India needs to carefully monitor China’s “New age diplomacy”, a new slogan, being energetically pushed by the sixth generation leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Leqiang.
The ‘blue book’ published by China’s top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), looks squarely at the Indian Ocean Region, its littoral states, and India’s ‘Look East’ policy. Although the blue book is not yet available in India in an English translated version, media reports from Beijing suggests it is concerned that China was falling behind India and the US in the strategic domination of the Indian Ocean. It warns that if India, the US and China did not engage each other in this region then the Indian Ocean will become an Ocean of conflict.
The book also exhibits some concerns about India’s Look East Policy. The Chinese official media has been showing some discomfort with this. In fact, this issue became prominent when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Japan recently for upgrading of India-Japan relations to a new level. Liu Zhangyi, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIS), an important think tank, wrote this in the official Global Times (May 31): “As an embodiment of the Look East Policy, India has strengthened economic, strategic and security co-operation with countries like Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. It has interfered in the South China Sea disputes in a high profile manner against the backdrop of the US pivot to Asia. Some Indian scholars acknowledge that some parts of the Look East Policy target China”.
To make things clear, the ‘blue book’ produced by the CASS is not an official publication. But the CASS is finally under the Communist Party and the government, and the President of CASS holds a position equivalent to a member of the politburo of the Party Central Committee. Such books and papers are produced as per the parameters laid down by the establishment not only for the consideration of the policy makers, but also to elicit reactions from abroad.
The media is fully in control of the Party and the government, though views of powerful factions on internal issues are also carried by them. A Party propaganda department directive announced earlier this year that the media is not independent and serves the Party and the government.
-2- Before Premier Li Keqiang embarked on his historic (historic, because it was the first time that a top Chinese leaders made India the first stop on his maiden foreign trip) to India, the authentic Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (May 14) said China’s diplomatic stance “especially in the matter of core interests” had become “strong and bold”. The article gave several reasons for this boldness including its comprehensive national power with its military strength increasing by the day, and a clear understanding of “enemies and friends” in its diplomatic strategy. Very interestingly, the article added maritime security had become China’s focus, and its diplomacy had become “particularly ruthless” in protecting its maritime interests. The reference was obviously to Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’ sovereignty issue and South China Sea disputes. The Li Keqiang visit did not yield any spectacular result, nor was it expected to. The visit was proposed by Xi Jinping to Manmohan Singh at the BRICS Summit in the last week of March, and he arrived in India on May 20.
The visit was initially clouded by the establishing of a camp by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) battalion on April 15 at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in the Western Sector of the India-China border, in India’s perceived side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The incident made news in the Indian media though not a word was mentioned in the Chinese media. From the military point of view it did not appear the PLA detachment had come to engage the Indian border troops. They had no back up. It can, therefore, be concluded that they came in to make a point – that the Indians should not think the border issue was going to be smooth.
In this connection it may be recalled that on the last day of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003, a PLA detachment surrounded an Indian non-army patrol in the Eastern Sector, disarmed them, and sent them back with a lecture. Only one Indian newspaper reported the incident which was, otherwise, brushed under the carpet by the Indian government.
The Chinese should have been very happy by Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003. He had signed off India’s Tibet position by signing on the dotted lines presented by the Chinese. But the incident in the Eastern Sector conveyed the message that it was not enough.
-3- Premier Li’s visit and the joint statement with Prime Minister Singh would suggest the resolution of the border issue has been put on the fast track. It is, however, difficult to accept this assumption. Certainly, Prime Minister Singh told Premier Li that the Chinese camping in DBO was not acceptable and should not recur. He also asked that China work to correct the huge imbalance in bilateral trade, and open up China’s markets to Indian exports. Premier Li agreed to work on both. Given China’s track record with other countries, India will be frustrated on both accounts.
Li Keqiang came with a business delegation of exporters and investors interested especially in the Indian infrastructure area which has huge potential.
The Indian side, however, appears to have shied away from critical issues. These include Chinese obstruction to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Chinese constructions in POK which is a disputed territory, Chinese opposition to India’s membership of an expanded permanent UN Security Council, among many others. This includes the strategic river flows from China to India, a lower riparian. Equally important is the issue of China’s nuclear empowerment of Pakistan in the weaponization sector with Beijing having set up four plutonium processing plants in Pakistan according to international observers.
Li Keqiang went to Pakistan from India reassuring Islamabad that his visit to India in no way reduces their “all weather” friendship. The visit detailed that China was poised to establish a much stronger position in Pakistan, considered an IOR littoral state and gateway to the Gulf and West Asia. China has been concerned for quite some time now, especially after the India-US nuclear deal, up-gradation of India-US defence co-operation including joint military/naval exercises, and a possible India-US-Japan coalition to encircle China.
The CASS ‘blue book’ is not correct in saying that China lags behind in the Indian Ocean region while India has made significant progress from South East Asia to East Asia and North East Asia. The truth is the other way round. For decades China has tried and succeeded in keeping India enclosed in South Asia, using India’s neighbours and keeping Pakistan as the anchor. China and Sri Lanka entered into a strategic co-operation partnership when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Tokyo. The co-operation includes co-operation in security and defence. China’s push into Nepal to reduce India’s influence is well known. -4-
In the mid-1990s, China had devised a policy to gain in Indian Ocean Rim countries through cheap or free military transfers to encircle India. This policy is not dead, but a more sophisticated policy with more than one military dimension is in the offing.
Li Keqiang wanted India to support its claims in the South China Sea. This was a preposterous suggestion. India cannot afford to support the Chinese demand which will close one of the busiest international commercial maritime routes.
If China objects to Indian oil companies exploring in Vietnamese waters for oil and gas, it will be against all international laws.
There is an apprehension in Beijing that India will be a partner to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “democratic security diamond” comprising Japan, the US, India and Australia. China should have understood that such a security concept no longer exists, and India’s independent foreign policy will persist. On the other hand, India has never objected to China’s relations with India’s neighbours even when they were pointedly inimical to India.
India has historical relationship with most of the South East Asian countries which were based on culture and trade, and not war. India has never tried to teach any country a “lesson” which China has done on record. India and Japan, and also the other countries need each other for natural development. The problem is that China wants to dominate Asia. No one wants to contain China, and a collapsed China will be a much bigger threat than a strong China. But if this strength translates into dominance, there will be trouble. India and China are the two biggest countries in Asia. Both have to work together. If China tries to restrict India it will only be inviting a serious problem. China must stop strategizing in cold war terms. The “I, me, and mine” syndrome has to be dropped.
( The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )