Looking from India at the Spy Plane

Ninan Koshy


It’s difficult for the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi to see the events related to the U.S. spy plane incident in proper perspective. India’s declared perception of China as a potential enemy and its self-delusion of having got a seat (with nuclear arms) at the high table of great powers distorts its international vision. This incident came at a time of rising indications of an Indian tilt toward the U.S. (even if not always from the U.S. toward India) and a growing subservience of India’s foreign policy to warped notions of national security.

The negotiations between the Chinese and the Americans ended with vague commitments to keep talking, but not much else. While China continued to resist U.S. demands for the return of the damaged U.S. surveillance plane held at a military base on Hainan island, Washington showed no willingness to accommodate Beijing’s call for an end to U.S. reconnaissance flights along the Chinese coast. The sharp differences about what exactly happened plagued the negotiations.

Competitors, Adversaries, Partners

Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. government perceives China now more as a strategic competitor than as a strategic partner. India continues to view China as a strategic adversary. This perspective explains why India is keenly interested in knowing about increased threats from China on all fronts, especially on the naval front. There may be some mandarins in New Delhi who hope that the U.S. may share some intelligence on China with India.

There was a time when India might have supported, if not applauded, China in the stand-off against America. In a way, China was using the incident to question the balance of power, hoping such a challenge to American military omnipotence would be beneficial. That was an expression of a desire for multipolarity. Traditionally, India was against superpower muscle flexing in the region. Today it does not feel it useful or tactical to support the Chinese position or to criticize Washington.

There has been little international reaction to the developments. The European powers appeared to be relieved as soon as the crew of the spy plane was released. While Japan appeared to be concerned, it was careful not to appear to be wholly on the U.S. side. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made a chivalrous offer to mediate, but he–like others–knew that it was more a gesture than a useful service.

Naval Competition

India is naturally keen to know what in particular the U.S. spy plane was looking for. Even if the spy plane’s mission was routine, there have been indications that the U.S. has been hunting for evidence of new and dramatic advances in Chinese submarine technology. Any major breakthrough in this area would be a challenge to the United States. It would also be a matter of grave concern to India, whose submarine technology has assumed greater significance now that it has become a nuclear state. The necessity of second-strike capability via nuclear submarine to gain the required deterrence value becomes vital. This is a field of direct and dramatic competition between India and China. New technology would also enable China to break out of its largely defensive naval posture.

Ironically, with successful reverse engineering, the very aircraft that the U.S. was using to find out about China’s naval capability could provide China with valuable information to advance its naval capabilities. India realizes that such an advancement would put China ahead in the competition to develop a high-tech naval force. Under these new circumstances, the U.S. itself will have to improve or change its technology to maintain its lead.

In the years to come, the competition between India and China will be fiercest in their naval forces. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the focus of China’s military modernization program. Though still far below the capability of the U.S. Navy, even that of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, China is making steady progress in building a fleet capable of operating far from Chinese territory and thereby posing a challenge to other regional forces. The United States gives special attention to China’s naval capabilities as well as its naval strategic doctrine since they have a direct bearing on Taiwan. The PLA Navy was given “three major directions” in 1995: 1) place naval building in an important position and accelerate the pace of naval modernization, 2) ensure the security of China’s coastal defense, and 3) promote the great cause of the unification of the motherland.

Chinese plans to extend its influence into the Indian Ocean region directly affect India. Chinese submarines equipped with cruise missiles in Indian Ocean waters would be an additional problem for India. This, of course, is not the only Chinese aim. China feels a need to break out of the steel ring erected by the U.S. and its allies around the Chinese seas. By entering into the Indian Ocean (possibly with the help of the Myanmarese), the Chinese navy would be seeking to exert its influence at the straits of Malacca. India already sees a potential security threat there.

The new developments in U.S.-China relations have taken place at a time when China appears to be feeling uneasy about the apparent emergence of a new strategic triangular relationship among India, the U.S., and Japan that is intended to strategically contain China. In February 2001, an Indian news agency reported from Beijing that the official Chinese stand is that the development of India’s relations with the U.S. and other countries is a matter between the countries themselves. At the same time, however, Chinese officials are anxious to know what is happening behind the scenes –especially since the new U.S. president seems to have taken a tougher stand against China on such sensitive questions as human rights abuses.

On human rights, China can take consolation from the fact that India opposed the U.S. move to censure China at the recent meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. This, however, is just the standard practice of India at the Commission–generally to oppose action against any country on human rights violations, lest at some point India itself may be on the docket. An article in the Beijing Review earlier this year pointed out that former U.S. President Bill Clinton “adjusted” Washington’s policy toward India to “make use of that country to guard against China.” When looking at South Asia, the Chinese believe that the U.S. policy of befriending India at the expense of Pakistan has a very clear aim: targeting the focus of its South Asia policy at China. China has noticed the shift in India’s nuclear doctrine from “regional limited deterrent” to that of “regional overall deterrent.” A leading pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper, commenting on India’s expansion of its naval might and show of strength, wrote: “While stepping up navy building or enhancing its ability to control the ocean, it has especially raised the need to prevent the development of Sino-Burmese relations in an effort to hinder China, the Indian navy will enter the South China Sea to conduct military exercises with the Philippine military.”

India’s apparent accommodation with Washington’s National (Ballistic) Missile Defense (NMD) plans in response to growing U.S. accommodation to India’s nuclear weapons is also a matter of serious concern to China. India’s reluctance to criticize Washington’s arrogant inauguration of a new nuclear era is the reflection of a policy crisis and the politics of self-delusion. In the blurred vision of New Delhi, the spy plane looks beautiful.

(Ninan Koshy, < knkoshy@vsnl.com > former director of International Affairs, World Council of Churches and visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School.) to receive weekly commentary and expert analysis via our Progressive Response ezine.

This page was last modified on Wednesday, April 2, 2003 1:56 PM Contact the IRC’s webmaster with inquiries regarding the functionality of this website. Copyright © 2001 IRC and IPS. All rights reserved.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.