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China: Security Environment in the Neighborhood including India Comes Under Scanner

A signed article in Chinese language (14 October 2009) in the latest issue of ‘ Qiu Shi’ (Seeking Truth), the theoretical organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is notable for its account of the current status of relations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with neighboring nations including India and indication of the nature of emerging perspectives of China on the subject. Written by Zhou Fangyin, the write up addresses the basic question – why in recent years some frictions and disputes have continuously appeared in China’s ties with neighboring countries and why discordant voices have been heard? It traces both prevailing favorable and unfavorable factors for China’s security environment in the neighborhood specifically relating to India, Vietnam and the Philippines and prescribes policies, which China should adopt to deal with the emerging situation.

Referring to the Sino-Indian border dispute, the article alleges that India several times has dispatched additional troops to the ‘disputed’ border region and speeded up migration into that region; it also charges Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations for continuing to take various measures including construction activities, aimed at asserting their ‘sovereignty’ over the reefs in South China Sea occupied by them. According to it, China- Australia ties have also witnessed ‘twists and turns’ as a result of a chain of events – China Aluminium Company’s failure to acquire the Rio Tinto firm, trade secrets violations by the Rio Tinto staff in Shanghai and the Australian issue of Visa to ‘Xinjiang Independence’ elements like Rebiya kadeer despite China’s opposition.

The ‘most important’ negative factors contributing to China’s frictions with neighboring nations, which the article identifies, are: (1) the complex nature of China’s geographical environment, with the country having largest number in the world of ‘diverse’ neighboring nations, (2) China’s border issues with neighboring countries being the ‘historical legacy’, for e.g Sino-Indian border issue, the Diaoyu (Senkakus) issue with Japan and the South China Sea question. Also, some countries are attempting to actually occupy the disputed areas taking advantage of China’s pacifist policy, so as to create a fait accompli against China in self interests and strengthen their positions in the border talks, (3) the changes in the balance of power in the region as a result of China’s rise, for e.g Japan’s leading economic status in East Asia is getting challenged and to restrict China’s growing influence, it is developing a joint approach with other countries. Also, India is not convinced about China’s rise and so, looking from a political and security point of view, the unresolved border issue dividing them would mean that their ties can not become quiet within a certain period in future and (4) The US alliance system, comprising Japan, South Korea, and Australia and partnerships with the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, India and Pakistan; the US wants to prevent China’s rise and its impact on China’s neighborhood environment can not be ignored, though there is a degree of uncertainty in this regard.

The article also lists the following favorable factors in respect of the security environment in the periphery – (1) the improvement in China’s comprehensive national strength; though frictions with neighbouring nations could be its by-product, the extent and scope of such frictions would be limited as such nations may find that in the long run, it would be in their interests to improve ties with China, (2) China’s increasing economic influence in the periphery through trade and investment which will be a stabilizing factor for neighborhood security and (3) the substantial reduction of uncertainties in the minds of countries in the neighborhood over China’s strategic intentions, which has come about due to Beijing’s policies like the New Security Concept and Harmonious World, roles in regional integration mechanisms and initiatives like establishment of Free Trade Zones. As such, the trends regarding surrounding environment are on the whole improving.

The ‘Qiu Shi’ write-up in the end lists following measures for adoption by China for the purpose of improving the security environment in the periphery- (1) China should seize the current opportunity to further enhance its overall strength which will influence the creation of a favorable peripheral environment, (2) the PRC must maintain the stability in its ties with the US, which is the only world super-power having great influence over the Asian region, especially over the policies of Japan, South Korea, Australia and Southeast Asian nations. China has potentials to challenge the dominant position of the US in future and the latter as such will not change its China policy for a long period of time, but Washington also needs cooperation with Beijing in international affairs and it would be in the US interests to maintain stability in its ties with China, (3) The PRC must adopt good-neighborly diplomacy with an aim to expand its influence in peripheral nations. Though it enjoys certain influence in the surrounding areas, the same is not compatible to China’s overall strength. Economic cooperation still remains the main pillar of China’s neighborhood policy, but Beijing should also build ‘highly stable’ political and strategic cooperation with neighboring countries, which can stand the test of changes in international environment and (4) China must strengthen its soft power capabilities, so that the surrounding nations become aware of its friendly international image. At the same time, it should strive to attain a balance by maintaining its strategic deterrent force.

Notwithstanding the disclaimer of ‘Qiu Shi’ that the writer does not represent its views, the very fact that the article has been found worthy for publication in an authoritative party mouthpiece, could appear significant. Unmistakably, it conveys some idea about China’s current thinking about its neighborhood policy including towards India; significant is Beijing’s apparent recognition that some thing has gone wrong in its relations with countries in the periphery. From the point of view of India, notable is the absence of any rhetoric in the article while commenting on the Sino-Indian border issue, unlike what has recently been seen in other party publications like the People’s Daily and Global Times. The explanation could be that the writer has done a serious study, with no requirement for rhetoric. The article’s assessment that due to the boundary question, Beijing-New Delhi relation may not be a quiet one for some more time, needs to be noted by India. Also worth paying attention is the connection made in the write-up between China’s neighborhood security and the need for stable relations with the US. India, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries having territorial disputes with China, should study carefully the suggestion that the PRC can extend its economic cooperation to strategic sectors, in order to allay the misgivings among surrounding nations.

It is clear that at least some thinkers in China are revisiting China’s neighborhood policy. They now seem to prefer more strategic cooperation and operation of soft power by China, while insisting that they should not be at the cost of the country’s strategic deterrence. The question whether this will actually lead to some course corrections by Beijing, is difficult to answer at the moment. Strategic issues continue to bedevil India- China ties and it would be important for New Delhi to carefully monitor the meaning of such pronouncements emanating from China. India should continue with its ‘engagement policy’ towards the PRC, while simultaneously working towards securing its strategic interests.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:dsrajan@gmail.com)

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