 2002 two Tibetans were accused of setting off a bomb in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, causing several casualties). A greater worry, perhaps, is that the Uighur dissidents – some of whom have trained in Afghanistan and may have forged links there with al-Qaeda – will refine their tactics to create more havoc (at least two aircraft hijackings have been foiled). With deliberate symbolism, in October 2013 three ETIM militants in an apparent suicide attack drove a car into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, near the portrait of Mao Zedong, killing themselves and two tourists and injuring some 38 others. Clearly, Uighur dissent, fuelled by growing Islamic extremism, is not about to be defeated.
INDIA: With almost 1.3 billion people the Republic of India can justly claim to be the world’s largest democracy, and – in sharp contrast to the military dictatorships so common in neighbouring Pakistan after the bloody partition of British India in 1947 – it can also boast that it has always been ruled by civilian politicians.
That should not imply a tradition of pacifism, despite the tactics of non-violence famously used by Mahatma Gandhi to wrest India’s freedom from the UK. Independent India has so far fought three wars with Pakistan and one with China. As far back as 1974 India conducted an underground nuclear-weapons test, and then more nuclear tests in 1998 (prompting Pakistan to develop its own nuclear capability). Today India probably has more than 90 nuclear warheads, and Pakistan 100 or so. Doomsayers worry that although neither country has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, at least India has a no-first-use policy whereas Pakistan does not.
From Pakistan’s point of view this is logical enough, since India is by far the stronger nation in conventional military terms. With 1.3 million active frontline personnel, India’s armed forces are double Pakistan’s, as is the number of its combat aircraft and submarines. In the years 2007–14 India was the world’s biggest arms importer, and by 2020 it will probably have the world’s fourth-biggest defence budget, overtaking Japan, France and the UK. In the modern version of “the Great Game”, India feels a need to counter not just Pakistan but also a nuclear-armed China that is sending its navy into the Indian Ocean and developing facilities for its ships in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar – a “string of pearls” in a metaphor first used by the US defence department and then adopted by the Indian press. Furthermore, with the Soviet Union, traditionally an ally of India, now gone, the balance of power in Afghanistan has shifted to Pakistan’s advantage rather than India’s.
To many outsiders the perennial tensions in the Indian subcontinent appear absurd. After all, though Pakistan separated from India in order to be a majority Muslim state, India has more than 100 million Muslim citizens and both countries share the same history of British India (and, of course, the same passion for cricket). The cause of their mutual hostility is the status of Kashmir, a Muslim- majority state in British India whose Hindu maharajah, Hari Singh, dithered about whether it should join India or Pakistan on partition in August 1947. This led to an invasion by Muslim Pashtun tribesmen from newly created Pakistan in October 1947, which in turn led to the maharajah calling on Indian troops for help.
The result was the first Indo-Pakistan war. After some 14 months and a death toll of perhaps 1,500 on each side (estimates vary considerably), Pakistan occupied the northern third of the state, naming it Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir), and India incorporated the rest of the state (comprising the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, the Hindu-dominated Jammu at the south of the valley and Buddhist Ladakh in the east) into the Indian Federation, naming it Jammu and Kashmir. Ever since, troops from both countries have eyed each other – and frequently confronted each other – across the “line of control”, with Pakistan governing around 4.5 million Kashmiris in Azad Kashmir and India counting 10 million inhabitants of Jammu and Kashmir as Indian citizens.
The second Indo-Pakistan war, in 1965, occurred when Pakistan sent troops in disguise into Jammu and Kashmir in the hope of provoking a general Kashmiri uprising against India. After six weeks of fighting, the two sides withdrew to their previous positions under a ceasefire negotiated by the Soviet Union, each claiming to have won (India more convincingly than Pakistan).
The confrontations with Pakistan in the 1960s were not the only military challenge for India. In 1962 it proved to be the weaker adversary when China’s People’s Liberation Army attacked along the disputed Sino-Indian border, gaining control of the Aksai Chin plateau in a month-long war that left hundreds dead on both sides – often because of the extreme cold in battles that took place 4,000 metres above sea level.
One fundamental cause of the Sino–Indian war was sloppy work by British colonial cartographers in defining the border in the 19th century. More proximate causes were China’s anger at the sanctuary given in India to Tibet’s Dalai Lama; Indian anger at China’s claim to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (South Tibet in some Chinese formulations); and the impact of the cold war, with China, following its ideological split in 1960 with the Soviet Union, keen to rebuff any territorial claims by pro-Soviet India.
Though the border issues between India and China remain unresolved, tensions have relaxed to such an extent that since 2007 the two nations have held several joint military exercises, concentrating on counter-terrorism programmes.
Even more worrying is the apparent willingness of Pakistan (or certainly its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI) to condone terror attacks from Pakistan on targets in India. One such was the assault in December 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi... the worst such attack, however, was the 2008 assault by Pakistani members of the LeT on Mumbai
The same relaxation cannot be claimed for India’s relationship with Pakistan, despite the occasional diplomatic overture by one side or the other. The third Indo–Pakistan war, which for once had nothing to do with Kashmir, broke out in 1971 when India sided with the Bengalis of East Pakistan in their war of liberation to create the new country of Bangladesh. The East Pakistanis had announced their secession in March, provoking brutal retaliation by the authorities in West Pakistan.
Fearing that India would become involved, Pakistan launched pre-emptive air strikes in December on targets in northwest India, including Agra (the home of a quickly camouflaged Taj Mahal). This was a huge mistake: India reacted with its own air strikes on both parts of Pakistan and sent its troops to support the Bengalis. After just 13 days Pakistan surrendered. The eastern half of the country was now Bangladesh and more than 90,000 Pakistani troops were prisoners of war in India.
In retrospect, a bifurcated Pakistan united only by Islam was never likely to last, given the ethnic and cultural differences between West and East Pakistan. By contrast, resolving the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir too often seems a permanent impossibility. In 1999 the two countries clashed in the so-called Kargil war – a three- month conflict beginning in the Kargil district of Kashmir that could reasonably be called a fourth Indo–Pakistan war.
The cause of the war, according to India, was the infiltration of Pakistani troops and Kashmiri militants across the line of control (Pakistan claimed that the combatants were all Kashmiri freedom fighters seeking to liberate Kashmir from Indian control). The consequences were Indian air strikes, relentless artillery exchanges, hundreds killed on both sides and waves of refugees. A ceasefire and the withdrawal of Pakistani troops were eventually agreed as a result of US pressure on the Pakistani government and military high command. Given that in the previous year Pakistan had conducted its first nuclear test (24 years after India’s), this was surely just as well: the Kargil war remains the only conflict fought between two nuclear powers using just conventional weapons.
In theory, the conflict over Kashmir should be conducted by diplomatic means following a ceasefire agreement signed by India and Pakistan in 2003. In practice, the ceasefire has been flouted on an almost routine basis. For example, India accused Pakistan of more than 550 violations in 2014, leading to deaths on both sides.
Even more worrying, perhaps, is the apparent willingness of Pakistan (or certainly its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI) to condone terror attacks from Pakistan on targets in India. One such was the assault in December 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi by militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, or Army of the Pure) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM, or Army of Muhammad), Islamist groups dedicated to ending India’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir. The attack killed 14, including five militants, and led to the official banning of the groups in Pakistan the following year (India says they nonetheless have the continued protection of the ISI). Another attack, blamed on the LeT, was the explosion of twin car bombs in Mumbai in 2003, apparently in revenge for the killing in Gujarat the previous year of hundreds of Muslims by Hindu rioters. More than 50 people were killed and almost 250 injured.
By far the worst such attack, however, was the 2008 assault by Pakistani members of the LeT on India’s financial centre, Mumbai. Coordinated attacks struck a dozen targets, most notably the Taj Hotel. In a four-day battle with Indian security forces some 166 people, including ten LeT militants, died and more than 600 were wounded. The surviving attacker (later executed) confessed to his interrogators that the ISI had supported the assault, the most deadly in Mumbai since 13 car bombs (allegedly also involving the ISI) in 1993 claimed at least 250 lives and injured more than 700.
One extremist Muslim group, the Indian Mujahideen (IM), has ambitions that go far beyond Kashmir. Its stated goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate in south Asia and punish India for its alleged oppression of Muslims. The Indian authorities argue that the group is a front for the LeT. The US State Department, which added the group to its list of foreign terrorist organisations in 2011, agrees that the IM “has significant links to Pakistan-based terrorist organisations”.
Whatever the strength of those links, it is clear, the State Department concludes, that the IM, with several hundred militants, “has been responsible for dozens of bomb attacks throughout India since 2005, and has caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians”.
The IM is by no means the only group in armed conflict with the Indian government. Around 200 of the country’s 626 districts are prone to attacks by insurgent groups, most notably the Naxalites. These are fighters from the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and other communist parties, who take their name from Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal. Beginning their operations in the 1960s, the Naxalites have long since spread their revolt throughout east and central India and even down to the far south. Their strength, which ultimately derives from the grievances felt by the impoverished tribal inhabitants of states such as Chhattisgarh, is estimated as high as 40,000 fighters. Of the 400 or so deaths from terrorism in India in 2013, around half were attributed to the Naxalites, making them the country’s greatest threat to internal security in the eyes of the Indian authorities.
The Naxalites are not the only rebels originating in northeast India. The so-called “seven sisters” – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur – are connected to the rest of the country only by the Siliguri corridor, a strip of land as narrow as 14 miles (23 kilometres). Their sense of isolation, coupled with the large numbers of tribal peoples outside the caste system, has for decades fostered a secessionist spirit. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), for example, has been seeking independence for Assam through armed struggle since 1979; the Naga Federal Army, allegedly having benefited from training in China, has been active for half a century; and Manipur is host to four insurgent groups. There are even demands for entirely new states: in Assam, for instance, the mainly Muslim ULFA clashes with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which was formed in 1998 and wants to carve out a distinct state for the aboriginal Bodo people.
Whether the Indian authorities employ the right tactics against threats to the country’s internal security is a matter of constant debate. There are far too many religiously motivated riots that occur despite the security forces: for example, the 2002 riots in Gujarat in which, according to the government, at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, though others claim 2,000 Muslims died.
There is, too, the latent demand for Khalistan, a separate homeland for India’s Sikhs (the army’s bloody removal of Sikh separatists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984 led to the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards). And military operations in the northeast have singularly failed to end the multiple insurgencies there.Yet despite all this, India’s messy democracy continues to command the loyalty of the great mass of the population. Even in the northeast, popular protests took place in December 2014 denouncing the NDFB for co-ordinated attacks that killed 76 tea-plantation workers, Hindus and Christians from the Adivasi tribe. Over time, the hope is that economic growth will reduce the incentives for violence and so disarm the insurgents. But before that happy day the best remedy for the problems associated with Kashmir would be a genuine reconciliation between India and Pakistan.
John Andrews, a former Asia editor of The Economist, began his career as a journalist in the Middle East with NBC News, before enjoying foreign postings for The Economist in Europe, Asia and the United States. He spent four years as The Economist’s bureau chief in Hong Kong in a period that encompassed the Vietnamese boat people and the tragic events of Tiananmen Square. His first book, in the early 1990s, was The Asian Challenge. In recent years he has produced The Economist Book of Isms and is the co-editor of Megachange: the world in 2050. His new book is The World in Conflict: understanding the world’s troublespots. He now divides his time between the UK and Provence.
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