February , 2018
Historic mistrust, current competition and the new great game
14:11 pm

Sitaram Sharma

One highlight of the evolution of international relations in recent years has been the shifting of the axis of global politics to Asia and the rise of developing countries and emerging economies, especially India and China, which has profoundly impacted the international structure. When Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping met Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, he said to the Indian Prime Minister, “Only when China and India achieve development, the World will see a true Asia-Pacific century”.

India and China are ancient civilisations, are neighbours and are strategic partners. India was the first non-communist country to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing. China and India have extensive consensus on major international issues. On the whole, Indo-China relations have embarked on a road of steady growth. However, the lack of strategic and political mutual trust remains the weak link in the relationship.

China’s Pakistan Policy – A Major Challenge

Pursuit of World Peace is a fundamental tenet of India’s foreign policy. On the other hand, belying China’s claim of peaceful rise, Chinese foreign policy is turning into an infringement of internationally accepted norms. China’s Pakistan policy is a major challenge to India-China relations. In India, the perception about “China threat” since 1962 is a real issue. The recent Doklam standoff has not only forced the boundary dispute, but also added to the long list of hostile acts by the Chinese against India, starting with making Pakistan into a bigger nuisance by augmenting its nuclear and missile capabilities, by running the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Indian Territory, under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. Moreover, India’s disappointment with China’s role in India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) and more so creating obstacles in India’s efforts to get back Pakistani terrorists on the UN Sanction list.

What are the reasons for China to force a boundary dispute, escalate tensions and distrust. Is it the Indian join naval exercises with US and Japan in South China Sea, permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and hoisting of Tibetan Flag in India. Is Doklam China’s way of telling India to behave or face the war? For all talks of cooperation, China remains a fierce rival as far as vying for regional influence is concerned. Economy may be the one area of agreement however, based on Chinese theory, “compete and cooperate”. The boundary question is a complex issue and there are no immediate indications towards resolving this contentious issue between India and China. It will only be possible if two countries put friendship first, foster the security concept of mutual interest, by accommodating each other’s core concerns and appropriately handling differences and tensions. It represents the call of the times.

Obviously there is a huge competition between India and China to expand their sphere of strategic influence, both in this region and in the vast maritime space of the Indian-Pacific. It is a rivalry that runs along the spine of the continent, as journalist Frank Moraes quoting Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1952.

India’s Neighbours’ – Policy Bombs

Nepal’s Left alliance has swept to a commanding victory in the historic federal and provincial relations concluded in December. The victors Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) and their communist allies were widely seem to be endorsed by China, while India evidently favoured National Conference (NC). India’s role in the disastrous 2015, blockade of Nepal has resulted in the victory of pro-China parties, while Chinese influence in neighbouring Myanmar is on ascendency. Pakistan has come closer to China and also towards Russia at the cost of India. So called “all Weather relations” between Pakistan and China coined as “Chi-Pak” followed by regional projects under the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan are matters of deep concern to India. Indian strategists and diplomats have failed to take advantage of increasing Chinese concerns over security and other arrangements for on-going projects under the 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a network of roads and power projects running through Pakistan – occupied Kashmir. There is a view among Chinese scholars that CPEC’s long term viability is uncertain unless India is brought on the board.

After India realigned its position with the post Cold War order, engagement with East and South-East Asia had to be one of its priorities. India had first to convince ASEAN that it had seen the light, and would befriend counties with which relations had been cool over previous decades. India had been perceived by ASEAN as close to the Soviet Union, and neither really fully Western nor Asian, and India’s cultural uniqueness was not considered a positive element in facilitating its integration with ASEAN. The ‘ASEAN way’ rests on personal relationships, gradual consensus building and skirting contentious issues, whereas Indians are seen as legalistic, bureaucratic and impersonal. In other words, India was a very late starter, and had to catch up with the established presence of other big countries both from within and outside the region.

Look East Policy

Indian ‘Look East’ policy accorded with the market model in place in South-East Asia. China’s involvement with those countries had already witnessed strong momentum, helped by people of Chinese origin who had long dominated business in at least half of the ten ASEAN countries. India had fallen far behind in the movement for regional integration, although the political and strategic situation on India’s south-east flank affected its security, even more so after the admission of Myanmar brought ASEAN adjacent to India’s land border.

India had showed no inclination for political leadership in SAARC, but paradoxically now wanted to go beyond South Asia and the Bay of Bengal to extend its influence towards the Pacific. India’s new emphasis on the East was motivated by the China factor, its social, cultural, religious and linguistic links with ASEAN, and the persons of Indian origin who had a presence in the socio-political life of the region. As Indo-ASEAN ties increased, the role of these communities became more salient.

In general terms, compared with the caution of the early 1990s, India is now a reasonably confident participant in the Asia-Pacific political and strategic domain. However, in the economic sphere, India is yet to make any notable headway. The recent conclusion of the Indo-ASEAN free trade agreement exceeded all timelines and it remains to be seen how it will operate in practice. The leverage exercised by Indian protectionist lobbies on political circles in New Delhi should never be underestimated. In terms of intra-regional trade, in comparison with China, Korea, Japan and the ASEAN members, India has been insignificant. There are several shortcomings in the Indian economy, where the market is quite closed, the average tariff level high, investment environment poor, and the level of infrastructure development and external trade low, with the result that India is not a highly regarded commercial partner. India’s partnership with East Asia will crucially depend on its capacity for making a distinct contribution towards the progress for closer economic integration in the region.

While India’s economic and political contacts are formal rather than functional, its bilateral defence arrangements with individual ASEAN counties have assumed greater relevance. India has never clarified what genuine interests it has to defend in the region, but in general terms, the Indian presence is welcome by ASEAN, an attitude premised on the balance of power. ASEAN welcomes all major powers to participate in the regional security architecture, but in its view, no single power should be permitted to dominate the area. This is to India’s advantage. Because India has greater military recourses to share with ASEAN than vice verse, defence cooperation has occurred to some degree with almost every ASEAN country – in fact more so, in most cases, than with India’s neighbours in the Indian subcontinent. In contrast, there is little Chinese military involvement with ASEAN, other than Myanmar.

The ASEAN Regional Forum is the first multilateral security forum ever to be joined by India. It had been India’s traditional approach to keep security issues out of the scope of regional groups such as SAARC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, in both of whose formation it had played a key role. But with the ARF, the objective of ‘containing’ China influenced
India to reverse its historic position on such groupings. Competition between Indian and China in the region is predictable because the two countries do not enjoy mutual trust, and there are overlapping perceptions of their historical spheres of influence and interest. They have made efforts to address bilateral problems with some progress recorded, but given the inherent rivalry and geopolitical interplay, the nature and degree of friction between them is a constant concern of the members of ASEAN.

India’s Economic & Strategic Relevance

There is therefore a competitive edge in India’s policy, to achieve some kind of equal footing with China. But it will be necessary for India to draw China closer into discussions on cooperation and security in the Asia-Pacific region. The approach of ‘containing’ China by aligning with some individual powers whose strategic goals and military practices do not necessarily complement our’s, nor share the long term vision of India’s relationship with its northern neighbours, will be most unwise. India’s strategic engagement with ASEAN should not be dependent only on the China factor, and military means cannot be considered the preferred method of asserting a regional role in preference to the more valuable soft power assets like culture, technology, IT, trade and investment. India has taken the initial steps to being regarded as a serious partner in emerging Asia, but it has now to enhance its economic and strategic relevance that are both largely in the potential rather than the actual sphere.

India may already see itself as an influential factor in the ASEAN economic and security space, but this self-perception will not be shared by other major actors. ASEAN has differing levels of consensus on many issues including security, and many among its ten members regard India only as an Indian Ocean power and not an Asia-Pacific one. Being part of the Asia-Pacific is a necessity for India’s pursuit of world status, and its friendly ties with USA can boost that strategy, but in matters critical to ASEAN like the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, it remains to be seen whether India has the capacity and will to be involved; for instance, it has given no significant opinion on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions. In security conclaves like the six power talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, India is not included, and if the six member ad hoc body eventually morphs into an embryonic Asian security construct, Indian relevance and participation might become a subject of contention.

Economy more important than military

India will be prepared to play a more energetic role, along with the West, in maintaining the security of international sea-lanes, and its ambitions may be on the right lines, but it has incrementally to enhance its economic integration with other Asian countries. India has to make much greater efforts towards the objective of making ASEAN an important stake-holder in Indian prosperity. India is still far from being an indispensable country, and the reality is that the gap between China’s and India’s levels of engagement with  ASEAN remains huge: no number of summit photo-opportunities for our prime minister with East Asian leaders will redress this imbalance. Military contacts are not nearly as important as economic interdependence, because without such integration, it is premature to talk about any possible role for India in the security architecture in Asia. At this time when the level of acrimony between India and China is disturbing and even reminiscent of the 1950s, it is sobering to keep in mind that in the unlikely event of a clash of arms, such international support as India receives will again come, as it did in 1962, mainly from the West, for the West’s own purposes, whereas the so-called non aligned group of countries will at best sit on the fence, or far more likely, tilt  towards our northern neighbour.

— The author is President, Centre for Eastern & North-Eastern Regional Studies-Kolkata (CENERS-K)

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