June 01, 2020
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Who Goes There?

Friend or foe... India assesses what China means for its own place in Asia

Who Goes There?
Who Goes There?
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On The Menu
  • A statement to add substance to partnership in political, economic, cultural and defence spheres
  • Partnership in the defence sphere will include CBMS, regular meeting of border guards, allowing observers during military exercises and a military briefing mechanism
  • 2007 to be the Indo-China tourism promotion year
  • 2008 to see Indian festival in China and China festival in India
  • Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement
  • India and China close to clinching a Regional Trade Agreement
  • Opening consulates in Calcutta, Guangzhao
  • Adding more flights to China
  • More goodwill visits
  • Set up mechanisms for more political consultations
  • Special representatives to meet soon after Hu’s visit
As Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives in India on November 20, there is no escaping the air of anxiety in New Delhi about China’s aspect of ascendancy. Hu’s visit comes in the backdrop of an international milieu that has changed remarkably in China’s favour. India’s giant nei- ghbour has developed rapidly: its forex reserves (minus gold) touched a trillion dollars early this month (while India’s nudged $67 billion on November 3); last year, China became the biggest purchaser of US treasury bonds; it’s also the third largest trading entity, after the United States and the European Union as a bloc. The Chinese president had an extremely successful visit to Latin America earlier this month. Soon thereafter, Beijing hosted 40 heads of African states, and committed $5 billion in assistance to them.

China matters. Globally.

Its ascendancy has come when the world’s sole superpower—the United States—is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington’s initiatives elsewhere have also been ineffective—in North Korea and Iran, the other country in the "axis of evil" which has refused to be stared down. In West Asia, Washington stood by and watched Israel’s Lebanese fiasco. Even as the US is unable to assert its superpower status on the ground, and President George Bush reels under a disastrous mid-term election, China’s rising profile has acquired new dimensions. For instance, in June last year, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is driven by the Chinese, demanded that the US establish timelines for withdrawal from Central Asia.

China’s rise, senior government sources feel, has reduced India’s ability to manoeuvre from what it was a year-and-a-half ago, when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited New Delhi. In these 18 months India no doubt deepened its engagement with the US, signing a defence agreement last June and a nuclear agreement a month later. But China too inexorably extended its political influence and deepened its presence in South Asia. Beijing’s official media makes no secret of the fact that China views India’s new-found friendship with the US as symptomatic of New Delhi being "drawn in against China". Last November, the country became an observer in SAARC. This puts Beijing in a position to straddle a large South Asian political and economic space that India has failed to effectively occupy. Add to this China’s consolidation of its infrastructure in Tibet and along the border areas with India—and you can understand the vague sense of unease among Indian strategists.

At the heart of China’s engagement with India, senior government sources say, is the ambivalence with which it watches New Delhi consolidate its relationship with the US and Japan, besides being spurred into a greater engagement with the outer fringes of eastern Asia. This is the region where China too is exerting its presence. Indian diplomats say China’s ambivalence broke into the open at the East Asia summit last year. It saw East Asia essentially as an ‘ASEAN + 3’ arrangement, the three being China, Japan and South Korea. Japan sought to widen the ambit by including India, Australia and New Zealand, thereby making it ‘ASEAN + 6’. Diplomats say this suits the Indian argument that the region should not have two tracks, one for the core and one for the periphery; that only if there is a single track would India be able to optimise its participation in the Asian theatre.

Government sources say most countries, including Japan and South Korea, would not want a single country to dominate East Asia as it would manifest itself in a skewed security framework in the region. In power terms, therefore, each nation is looking for a balanced security architecture: the more the balance, the less the conflicts. This is why, say diplomats, Southeast Asian countries welcome Indian participation in the East Asian summit. Currently, China is perceived as a power bent on seeking unilateral advantages, in sharp contrast to India’s quests in the Far East. This evolving, tenuous equation is ridden with anxiety about China in the region.

Many nations bordering India feel New Delhi is doing a China in South Asia. But a similar anxiety is missing regarding India’s rise as an emerging power, say diplomats. The growth rates of India and China often get mentioned in the same breath. The global mainstreaming of Indian companies has been far smoother than it has been for China. Much of Asia continues to view India as a regional countervailing force against China. The countries in the region do not resent the accretion of Indian power. A rising India along with Japan and South Korea helps create a certain balance in the region. Therefore, even as India engages China, New Delhi has made naval forays into the eastern littoral sphere in an effort that anoints it with the potential to protect some sea lanes, a few of which are in the Chinese sphere of influence. All this is despite the fact that in sheer power India is behind China, punching far beyond its weight.

Sea lanes assume a critical importance particularly because both China and India are emerging as insatiable energy guzzlers—and therefore competitors. Even here, though, China has consistently outbid India in the fight for cornering energy sources. The most riveting example was the bid for the state-controlled Petrokazakhstan last August. The Chinese were reportedly allowed to rebid after the bidding had closed. More dependent on oil imports than China, it makes ample sense for India to team up with China and bid jointly for oil fields in a third country. This was what was envisaged in the strategic and cooperative partnership signed between India and China during premier Wen’s visit last year. More substance will be added to this partnership during Hu’s visit.

This, then, will be the psychological backdrop to the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hu. Both China and India are intensely aware that the nature of their interaction will partially determine Asia’s character. Last year, at the East Asian summit in Kuala Lumpur, Wen Jiabao stood outside the main hall, in front of the cameras, and welcomed Manmohan Singh, saying, "The whole world is watching us. This is my most important meeting in Kuala Lumpur." Manmohan responded with equal aplomb: "This is my most important meeting too." The Indian government feels there’s no inevitable conflict of interests between India and China, that there is enough room in Asia to accommodate and absorb the ascendancy of both.

Does this mean that an emerging India is confident enough to accommodate the rise of China? There are some worrying signs that could assume greater salience in the future. For one, the subliminal perception of a Chinese pincer movement on India’s eastern and western flanks as Beijing consolidates its various relationships with countries that appear friendlier to it than they’re to New Delhi. "One of the worries," says a senior government source, "is that we don’t know what the eventual character of China’s relationship with India’s neighbours will be. A large and unsettled border underlines the uncertainties. If India manages to assert its role in the region, then China’s forays into our neighbourhood won’t become a major worry."

China’s position on the Indo-US nuclear deal is a classic example of its ambivalence towards India. An influential member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a body that has to amend its rules to pave way for nuclear commerce with India, China has so far refrained from publicly commenting on the deal. Diplomats say privately that every time the NSG issue is raised with Beijing, it only says nothing be done to undermine the current non-proliferation regime. The Chinese ride on the coat-tails of those NSG members who’re more vocal in their reservations about the deal. Apparently, the Chinese tell these countries that they do not want to see a situation that discriminates between India and Pakistan. Such a discrimination, the Chinese argue, would upset the regional balance. This word inevitably gets back to New Delhi, feeding its persistent insecurities about Beijing.

Finally, it’s all about checks and balances. China will seek to balance America’s nuclear outreach effort with one of its own with Pakistan. As India reaches into the Malacca Straits, Beijing is creating a "string of pearls" by developing strategic port facilities in Sittwe (Myanmar), Chittagong and Gwadar (Pakistan) in an effort to build capacity to protect sea lanes and ensure uninterrupted energy supplies. China will allow the SCO to give India membership only when India allows China to become a member of SAARC (see interview). Remember, China changed its maps to show Sikkim as part of India only after New Delhi recognised Tibet as part of China. As the Indian peacock flirts with the Chinese dragon, there is no mistaking who’s leading whom.

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