Millennium Post

Dance of the dragon and the elephant

Dance of the dragon and the elephant
India’s increasing assertiveness and greater geopolitical interest in the east and southeast Asian region has already earned it tangible dividends in terms of strategic importance and acceptability.

A decade and more after the launch of its 'Look East policy', India has succeeded in making China, the biggest power in Asia, reorient its approach towards its large southern neighbour and reconstruct its earlier rhetoric.

Even a decade ago, in most India-China exchanges, the bigger country used to needle India by reminding it that the two countries are not in the same league. China stood poised to surpass eventually the World’s largest economy, the USA, in size. China was also fast upgrading its armed forces and weaponry, threatening the unchallenged world superiority of the US. The race for world domination was between the US and China, with no other third country even coming close.

Experts writing in the Chinese media analysed India’s perceived internal weaknesses, noting the pressures faced by New Delhi from Maoists and other insurgents in different states and regions. If not ruled properly, India could unravel into 35-odd free units, said one study.

Such rhetoric made sense in the context of the success of Chinese diplomacy in the region, the Chinese were not speaking just for the effect. China is among the world’s largest arms sellers. Interestingly, it sells or supplies most of its weaponry to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Iran - all countries in or close to, India’s backyard! It also helps these countries upgrade their industrial infrastructure. Using its chequebook diplomacy, China advances them project-specific credit on very soft terms. No wonder China is perceived as a trusted friend in all these countries, an alternate source of finance, apart from regular financial institutions. India does not enjoy the same leverage or prestige, nor is it admired as a country that challenges the US.

China also built rail links within Nepal and Bangladesh, was upgrading ports and roads, ran an energy pipeline right into Myanmar. It put in place its 'string of pearls' network of 'commercial' ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan which, experts suggest can also be converted for military use!

No doubt India had cause to feel nervous, because feeling surrounded, outmanoeuvred and outflanked beyond its borders. The Chinese made sure they would remain the major player in the Indian Ocean, again close to Indian naval waters, the region which sees 40 per cent of World energy traffic and 60 per cent of its merchant shipping.

On the other hand, China, making threatening noises against Vietnam, India and the Philippines, had served strong notice that it regarded the energy-rich South China as its own domestic lake. Playing the regional bully, it wanted to have its cake and eat it too. Of late, seeing an automatic consolidation of strategic defence interests of India, Vietnam, Japan and other countries in the region on this issue, China noticeably toned down the earlier hostility of in its pronouncements.

India’s response was slow, but over the years, quite effective, as its revved up its Look East initiative. It concluded security and energy sector agreements with Viet Nam, a country the Chinese do not find themselves comfortable with. Much as it disliked Indo-Viet Nam bonhomie, China could not do much – India was merely countering the Sino-Pak axis, it could be argued. India prioritised its diplomatic links with Laos and Cambodia. It established strong economic links with Bangladesh and Myanmar, using them as its bridge to the southeast. It participated in a number of naval exercises with major powers in the region. It won a decisive diplomatic victory when the World Buddhist Congress attended by 900 delegates was held on its soil, not China much to Beijing’s unconcealed chagrin.
 
Experts suggest that these moves made the Chinese realise that India was quite both willing and capable, to be its countervailing power in the south/southeast Asia region. Its increasing proximity to the US and its regional neighbours only further complicated the scenario for China. It was time for a new script in the plot, one that would reduce the element of outright hostility in bilateral relations.

Of late, China’s references to India both in official speeches and bi-lateral dialogues have grown much warmer. In an interview to Xinhua news agency, Chinese assistant foreign minister Liu Zhomin hoped that the two countries 'would support and learn from each other', to improve relations. And they ensure fast development and economic growth for their peoples. The China-India partnership was 'both strategic and co-operative.' Cultural and diplomatic exchanges increased, with the recent visit of 500 youths from India to China.

President Hu Jintao told Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh that China sought to deepen and enrich relations with India, given the great potential for co-operation that existed. China expected the strategic relationship to grow more friendly in future. Singh responded saying that India would never participate in any design to 'encircle' China, nor support anti-Chinese activities in Tibet. India’s foreign Secretary Rajan Mathai noted that Indo-Chinese relations were 'stable'.

Among the positives in the present situation are, a booming bilateral trade, around $74 billion currently, a relatively quiet international border and the growth of cultural and diplomatic exchanges, strengthening bilateral ties. These days, China occasionally makes unexpected concessions to India, such as importing its Basmati rice recently overriding Pakistan’s objections. It also prodded India into taking greater interest and making the newborn BMIC [Bangladesh Myanmar India China] grouping work on the ground.

But this is not without reason. Analysts maintain that China enjoys more benefits than India out of the present situation. As regards balance of trade, China outsells India on a 2 to 1 basis. With mutual trade volume expected to double by 2015. China observer Baladas Ghoshal feels that China’s words to India are markedly friendlier than before, but this does not necessarily extend to its actions. India still needs to remain on guard.

China did not conceal its displeasure on being upstaged over the World Buddhist meeting where the presence of the Dalai Lama swung things India’s way. China pressured the Asian development Bank to suspend aid to a hydro power generating project proposed in Arunachal Pradesh, an area it regards as its own territory. China tried to keep India, Australia and New Zealand out of the extended ASEAN grouping. Its diplomats visited several Southeast Asian countries to make sure the trio did not get entry. While Malaysia supported China, Indonesia and Singapore opposed the Chinese stand. Even so, the Chinese tried to ensure that initially the three countries would only play a peripheral role, with nothing to do in core sector activities.

This suggests that regardless of warm bilateral sentiments expressed on both sides and a perceptible lessening of tensions, big power rivalry and tussles would continue. China is particularly wary of India’s ever growing warmth towards the US, while India has every reason to be scared of Chinese manoeuvrings in its immediate neighbourhood and the Himalayas.

Even so, the present situation is much better for India. Much to China’s dislike, easily the bigger and more powerful country, the two countries are being talked of together. India is no longer automatically bracketed or mentioned along with Pakistan, with which it enjoys a nuclear parity, but there is no comparison on other parameters. The Chinese do enjoy overwhelming military superiority in terms of logistics, manpower and positioning of troops and weaponry in the high Himalayas. But India is catching up gradually. The operational arc of Chinese fighter jets based in Tibet cover Indian territory. But Indian satellites too monitor China closely. Indian warships patrol international waters. And India now has the missiles that can target Beijing and Shanghai, Most encouragingly, both sides realise the enormous costs in terms of life and property that would be involved in the event of a military confrontation, with the principle of 'unacceptable damage' probably restraining both sides regardless of the ultimate outcome. For now, both sides will remain engaged in a relationship that is more competitive than co-operative, while far from being actively hostile.
Ashis Biswas

Ashis Biswas

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