The Buddha wars

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There are only two countries in the world with over a billion people, so a certain amount of rivalry between China and India was inevitable. Since the two countries have a common frontier, and have fought a minor border war within living memory, that rivalry was bound to have some military component. And then there is the Buddha factor.

Since 1984, Indians have been working on a gigantic 160 metre statue of Buddha at Boghdaya in Bihar state, the place where he gained enlightenment 2,600 years ago. It is to be sheathed in bronze, and will cost over $300 million. So you can imagine the chagrin felt in India when China announced early this month that it was going to build its own giant Buddha statue at Jiuhua mountain in Anhui province: a copperplated Buddha of Compassion that will be three metres higher than its Indian rival, cost less than half as much, and be completed a year earlier.

What applies to Buddhas, alas, also applies to nuclear missiles. Last week, China’s Premier Zhu Rongji was in Pakistan praising that country’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and extolling the “precious friendship” between China and Pakistan. This may seem a bit hard to take, given that China’s sclerotic post-Marxist regime and Pakistan’s incompetent military regime have little in common except dictatorship, and that the two cultures are spectacularly different in core values and customs. But the enemy of my enemy is always my friend.

China has always sold weapons to Pakistan – indeed, that is probably the main reason why Pakistani nuclear missiles are so much better than their Indian counterparts – but in the old days Chinese influence in Islamabad was always counterbalanced by a huge American presence. In the old cold war, India was aligned with the Soviet Union, while China and Pakistan were de facto US allies.

Washington had better weapons and more money, so it always had the bigger say in Islamabad as the revolving-door civilian and military governments came and went. But in less than two years, the current Pakistani dictator, a man of distinctly limited attainments, has managed to destroy the long-standing American alliance. Now it is America and India vs. China and Pakistan (with the Russians largely squeezed out of the frame, just as they have been in the Middle East). This is a strategic realignment that is vastly to Pakistan’s disadvantage.

General Musharraf’s obvious reluctance to start handing power back to a democratically elected civilian government had already cooled relations with the US even when Bill Clinton was president. Clinton spent five days in India last year, and popped over to Pakistan for only five hours – mainly in order to lecture Musharraf on the error of his ways. But the election of George W. Bush did not bring the expected improvement.

For various reasons, few of them strategic, President Bush is committed to a national missile defence system whose only plausible target is China. (The largely mythical `rogue states’ are too small to be a credible threat, while Russia has far too many missiles for any version of “Star Wars” to cope with.) Now, if the unstated target of “Star Wars” is China, then you would expect India to develop an interest in close ties with the US, while China cultivates Pakistan and tries to freeze the US out. The enemy of my enemy, etc.

That is just what has happened: India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has been warmly supportive of Bush’s plans. After all, it costs India nothing to say nice things about National Missile Defence (NMD) if it turns out to be a mere technological fantasy designed to pour taxpayers’ money into the pockets of Bush-friendly US defence industry. On the other hand, if NMD actually worked, and Washington was willing to extend its coverage to India, then it could turn out to be a handy counter to Pakistan’s superior missilery.

Washington, faced with almost universal hostility to its treaty-breaking plans for NMD in the rest of the world, has been duly grateful for Vajpayee’s support. Last week, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in India to cement the new linkage and, according to a report in the New York Times, even listed Pakistan as one of the “irresponsible” rogue nuclear states Star Wars is meant to guard against.

Meanwhile, Zhu Rongji has been in Islamabad, peddling his own brand of snake-oil, but after he left you could see poor old Musharraf slowly figuring out that something fundamental had changed in Asia while he wasn’t watching. “It would cause anxiety if the strategic balance were to tilt in favour of India,” he said as the light dawned on him. “I hope the US administration understands the implications of this strategy.”

Of course it doesn’t. Except insofar as it impacts on US domestic politics – and defence policy in the US today is largely about that most vital of domestic political issues: where the tax dollars get spent – the administration neither knows nor cares about the strategic balance in Asia. Above the level of lowly policy wonks that nobody listens to, it is not generally understood in Washington that large Asian countries actually have their own strategic concerns, and that the games Washington plays may brutally upset existing balances.

India and the US vs. China and Pakistan: This is a recipe for a truly stupid and dangerous confrontation. And though it was the Bush administration that set this realignment in motion, there is absolutely no evidence that it wanted it, or understands where it might lead.

Mr. Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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