How to get even with China


India should resist Chinese expansionism by firming strategic ties with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia

September 10, 2014:  

The twenty-first century is often described as “Asia’s century”. This is primarily because of the rapidly growing economies of East and Southeast Asia and the declining rates of economic growth in the US and its European allies.

While the US can no longer unilaterally decide the course of events in Asia, it will remain a key player in moulding the balance of power within Asia.

The actual balance of power within Asia will primarily be determined by the interplay between a rapidly growing, militaristic and jingoist China, an aging, but technologically innovative Japan seeking its legitimate place in the sun, and an India, still uncertain about how best to manage this triangular relationship.

One salient factor is that India and Japan have no territorial or maritime boundary issues which can escalate bilateral tensions. China, however, has adopted policies, on land and maritime boundaries, which could lead to escalating tensions with India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan and the forthcoming visit of President Xi Jinping to India, together with his visits to Pakistan (since postponed) and Sri Lanka, should be seen in the context of these emerging power equations.

It has long been Beijing’s effort to “contain” India within South Asia. Nothing else can explain its policies of equipping Pakistan not merely with tanks, warships and fighter aircraft, but also by promoting the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile production capabilities.

This has been accompanied by China’s untiring efforts to undermine Indian influence in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

China took note of Modi’s comment in Japan: “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mindset; encroaching on another country, intruding on other’s waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.”

China’s official mouthpiece, the Global Times observed: “Japan is located far away from India. Abe’s harangue on the Indo-Pacific concept makes Indians comfortable. It is South Asia where New Delhi has to make its presence felt. However, China is a neighbour it cannot move away from. Sino-Indian ties can in no way be counter-balanced by the Japan-India friendship.”

Beijing’s message to New Delhi in the article was: ‘You are merely a South Asian power bordering a strong China. We may move, at will, across the Indian Ocean. You should, however, not dare use your relationship with Japan to transgress into the Pacific Ocean — what you and Japan describe as the Indo-Pacific.’

China has no intention of changing its policy of “strategic containment” of India, even if India is useful in promoting its interests in Brics and G20.

Economic ties

Modi’s visit to Japan yielded substantial progress in industrial collaboration, with a target of $35 billion FDI in the coming five years, together with a projected increase of Japanese ODI. Defence industry collaboration and joint exercises between the two navies both in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are to be expanded. Japan will play a key role in the development of industrial corridors in India. Indo-Japanese collaboration in the exploration of rare earths will erode the Chinese monopoly in this sector.

We should, however, welcome cooperation in areas such as industry and infrastructure with China, if it can match the terms that Japan is ready to provide in transfer of technology and development of work skills. There is much we can learn from the efficiency of infrastructure project construction in China.

India’s trade deficit with China in 2012 was $39.1 billion. A recent RIS (Research and Information System for Developing Countries) study commissioned by the Reserve Bank of India has noted that such a deficit is “unsustainable”. Rendering this trade deficit “unsustainable” are a series of Chinese non-tariff barriers, not just on pharmaceuticals, but also on items like steel and auto components.

Moreover, India receives discriminatory treatment on registration of its products and faces barriers in services such as banking, insurance, warehousing and freight forwarding. Over 41 products have been identified, which India exports significantly worldwide. But these products are prevented from entering the Chinese market. They include plastics, manmade filaments, electrical and optical machinery and vehicles. The registration of Indian companies in China is exceedingly difficult.

It takes 3-5 years to secure registration in China — a process that normally takes six months in India for Chinese companies. Some reciprocal measures are called for to deal with such non-tariff barriers, including the imposition of higher duties on equipment like power equipment manufactured in India, both in the private and public sector.

Border impasse

China is no hurry to resolve the border issue. It avoids defining the Line of Control in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Better logistics across the Tibetan Plateau give its armed forces the advantage of easier access to disputed areas.

While contacts between military commanders have been increased, face-offs along the LoC continue. Spelling out the “Guiding Principles” for resolving the border issue, India and China agreed in April 2005 that the Sino-Indian boundary “should be along well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features to be mutually agreed upon” (Article VI). They also agreed that “The two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas” (Article VII).

Going by this Agreement, the border in Arunachal Pradesh should logically be an extension of China’s delineated border with Myanmar. In Ladakh, the Karakoram mountains are the most prominent “identifiable natural geographical features” separating India and China.

Balance of power

While India is strengthening its defences along the Sino-Indian border by raising new strike formations, improving communications and deploying frontline SU 30 squadrons, our negotiators sometimes appear excessively defensive and even apologetic in dealing with their Chinese counterparts.

It is time to change this mindset and join partners such as Vietnam and Japan to build a stable balance of power in Asia.

Given China’s readiness to intimidate its neighbours on its maritime boundary claims, India should, at the very least, supply Brahmos anti-ship cruise missiles to friendly countries in the Indo-Pacific Region such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

At the same time, cooperation at multilateral fora like G20, the East Asia Summit and Brics can be expanded and bilateral cooperation in areas like infrastructure, industry, communications and energy, pursued vigorously.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan


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