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India’s Asia-Pacific Challenges and Opportunities

With India’s Look East policy becoming more pronounced and energetic, signals from China are increasingly of unease. From the time India unveiled this policy in the early 1990s the Chinese official media warned New Delhi to stay away from their backyard. More recent Chinese discussions are quite open that India is being encouraged by the USA to enter the Asia-Pacific Region more emphatically to counter China. The Chinese experts and official media, who have their own briefing sources from the government and the communist party have no hesitation to state openly that they perceive a US led ring comprising Japan, South Korea, and Australia in which India is a key player.

China appears confident to an extent of keeping natural Australia and south Korea, although both these countries have strong military and security ties with the USA. Australia is divided over China trade and China’s threat. South Korea’s main concern is Beijing’s diplomatic defence of North Korea. In the last three years, Pyongyang sank a South Korean frigate killing 45 sailors, and shelled a South Korean island. Seoul maintained restraint because of the US and Chinese diplomacy. Beijing, however, realises that it was becoming difficult to restrain the unpredictable Pyongyang. Yet, it cannot allow this country to collapse and unite with its southern half. That could bring the US forces on China’s borders, something not at all acceptable.

Over the last few years Beijing used propaganda and assertive postures and persuasion to break India-US relationship. In their perceived US-Japan-India anti-China partnership, India is seen as the weakest link easiest to be broken. Therefore, India is challenged with advisories, cautions and threats.

India-US military relations and proposed US high technology transfers to India are under China’s continuous review and comments. At the same time Japan’s decision to expand its military technology cooperation and Japan-India strategic ties have been looked at with concern by Beijing. The recent India-South Korea military cooperation, especially the agreement under which India will purchase six warships from South Korea and further cooperation in these areas would not have been missed by Beijing.

Perhaps for the first time, Indian Defence Minister A. K. Antony made it clear at an international forum that India had also moved along with the 21st century world and goes far beyond South Asia. Addressing the defence ministers’ gathering in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue (June 02), Antony declared India’s own security and prosperity was intimately tied to the security and prosperity of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which also included the SPR. Antony detailed India’s coast line as 7500 kms. from the Lakshadweep and Minicoy islands in the west to the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the east. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the mining areas allocated by the UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) were Indian sovereign and legal interests that must be secured.

Although Antony put safeguarding Indian territories and adjacent waters sage from sea borne threats as the first priority, his second priority was more telling in terms of the challenges in the APR and India’s profile in the region. This was the desire to ensure that the traditional freedom at sea were preserved to ensure access to all. Antony was stating India’s considered position and did not shy away from raising the South China Sea issues. He made it clear that India desired that conflicts be avoided there, and welcomed the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) between China and the ASEAN to resolve the differences through dialogue and negotiations.

India’s position was clear. It opposed military conflicts in the South China Sea, a vital maritime route for India and all other countries concerned. China is preparing well militarily to establish sovereignty over the oil, gas and mineral rich sea beds of the Spratly Islands in South China Sea. The Chinese foreign ministry said that the maritime lanes of this sea will be open. China, at the same time worked at Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) and fighting local wars under infomatization conditions. Local war extends to regional wars. If the South China Sea route is per force closed even for a week, countries using this maritime trade route (including India) will be economically hurt. Minister Antony pointed out, almost 90% by volume and 77% by value of India’s mercantile global trade was carried by sea.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, addressing the same conference, termed the new US policy towards the region in military-politico terms from “pivot” to “rebalancing” when he declared that US naval deployment from the present 50/50 between Europe and APR will be changed to 40/60 between Europe and APR by 2020, a rise of 10 percent deployment in the APR further strengthening in Australia and Guam.

Not surprisingly, Panetta said that the “rebalancing” was not aimed at China, the US-China relations was one of the most important in the world, and wanted to build a strong military-to-military relationship with China. At the same time, he emphasized on the freedom of sea lanes, resolving disputes by peaceful means and US commitment to empower countries of the region to defence themselves. Japan will remain the cornerstone for regional security and prosperity in 21st century.

Panetta did his rounds to Vietnam and India, and then detoured to Afghanistan on an emergency to warn Pakistan over harbouring terrorists, especially the Haqqani network. The Philippine President Benigno Aquino was in the US immediately afterwards which saw enhancement of bilateral military cooperation.

Following the Shangri-La conference, China expressed its displeasure over US enhancement of military deployment in the region. Notable here is that China did not send its defence minister to Singapore explaining he was busy with other engagements, though Gen. Liang Guanglie was in Cambodia to attend the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting plus China (ADMM plus) a week earlier. Instead Lt. Gen. Ren Haiguan, who is the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences headed the Chinese delegation. Beijing obviously expected the US to unveil its long term strategy for the region. Sending the defence minister would have meant he would be slotted in the plenary session and state China’s position. China is wary about USA’s “two-track” policy towards it – engage economically, but counter militarily.

It would not be incorrect say that China is close to the change in its once in ten years top leadership among serious political scandals, hence caution is the watch word. There is a formal debate in the country over whether the foreign policy should be assertive or should it adhere to international laws and norms. The military is trying to control foreign policy with an assertive approach. The political leadership remain engaged with internal political upheavals and power struggle. But certain things are non-changeable: sovereignty claims over the South China Sea and the Spratly island, and Premier Wen Jiabao telling the Japanese Prime Minister in May that the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japan) islands were China’s “Core interest”, that is, China will preserve its sovereignty even with military means even though the islands are in Japanese control.

These are strong positions from China. They are rewriting the history of South China Sea and redrawing the map, something that suggests they are going to fudge more to establish their claim. These positions only suggest that the APR from Japan down to South East Asia is poised to become an unstable and unpredictable region in the world in coming years.

Neither China, nor the US or the other countries of the region are inclined to disturb or destroy the economic future of the APR, which should now be appropriately called APR plus (India). The US is pursuing a policy for some kind of a power balance in the region to ensure stability. Beijing is uncomfortable with these developments but would be satisfied currently with status quo. But challenges are a concern. The view among Chinese hardliners that the US is on the decline and china is on the rise, is allowed to dominate the future could be uncertain.

One country that did not really figure in the Shangri-La deliberations was Russia. With its huge land mass, Russia is both an European and Asian power with legitimate claim to the APR. With the discovery of huge oil and gas deposits in its eastern sector, stability of the region is in Moscow’s interest. During his visit to Beijing to attend the SCO summit (June 6-7), Russian President Vladimir Putin declared for more frequent military exercises between Russia and China.

Trust between Russia and China is, however, not high. During Putin’s visit the two sides could not resolve the differences on the pricing of Russian gas – a long standing problem. Russia remains unhappy over Chinese immigrants in the Siberian region and Moscow has not forgotten China siding with the US during the cold war, and exploitation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But there can also be common cause.

India is in a position between challenges and opportunities. The challenge is to consider how it prosecutes its relationship between China and the US. Defence Minister Antony made India’s position clear in Singapore. If China tries to counter India in other areas including the unresolved boundary issues, hard decision would be necessary from New Delhi. Trade should not be the only consideration.

Opportunities are many. India’s Look East Policy is being taken seriously; it is being seen as a pace setter in the region, with the Pacific joining the Indian Ocean in a seamless manner. Building defence capabilities is no longer for aggression – strength ensures peace. If there is a flare up in the APR, India must take a position in its national interest. That is, be with the parties that want to keep the sea lanes of the region open for trade and commerce.

India has gone beyond the old inhibition of not taking a step, even in self interest, that may irritate China. Pay heed to the old Chinese proverb “blackmail the weak, but respect the strong”. Within these contradictions, however, India and China must work with each other to improve on the trust deficit. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said and agreed to by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, ‘there is enough space in Asia for India and China’. At the same time, in the new global order India has much more in common with the USA than with China. To remember, India came out of nuclear apartheid with US support, something which China continues to oppose, among other critical issues. But that does not mean India should be unnecessarily arrogant. (The writer, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi;

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