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China and South Asia- An Indian Perspective

The evolution of China’s South Asia policy needs to be studied not in a vacuum, but in relation to that country’s overall foreign policy framework; the main determinant of Beijing’s external approach has always been its domestic priorities in different periods. In fact, the domestic and foreign policy linkages have continued to be a part of the statecraft of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ever since Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed founding of the nation in October 1949, saying that ‘China has stood up’.

In the Mao Zedong era (1949-76), the domestic goals of ‘class struggle’ and ‘self-reliant development’ were matched by an external strategy of ‘leaning to one side’, in other words getting the support of socialist allies, for consolidating the Communist party rule at home. Internal priorities underwent a major change in the post-1978 period, with veteran leader Deng Xiaoping initiating reforms as part of building  ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’; he initiated an ‘open door’ external line meant primarily to bolster modernization efforts at home.

In the post-Deng period, President Jiang Zemin formulated national policies centering round his theory of “ Three Represents”, with the objective of making the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a representative of majority of the people and codified  ‘three major historic tasks’ for China – Modernization, National Reunification and Safeguarding World Peace and Common Development. To accomplish these tasks, an ‘Independent Foreign Policy of Peace’ was adopted.

The current Chinese President Hu Jintao, who succeeded Jiang, brought forth a domestic development model marking a shift in emphasis – from GDP centric growth to ‘balanced development’; to be backed by his own theoretical concept of “ Scientific Outlook of Development”, of which creation at home of a  ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ and ‘Sustainable development’ constituted main elements.  Correspondingly, Hu put in place an external strategy based on the idea of a “Harmonious World” aimed at realizing a ‘win-win’ solution in international relations’.  The PRC Premier Wen Jiabao, tracing the links between his country’s domestic goals and foreign policy objectives stated, “What China needs for its development first and foremost is an international environment of long term stability and a stable surrounding environment.”

It is natural that China’s perceptions of a ‘peaceful periphery’ as a pre-requisite for its domestic development have come to dominate the PRC’s post-1978 South Asia policy. As Chinese observers viewed, since end seventies, a recalibration of Beijing’s attitude towards the region has been gradually taking place in pursuance of that pre-requisite and its outcome has been a  “Balanced South Asia Policy of the PRC Under a New Situation”, providing for China’s development of relations with South Asian nations in a parallel manner. Backing this line of thinking, have indeed been some evidences, for e.g the PRC started modifying its pro-Pakistan stand so far kept on Kashmir issue, with the state-controlled media dropping references to ‘India-occupied Kashmir’ and using instead the terms ‘India-controlled Kashmir’ and ‘Pakistan-controlled Kashmir’. In December 1996, President Jiang Zemin favoured New Delhi – Islamabad ‘consultations and negotiations’ on Kashmir issue, during his speech to the Pakistan Senate. During the Kargil conflict in 1999, China refrained from taking sides and adopted a neutral position. China’s oft-repeated stand since this time has been that the Kashmir issue is one ‘left over by history’ and that ‘India and Pakistan should properly solve the problem through dialogue and negotiations.’  Beijing no longer makes references to ‘self-determination’ for the Kashmiri people and does not consider the ‘Kashmiri people’ as a third party to the dispute.

Besides the ‘peaceful periphery’ factor, India’s ‘rise’ also seems to have contributed to a change in China’s regional approach. Indicating the same are the willingness of Beijing to stabilize ties with New Delhi through signing important agreements with India like Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity and Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question’ (2005) as well as  ‘Shared Vision for the 21st Century (2008). China and India have stopped treating each as a threat to other and both the nations have come to recognize that Sino-Indian ties have attained a global character. China seems to realize that cooperation with India is essential for it in tackling global issues like the WTO, climate change, global financial system reform and revamping of UN Security Council.  It can be seen without difficulty that congruence, to a good degree, of policy interests among China and India has emerged over the years; under its impact, in general, the comfort level in their relations has been increasing.

It will not be out of place to mention about the existence of some other factors motivating China’s South Asia policy.  They include neutralizing the perceived US strategy to contain China with support of regional nations, developing economies of China’s border areas, cooperating with South Asian countries in exploitation of much needed energy resources, protecting oil transport security in the Indian Ocean, getting support to ‘One China’ policy and last but not least securing cooperation from the nations in the region in the matter of meeting terrorism threat to China’s South West border coming from outside.

The Chinese claims that the PRC’s South Asia policy has become balanced are open to dispute. The recalibrations noticed have only been symbolic, lacking in substance as there has been no fundamental change in China’s policy of treating Pakistan as an ally, in order to neutralize the impact on the region coming from India’s ascendancy.  There has been no let up in Beijing’s arms supply to Islamabad, despite the knowledge that Pakistan cannot guarantee the non-use of Chinese arms against India. Also, China could increase its strategic presence in other countries in India’s neighborhood in the background of its increased economic aid to the latter, a development not missed by New Delhi.

A new trend prevailing since middle 2009 in the external strategy of the PRC, marked by a revision of the country’s strategic focus to include “core interests” (He Xin Li Yi) is giving rise to questions whether Beijing is keen to retain its foreign policy plank based on ‘harmonious world’.  Strong indications are emerging that China has begun to implement an assertive foreign policy with ‘core interests’ as its main component.  In specific terms, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and South China Sea Islands stand listed under the ‘core interest’ category. Chinese media have included strategic resources and trade routes in the list. As a result, China has come to adopt an uncompromising position on issues concerning the country’s sovereignty. Pointers include China’s growing naval activism in the South and East China seas, consistent hard line stand on the Sino-Indian border and the Dalai Lama issues, resistance to Yuan revaluation demand, action on Google, the stiff anti-US positions on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and climate change and efforts to expand influence abroad through the use of military and nuclear assistance. The situation has led India’s Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh to observe “there is new assertiveness on the part of China; it will be difficult to say which way it will go and India should be prepared.”

Beijing is explaining its thrust on ‘core interests’ by saying that China is ‘going global and its international influence is becoming more visible and assertive and the nation’s diplomatic strategies accordingly need to comply with the changes in the international environment and domestic conditions’. Evolving ‘multipolarity’ and ‘multilateralism’ as well as global challenges including climate change and energy security, have marked the changes in the external conditions, according to Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi.

A careful analysis, would however show that a variety of factors are contributing to China’s assertiveness  –  (i) Beijing’s growing confidence internationally especially after its success in holding the Olympics and in maintaining high growth rates despite the global recession, (ii) China’s feeling that an opportunity has arisen for itself to increase its influence globally as the world balance of power shifts from the West to East and a multi-polar world gradually emerges,  (iii) the PRC’s growing need to protect land and sea trade routes in the interest of the much needed import of resources from abroad and (iv) deepening Chinese fears concerning sovereignty over  Tibet and Xinjiang and (v)  continuing suspicions on US strategy towards Taiwan.

As far as South Asia is concerned, Beijing’s assertiveness is already getting manifested in its harder positions on the issues of Sino-Indian border, Tibet and China-Pakistan nexus. The PRC is becoming more vociferous in claiming India’s Arunachal Pradesh as part of its ‘Southern Tibet’ for e.g its objection to Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. It is suspecting India’s position on the Dalai Lama in spite of New Delhi’s assurances on this count and keeping the talks between Dharamsala and Beijing deadlocked. It is further strengthening strategic ties with Pakistan. Both China and Pakistan are repeatedly laying stress to the relevance to bilateral ties of their peace treaty signed in 2005, unique in South Asia, providing for mutual support in protecting each other’s national sovereignty and integrity. As late as December 2010, this treaty found a mention in the China-Pakistan Joint Statement issued at the end of Premier Wen’s visit to Pakistan. It is being viewed by experts in China as a legal document providing for an ‘alliance’ between the two sides against any foreign threat. Is the treaty directed against India? It appears so.

Worrisome to India is the latest situation regarding China’s position on Kashmir. China is taking up road and railway projects designed to link Pakistan and China via Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) where Chinese troops are reportedly deployed ostensibly for construction work. As noted analyst Mr B.Raman puts it, the reported infrastructure projects undertaken by the Chinese military and nuclear establishments in Pakistan Occupied Gilgit-Baltistan region, may become strategically important to the Chinese army in the event of another conflict with India; in particular, the Karakorum Highway could be useful for China as an overland route for moving missiles and spare parts to Pakistan. Also, there appears to be a deeper meaning to the issuing of stapled visas by Beijing to Kashmiri Indians, indicating that   China is shedding its traditional neutrality on the Kashmir issue. Quoting Mr B.Raman again, this new nuanced position on Kashmir could mean a dilution of China’s past stand of accepting Kashmir as a de-facto part of India, while at the same time treating POK including Gilgit-Baltistan region as de-facto and de-jure parts of Pakistan.  Is China’s stand a quid pro quo for Pakistan’s help to Beijing in fighting against Uighur separatism in Xinjiang? Is Beijing developing future options for questioning India’s locus standi to negotiate with China on the territory in Ladakh ceded by Pakistan to the PRC? The remarks of Indian Prime Minister that China “ could use India’s ‘soft underbelly’ of Kashmir to keep India in low level equilibrium”, demonstrate how serious these questions are.

With ‘strategic resources’ and ‘trade routes’, also reportedly coming under ‘core interests’ category (no official mention yet), China’s growing profile in the Indian Ocean, the vital sea route for its energy import from the Middle East, has become more important from the point of view of South Asian situation as a whole. It is natural for India to watch for the strategic significance of China’s naval modernization and its increasing focus on the Indian Ocean. In this context, the real meaning of the bold views, but without official contradiction, being expressed by influential military and strategic experts in China on setting up its overseas naval bases to protect the country’s energy supply routes, should be a matter of concern for  India; In particular looking justified are Indian fears over  the future military potentials of China’s port projects in India’s neighborhood, like Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Sittwe (Myanmar) and Chittagong(Bangladesh).

China’s South Asia policy could still be dominated by that nation’s need for a ‘peaceful periphery’ in order to ensure the success of its modernisation efforts, by the projected time limit of 2050. But the PRC’s concept of regional peace in South Asia appears not yet free from an anti-India bias. An assertive China seems to persist with its course of promoting Pakistan as an ally with a view to strategically limiting India’s rise within the confines of South Asia. This assessment appears valid when the pro-Pakistan viewpoints being expressed by well-connected scholars in China of late, possibly reflecting official opinions, are taken into account. For e.g., an authoritative article in Chinese language (21 May 2010) captioned  “South Asia’s Position in the International Order and Choice Before China”, written by Professor Zhao Gancheng, Director of South Asia Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies has said that India’s regional ‘hegemony’ is prompting China to ‘reassess’ its South Asia policy. Giving a call, to ‘redefine’ India’s position in South Asia in the interest of a stable and peaceful regional order, the write-up has alleged that India’s current policies do not address the ‘strategic autonomy’ requirements of other South Asian nations. It has declared that the goal of China’s South Asia policy will always be in favour of maintaining regional peace and stability and   is related to the emergence of a regional balance of power and the gaining of ‘strategic autonomy’ by all South Asian nations.  India’s strategic autonomy should not be detrimental to the corresponding autonomy of other regional powers and that India must rectify its periphery policy, which can enable other regional nations to accept its dominant position.

How India can respond to the evolving China’s policy  towards South Asia? New Delhi’s strategy should be based on the premise that India’s strategic interests will continue to be affected by China’s policy to befriend India’s neighbours in order to protect its economic and security interests and counter a ‘rising’ India. It will be important for India to realise that China’s new assertiveness could be meant to redefine its boundaries of its economic and diplomatic clout and military influence in the present international scenario. As signs that India is already thinking on the same lines, the country’s Prime Minister has himself acknowledged that “China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and that India has to reflect this reality”. Under the circumstances, it will be desirable for India to get closer to its neighbours through measures like extending economic aid. As late Mr R.Swaminathan puts it, countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have developed proximity- induced mistrust of India and intend to hedge their ties with India with some kind of balancing act with China. New Delhi’s aim should be to eradicate such mistrust and that will be possible if India is prepared to share its new prosperity with its weaker neighbours. Recent instances like Indian high level visits to Sri Lanka revealing New Delhi’s intentions to reach out to Colombo economically augur well in this connection. At the same time, it would be necessary for India to continue its ‘engagement’ policy towards China on the basis of its sound assessment that ‘there is enough space for both to pursue their ambitions of economic development’. No doubt, while doing so, New Delhi should evolve an effective regional strategy to neutralise, as the Indian Prime Minister calls it, China’s policy of  “ seeking to expand its influence in South Asia at India’s expense”.

(The Writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies. This paper formed the basis of his presentation at the National Seminar on “Rise of China: Implications for Asian Neighbors”, jointly organized by the Indian Centre for South Asian Studies, Chennai Centre for China Studies and Center for Asia Studies, at Chennai on 17 December 2010. This is to be included in the edited volume on proceedings of the seminar, to be brought out soon.  Email:

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