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Event Report: ‘Dynamics in the Asia-Pacific: Implications for India’

C3S Paper No. 0120/2016

A lecture-discussion on ‘Dynamics in the Asia-Pacific: Implications for India’ was held by the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), in collaboration with Athena Infonomics and Center for Asia Studies (CAS). The event was held on July 30 2016 at Athena Infonomics, T. Nagar, Chennai.

Ambassador (Retd.) Sudhir Devare, Ram Sathe Chair in International Studies at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, and Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, USA, gave his views on the topic. The event was presided over by Ambassador (Retd.) M. Ganapathi, Member, C3S.

Amb. Ganapathi noted that International Law is powerful for the powerless and powerless for the powerful. This set the tone for the lecture-discussion.

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Amb. Sudhir Devare described the Asia-Pacific as a region that is in the vortex of developments. It was relatively peaceful till the Cold War. Tensions arose in the last 45 years. However China is rising in prominence, marking a changing global order in the region. Beijing has many stakes in the region, similar to countries including Singapore and Thailand which depend on China. The present developments in the region raise the question of whether China is taking a considerable risk. A zone of considerable tension is being entered in the Asia-Pacific.

Nevertheless, there are many organizations which seek to promote stability in the region, such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus (ADMM+), etc. India has been a part of East Asia Summit (EAS) since the commencement of the process in 2005.

The region can be examined in the context of bilateralism or multilaterism on one hand, and traditional/non-traditional security on the other. China is pushing for bilateralism, while nontraditional security concerns are increasing in the region. The latter includes cases of pandemics and terrorism. Other concerns include financial instability. One such instance is the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. It was a real-estate related crisis, caused by unhealthy speculative investment.

The following decades saw the emergence of the Chiang Mai Initiative and ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN + China + Japan + South Korea). These programmes helped to tide over prejudices against China.

However China is being seen as more aggressive at present, especially since Xi Jinping took over as President. The South China Sea dispute is a channel of this assertiveness. In the 1990s China argued for traditional fishing rights near Natunas Islands, and this claim clashed with Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As time progressed, Philippines filed a case against China regarding the South China Sea dispute. As a result, the July 12 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague, has ‘dashed’ the hopes of China’s 9-dash line.

The PCA ruled, under Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that the land features under question were rocks and not islands. Hence an EEZ could not be claimed around them. Alongside this development, we observe China and Russia are holding naval exercises. It needs to be carefully monitored in the coming months.

Nevertheless, the overall impression in the Asia-Pacific following the PCA ruling is that there is a sense of relief that China’s claims were rejected by an international verdict. China has strongly rejected the ruling, but the international community is unsure whether this trend will continue. It could lead to a new global regional order, where the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) play a vital role. The ruling could prompt a reaction from other states involved the dispute against China. It will be interesting to see how China responds, given that it also a signatory to UNCLOS.

It is not a black and white issue. There are wheels within wheels. For instance, Vietnam and China held a dialogue before the PCA ruling. Perhaps they were trying to reach a settlement on their own bilateral dispute. Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte had also stated that he would like to discuss the issue with China. Perhaps Philippines was ready, before the ruling, to share resources. However if the PCA ruling favours Philippines, the question arises as to why should Manila share its rightful resources. Similarly, complexities can be observed when taking into account Malaysia’s claims in the South China Sea: Malaysia consists of the peninsular region, along with Sabah and Sarawak. The country’s foreign minister hails from Sabah. This influenced Malaysia’s claim of an EEZ around Sabah.

Another complication is that of Laos and Cambodia being too dependent on China. As a result there is lesser unity among ASEAN states. While the ASEAN economic community is firmly in place, the rumblings within may have repercussions on the ASEAN security community and social community. On the other hand, the role of defence forces in the region can be modified.

The instability in the region can have a ripple effect on India as well, as an unstable environment does not augur well for parties like Delhi. Hence it would be best if the Asia-Pacific is a regional grouping of ASEAN. Since India has no military baggage in the region, ASEAN would be a good vehicle for us to move our Act East Policy. However there remains the threat to AEAN’s entirety. Regionalism in South East Asia had worked well, because there was no common currency/common customs union/common security policy, unlike the European Union.

Despite this calm, there are several areas of conflict in the Asia-Pacific, such as between China-South Korea, Japan-China, Japan- Russia, South China Sea, etc. It is seen that China defies international law and order, i.e., it is looking for a different norm in international relations. The heart of the matter for China lies in the question of how to have smooth relations with countries while defying international norms. There is the parallel development of military buildup in the Asia-Pacific.

On a different note, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has greater prospects for peace than the Western Pacific. The role of the One Belt One Road initiative in the IOR is unclear, as we do not know how much support China will receive in infrastructure projects.

Nevertheless there seem to be signs that U.S.A is accommodating China in the IOR, unlike its aim to contain China in the Western Pacific. This accommodating stance is due to U.S.A not referring to China-Pakistan relations vis-à-vis terrorism, despite China’s support for Pakistan being clear. If this stance continues, it does not bode well for India. This is especially since the specter of terrorism is growing every day. The Islamic State threat pervades worldwide. While it is present in Europe, it has also shown signs of activity in Afghanistan, alongside small cells in Philippines. While Indonesia is seemingly secure against the I.S threat, worries remain in Malaysia. Bangladesh is another case in point.

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The lecture was followed by an insightful interactive session with the audience. Col. Hariharan, Member, C3S observed that China’s presence in the IOR cannot be expected until there is a greater naval buildup. Dr. Indira, Asst. Professor at the School of IR and Public Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University raised queries. Firstly the state of U.S.A-China military relations was questioned, given that U.S.A is inclined towards politics of convenience. For instance it amplifies relations with countries with lower human rights (e.g- Pakistan’s erstwhile military government, Saudi Arabia). Amb. Sudhir Devare observed that military relations between U.S.A and China have increased significantly, especially in the realm of defence purchases. India too is actively engaging in military ties with U.S.A’s army and navy. Similarly, India is engaging with Russia, Israel, etc. There is hence a diversification programme underway. While India has differences with U.S.A on the latter’s military policies in different parts of the world (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran, etc.) we are consistent in our relations. Thus India is not under any pressure. Therefore, defence purchases remain a business decision.

Amb. Sudhir Devare answered Dr. Indira’s query on the Ministry of External Affairs of India’s overall vision: that it is dependent on various elements. These include diplomats abroad, the P.M, the Foreign Minister, parliament, etc. However the MEA is a vibrant and active system through which foreign policy is made. While India’s independence in foreign policy (earlier expressed through NAM) is slightly modified, its essence remains the same. It is notable that we have zero enemies and ‘n’ number of friends. While there remain many areas of concern, several have been resolved in the recent past.

Prof. Suryanarayan, President, C3S explained that China’s differences with its South East Asian neighbours are an opportunity for India to galvanize its Act East Policy. Dialogue should be increased at the unofficial level with South East Asian states. Yet India remains afraid of China’s reactions. Perhaps Chennai can serve a platform for such future dialogue. In addition, connectivity between India and South East Asia must be improved, especially via Myanmar.

Tanvir Jaikishen, Member, C3S expressed that the South China Sea issue is not a major concern, as it is being blown out of proportion. Amb. Ganapathi responded that it is not the case.

Vithiyapathy, Research Officer, C3S asked what lay ahead for India’s Act East policy. Amb. Sudhir Devare believes that it is significant, given that we had only cursory relations with South East Asia earlier. In fact, many countries in the region were not independent at one point of time when India was engaging with them. Delhi supported their independence movements. Later on, as problems arose in South Asia, India realized it must not confine itself to its immediate neighbourhood.  It decided to increase relations with the ‘Asian Tigers’. There are now higher ties via diaspora, trade, education, civil aviation, security, education, etc. There are 450 flights between India and Singapore every week, which is a significant figure. Singapore’s and India’s navies actively engage with each other. Singapore’s defence personnel in its air force, artillery and armored tanks divisions receive training in India. Thus there are many ways to develop relations between India and South East Asia, and we must not concentrate on the South China Sea issue alone.

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Mr. Rathinavelu, M.D, Inma International, who was a member of the audience, was invited to give a brief outline about his initiatives in increasing relations between India and West Africa. An interesting account of the same was presented.

Amb. Ganapathi presented the vote of thanks.

(Compiled by Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S.)

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