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C3S & PII Event Report: Focus on China – Current Issues and Developments

C3S Report No: 0011/2017

The following is an event report of a C3S & PII Seminar for Journalists held on April 20-21 2017. 

Download the event report at this link: PII-C3S – REPORT April 2017 seminar


Today’s young journalists need the knowledge and the skills necessary to report accurately, reliably and with context on events and issues related to India’s national security interests and objectives. National Security comprises several critical sectors, one of the important ones being India’s Foreign Policy. Journalists, reporters as well as editors at the desk, need to understand what Diplomacy is, how it functions, what its role and contemporary form are, and how India is positioning itself today on the world stage and conducting its foreign policy.

Recent developments in the Indo-Pacific Region (South China Sea) and the Indian Ocean Region have the potential to change regional and global dimensions of the existing geo-political, economic and strategic contours. With this scenario in view, the Press Institute of India (PII) and the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) organised a two-day seminar for journalists on April 20-21 titled Focus on China: Current Issues and Developments.

Speakers with various areas of expertise on China discussed ongoing developments in relation to China, India and their neighbours, and China‟s growing prominence in the world and its ability to make news unremittingly. The deliberations also focused on the role of the media in shaping policies and opinions in the two Asian powers.

This was the fifth in a series of national security workshops being organised by PII. The earlier ones were on India‟s National Security Interests and Objectives, Understanding the Role of India‟s Military, India‟s Foreign Policy, and India‟s National Security – Threats, Challenges, Strategies.

The seminar was attended by journalists, researchers and policy experts. Each session included an interactive round during which delegates engaged in lively discussion with the speakers on points raised by them, and also shared their own insights and inputs on this extremely topical issue.

-Sashi Nair Director, Press Institute of India


Echoing the point about China constantly finding a place in the news, Commodore R. Seshadri Vasan (Indian Navy, Retd), Director, C3S, set the tone for the discussions, saying, “China keeps you on your toes with something you don’t expect.”

ASEAN and China are emerging as pivotal points in the Asia-Pacific and their relations with each other will have an impact on the region, Vasan pointed out. “The South China Sea (SCS) dispute remains a bone of contention. At first sight, India may seem to be an extra-regional power in the SCS. However, India is firmly connected to the region, as a significant portion of its trade with East Asian countries passes through the SCS. Meanwhile, the East China Sea dispute between China and Japan is also a cause of concern for India. This is because Japan is possibly heading towards a „militaristic personality‟ due to its strategic concerns in the East Asia region. In addition, the Indio-Pacific Region is assuming significance in the context of asymmetric security threats.”

Another arena of power-play between India and China, according to Vasan, is the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India is focusing on „blue economy strategies‟ to expand its maritime power projections there. However, China is also concentrating on long-term strategic points of interest, namely port development and deployment of its naval assets in the region‟s waters. The posturing and presence of China in the IOR hence warrants study. It will be interesting to see, he said, how India takes forward its non-alignment policy in the light of traditional security concerns. A front with likeminded actors to counter China‟s influence in the economic and strategic realms is a possibility. Meanwhile, there is a dearth of opportunities for people-to-people contact between the two nations.

Vasan touched on the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative (which he felt, was merely old wine in a new bottle), the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and China’s interest in gaining footholds in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). On the latter, he expressed the view that India should not be a passive observer, missing chances such as the one offered by the Hambantota port development issue in Sri Lanka, but take the initiative to leave its own footprints in the IOR. Japan, Australia, South Africa and South Korea are all wanting to diversify away from China, and India should capitalise on this, he said.

Xi Jinping is firm on his goal of being World No. 1, and is close to achieving that economically and militarily speaking, Vasan felt. The prediction is that China will be World No. 1 in shipping assets by 2030. Though the global slowdown is likely to keep many of the ships that China is building off the waters, the country is gaining a hold on ports in small countries by offering soft loans for development that they find impossible to pay back, and subsequently converting into equity, he pointed out.

Indicating that China is not invincible, Vasan referred to the recent Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh issues, and noted that the Dalai Lama was able to shake up the massive country. “India can‟t break away from China. But we can choose our own terms. Let‟s move with others who want to move away,” was his advice. He closed with the recommendation that India take a leaf out of China’s book and “build for our strengths, and buy time.”


The centre of gravity of the world has shifted to the Asia Pacific, said Nitin Gokhale, well-known journalist, media-trainer, author and founder of Describing himself as a strategic analyst and China watcher in his keynote address, Gokhale told the audience that most of the world is looking at this region, east of India, up to Japan. The US presence in the region is diminishing in strength, as witnessed by the recent developments in North Korea, he said, adding, the Masood Azhar issue, the question of Nuclear Suppliers‟ Group membership for India, OBOR and Dalai Lama and Tawang are all part of the same pattern. What India has been facing is increased Chinese belligerence – since Xi Jinping took over as President.

On another plane, the recent Chinese reaction to the Dalai Lama‟s visit to Arunachal Pradesh has been over the top. It betrays the vulnerabilities of China, said Gokhale. Sharing an anecdote of a chance meeting with a PLA (People‟s Liberation Army) official on his visit to China in connection with the 50th anniversary of the People‟s Republic, he said, in a surprisingly candid chat over coffee the official had admitted that while China had no fear of terrorist attacks, it was indeed afraid of someone from Tibet dropping a propaganda pamphlet in the iconic Tiananmen Square. “China doesn’t know how to handle democratic protests internally. They can‟t understand Indian democracy. China is afraid of the three Ts – Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan.”

Delineating Chinese inroads into India‟s neighbourhood, Gokhale talked of that country‟s subsidies to Bangladesh, growing presence in the IOR, setting up of China study centres across the border with Nepal, and the country‟s strategy of giving soft loans which are subsequently converted to equity in other nations. China has made Pakistan a “client state”, he said.

Indian response was admittedly slow in the past, but with the upswing in the economy, the Act East policy has become effective, Gokhale said, adding, many countries like Vietnam and Philippines are looking to India to meet hardware and training requirements, instead of to China. From a bit player in Southeast Asia, India now has an important role.

Gokhale felt that China’s “string of pearls” can be reversed in India’s favour if it puts its mind to it, reaches out to countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Mongolia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh and backs this up with economic packages. Reiterating that China fears democracies, he felt India’s strategy should be to play the US-Japan-Australia card and make China aware of its vulnerabilities. The rise of the PLA navy is the story of the decade as China ventures into the Indian Ocean Region, he said, and felt strengthening the Indian navy should be a priority, as also building deterrence along the Himalayas.

Citing the example of 2014 Demchock incident when India successfully stared down China, Gokhale expressed the view that India has the capacity to face Chinese belligerence. A lot has been done, but much more needs to be done, he felt.

Referring to the media in the two countries, Gokhale said there are alarmist tendencies on both sides. The Indian mindset is constrained by lack of knowledge of China. Language is a barrier to Indian media personnel. It hampers good reportage. There is also a shortage of permits to Indian journalists to travel in China and, consequently, Indian analysts have to look at China through the US prism because of the language issue. “We need more people who know the language and have lived there. Proper background briefing is required for both. More exchanges should happen in academia and think tanks,” he stressed, adding, editors too are hampered by a lack of knowledge about, and also interest in China.


Pratap M. Hebilkar, Director, Asia Dialogue Society, Singapore, and former Special Secretary, Government of India, gave an interesting talk on Dynamics of Security Issues in the Neighbourhood. The focus was on helping the participants understand the threats emanating from China.

Pakistan’s attempt to annex Kashmir in 1948 and China‟s invasion of Tibet in 1950 have influenced, and continue to influence our foreign policy, Hebilkar said, but pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government has been sending repeated signals to the world that India is embarking on a new policy. There are more players in the National Security narrative than five years ago, he said, adding, the private sector and state and Union territorial governments have also become part and parcel of the system.

Talking of the Indo-China relationship, Heblikar said China is India’s major adversary and will remain so. There’s a deficit of trust in bilateral relationships and that’s a major obstacle. OBOR and CPEC are new irritants to the list of traditional ones like Taiwan, trade and border disputes, he said.

Hebilkar discussed China’s role in India‟s Northeast, and also its Look South policy and its investments in other countries with ulterior motive. “China has cultivated India’s immediate neighbours and others assiduously, and makes extensive use of its World Wide Web or Diaspora,” he said. China’s foreign aid sparks debate for a variety of reasons. Critics argue that it undermines good governance, democracy, human rights and development objectives, creates undue corridors of influence, and lacks transparency.

Many developing countries value assistance but are concerned with local impact, Heblikar said, pointing out that foreign aid, investment or loans are part of China’s policy to secure its interests, to procure raw material and resources to drive its engines of development. However, with the setting up internal norms of FDI in the recent past, mainly to counteract Western criticism, China has shown willingness to engage with global organisations like UNDP, USAID and others, he said.

Coming to the media, he felt India requires a large body of media professionals to specialise in or study China in detail. It is vital to understand our immediate neighbourhood and keep track of developments that are likely to impact national security. It is equally important to identify inimical forces to effectively detect, deter and defeat them before they become active, as also friendly forces that are necessary to take forward our national security objectives, he noted. India may have financial limitations in helping other countries, but there are no limits when it comes to publicizing what China is doing, and for what reason, he pointed out, and expressed the view that India has the opportunity to get into a controlling position vis-à-vis neighbouring countries.


C. Joshua Thomas, Deputy Director, Indian Council of Social Science Research, North Eastern Regional Centre (ICSSR-NERC), Shillong, spoke of Developments in ASEAN-China Relations. He focused on how these developments have implications for regional stability. India, he said, should chart an independent path combining the tools of geo-politics and geo-economics in furthering national developmental institutions. It should engage all major players – US, China, Japan, Australia – and act as a balancer.

Thomas explained how China plays a major role in the ASEAN as it is the group’s largest trading partner, and discussed ASEAN’s importance for India. He felt there are opportunities for India to engage with both ASEAN and China. China‟s role becomes all the more prominent because of the fact that Chinese Diaspora make up about 10 per cent of the total population of Southeast Asia. Studies have been conducted on how the Diaspora contributed economically to host countries as well as to mainland China. ASEAN countries have been concerned about dominant China and have wanted India to play a bigger role, he said.

Thomas expressed the view that India was hampered by a fear psychosis in relation to China, and felt there was no need to keep a low profile any longer. In this context, he appreciated the way in which the recent Tawang issue was handled, saying it marked a change in India’s outlook. He also welcomed the reported move of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invite all heads of ASEAN countries to be Chief Guests during Republic Day, 2018.

Thomas discussed the implications of the withdrawal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the uncertainty around the US policy towards South-East Asia, which has opened a door for China in respect to an ASEAN-led but China-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. He also talked about the economic dependence of the smaller countries in the region on China, which has created a space for China to write the rules of multilateral relationship such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN+3, ASEAN+6, Asia Regional Forum and so on.

Touching on the US-India-China-ASEAN quadrilateral dynamics and the fact that the economies of US-China-ASEAN-India are intertwined and interdependent, Thomas saw opportunities for India to prove itself as a serious regional player to shape regional economic and security architecture, saying, “ASEAN countries have always had concerns about a dominant China and have always wanted to engage India to balance China, but India‟s response has always been lukewarm.”

Thomas, too, advocated expending effort to learn China’s language and culture. He was optimistic that with mutual understanding, India-China relations could improve. He emphasised the need for discourse between the countries through exchange programmes for scholars and the need for Indian citizens to treat their Chinese counterparts with respect and care. A Grand Strategy – not a Reactive Strategy, was his recommendation for India. “Diplomacy for development is what we need,” he said, adding, “we need to love our neighbours, win their hearts and minds before we dole out money to them.”


Colonel R. Hariharan VSM, Intelligence Corps (Retd.) spoke on Challenges in East and South China Seas: An Indian Perspective. He highlighted the importance of perception and how it changes with varying bodies of knowledge coloured by history and people‟s mindsets. He traced the historical background to the strategic relationship existing among the major powers in the South China Sea and East China Sea which have a bearing on the three challenges faced by international community in the region.

The most important of them, Hariharan said, is China’s claim to most of the SCS and the rocks and reefs thereof, in disregard to the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) award in favour of Philippines, last year. As Philippines is a strategic ally of the US, it has resulted in eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation between US and Chinese forces. The second challenge is North Korea’s development of ICBM capability along with the development of a suitable nuclear weapon, in defiance of UN sanctions which could explode into war. The third is the China-Japan confrontation over the ownership of Senkoku islet at present under Japanese control. The confrontation after reaching a highpoint few years ago has cooled now.

The region, Hariharan stresses, is an important one for India to progress in its Act East policy as nearly 55 per cent of its trade passes through it. India‟s long pending disputes with China remain unresolved and any muscle-flexing by China remains a potential threat to India‟s strategic partners in the region, namely Japan and Vietnam.

However, India has managed to walk the tight rope as it has close relations with the US, as well as Russia, which is an ally of China.

However, the international community, including major players, except North Korea, appears to be keen to avert any outburst of armed confrontation which has been welcomed by India. North Korea still remains an unknown quantity that could trigger violence in the region.


Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S, spoke on India through Chinese media’s eyes: Illuminating the picture. The Chinese media was depicted as subservient to the government, a tool used by the government to communicate its foreign policy, she noted. She felt there is one-way propagation of information in China, as against the condition that prevails in India where every piece of information is debated and dissected. She expressed the view that the Chinese media indulges in unilateral propagation of information as against presenting a comprehensive picture that includes multiple perspectives. She stressed the importance of filling the gaps in information caused by relaying biased news. She wanted the Chinese media to make efforts to learn about India and its culture, through exchange programmes, in order to overcome the problems caused by media bias.


The second day of the proceedings began with a presentation by Sanjay Pulipaka, Senior Consultant, East Asia Research Programme, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi, titled, So Far, Yet So Near – China in the IOR, with specific reference to CPEC and MSR. He discussed the latest conceptualisations of connectivity networks and how these were slowly transcending the notion of natural barriers. “China’s One Belt One Road policy, proposed by Xi Jinping in 2013, represents the physical manifestation of China‟s rise and global outreach,” he said.

Pulipaka outlined the various ramifications of OBOR, in reference to both China and to other countries. He also referred to the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with specific reference to India‟s response to the economic corridor and Pakistan’s dependence on China for its development. The basic assumption driving CPEC, he said, is that increased prosperity in Pakistan will have a positive spillover impact in Afghanistan. The positive dividends caused by possible reduction of religious fundamentalism in these countries can also be reaped by China and Central Asian countries.

Pulipaka went on to discuss the various challenges of the CPEC such as the problem of insurgencies and ethnic conflicts. He related some interesting perceptions of China’s OBOR project. He felt the fact that unlike the CPEC plan, China has not taken any initiative for a direct economic corridor with India was because that country wants to access India‟s markets without delineating the borders between the two nations.

Pulipaka also raised several pertinent questions: Is the CPEC an economically viable option for the people? Will much of the economic benefit happen in Punjab and not in Pakistan? Considering the security situation, will the other countries join the economic corridor? If India joins the CPEC, will the Pakistan economy be able to withstand and compete with the Indian and Chinese economy?


“Challenges in India’s Immediate Maritime Neighbourhood” was the theme of the paper presented by Jacob A. Bonofer, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Madras Christian College, and Research Fellow at Centre for Asia Studies, Chennai. As a bridge between Asia and Europe, the Indian Ocean is not only the site of rich history but a global centre of trade and energy flow. The major problems of IOR are piracy, maritime crime, cross border terrorism and major power rivalry among regional and global powers in a bid to control the resources and the maritime regime, he said.

Bonofer cited two important aspects that need to be grasped in order to understand the maritime strategies in the IOR – the role of China and Pakistan on one hand, and the maritime neighbourhood on the other. China and Pakistan are playing a major role in Sri Lanka and Maldives to contain the influence of India, he noted.

(Report compiled by Susan Philip, assistant editor, PII)

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