For experts analysing China’s South Asia policy, an article in Chinese language contributed by an authoritative Chinese academician in May 2010 ( noticed online only recently) may prove to be important. The write-up captioned “South Asia’s Position in the International Order and Choice Before China”, authored by Professor Zhao Gancheng, Director of South Asia Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies has alleged (www.chinaelections.org/newsinfo.asp?newsid=177520, dated 21 May 2010), that India’s current policies are absolutely aimed at realising ‘hegemony’ in South Asia; they do not address the ‘strategic autonomy’ requirements of other South Asian nations. This reason is prompting China to reassess its South Asia policy. The article 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. In this connection, it has demanded that India’s position in South Asia should be ‘redefined’ in the interest of a stable and peaceful regional order, adding that 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.
The article has also laid stress on the long-term need for factoring the security threats posed by international terrorist forces to China’s Southwest border, in China’s South Asia policy. It has further remarked that the policy should respond to the complicated situation arising in South Asia as a result of consolidation of its interests in the region by the US. In this connection, noting that the US has signed agreements with India covering the fields of nuclear cooperation etc and aid pacts with Pakistan and that President Obama could build a counter-terrorism front in the region, the article has felt that the same are impacting on China’s South Asia policy. Without having any particular country in the region as a fulcrum of its South Asia policy, China should support creation of sustainable South Asian security architecture to deal with both traditional and non-traditional security threats.
The prescription in the article that India’s role in South Asia should be ‘redefined’ appears to mark a new dimension in the thinking of Chinese academicians who in the past had backed China’s ties with India as per status it had then, along with their assessment that such ties are not directed against any third party. In fact, Chinese observers seem more inclined now than before to approach the situation in South Asia through the prism of India vs. the rest. This stand would no doubt get welcome in countries like Pakistan, inimical towards India. Whether coincident or not, at government levels also, China has started showing at the same time a pro-Pakistan tilt on India-Pakistan issues like Kashmir. Illustrating the same are Beijing’s ‘stapled visa’ procedure to Kashmiri Indians and undertaking of projects in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Also, there is no let up in China’s strategic presence in other parts of India’s neighbourhood. In all, a churning in China on relations with South Asia, which could have implications for the developing Sino-Indian ties, is becoming visible.
The opinion of the scholar that China’s reassessment of its South Asia policy is due to India’s current policies seems to be revealing only a partial picture of the reality. The scenario needs to be examined in a broader sense. China is undoubtedly showing a new assertiveness in Asia, dictated by its perceived need to protect its ‘core interests’. Accordingly, the direction of China’s foreign policy is changing, subordinating diplomatic interests to those concerning the country’s sovereignty. Examples are China’s uncompromising stand on its territorial issue with Japan and naval activism in South China Sea, even confronting the US power as well as its persistence in adopting a hard line on the Sino-Indian and the Dalai Lama issues.
Besides India’s policies, other reasons behind China’s apparent new approach towards South Asia could include US nod for China’s role in South Asia, as witnessed during Obama-Hu Jintao meeting at Beijing in November 2009 and China’s growing worries about threats to stability of the riot-hit Xinjiang and Tibet bordering provinces, which as seen by Beijing are coming from across the borders. A Chinese language Xinhua despatch from Chengdu dated 29 August 2009, referred to the remarks of China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie that India is a threat to China’s Southwest borders, just as what Vietnam is doing with respect to South China Sea. Deserving notice in this context is Professor Zhao’s emphasis that the security of China’s Southwest borders will determine China’s South Asia policy in a long term.
On India’s part, it is already showing awareness of China’s policy recalibration. The Indian Prime Minister has himself pointed out in September 2010 that China is seeking to expand its influence in South Asia at India’s expense. Logically, India’s awareness is expected to lead to its adoption of suitable counter-measures against China’s intentions. Hope India follows this logic in its own strategic interests.
In order to facilitate further discussions among scholars on the significance of opinions expressed by Professor Zhao, a translation of important portions of his article, done by this writer, is annexed below.
(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:email@example.com)
“ South Asia’s Position in the International Order and Choice Before China”, Professor Zhao Gancheng, South Asian Studies journal (Chinese), issue No.1/2010, dated 21 May 2010
Free translation of important portions
Key words: South Asian order; strategic autonomy; strategic choice Before China
Summary: A geo-political competition is deeply impacting on the evolving South Asian order. The region is facing conditions of instability as the countries involved are experiencing demand pulls from two different ends – one for relying on foreign forces and the other for achieving internal balance. In this scenario, India’s place and role in the region has become most important. For creating a stable and peaceful regional order, it is necessary to redefine the position of India in South Asia. Also possible and essential is to build that order based on the perspectives of the nations concerned on their achieving strategic autonomy; this would be strategically significant for China.
Fresh conditions that emerged since the end of the cold war, have given rise to demands on major South Asia powers to build their strategic autonomy. But, there has been no satisfactory progress in this regard; in the post- September 11 period, the region has become a hotbed of international terrorist forces with a significant impact on relations between major countries. Also, the efforts of regional powers to gain strategic autonomy have been marginalized due to an upswing in the intervention from foreign forces, particularly from the US and the West since the beginning of Afghanistan war; this has meant loss of opportunities for major South Asian nations to rebuild the regional security system. South Asia therefore faces uncertainties, making its position in the international order unstable. In the circumstances, the countries in the region now face an important strategic choice – whether they should continue to rely on external help to balance their interests or find a mechanism within South Asia aimed at addressing the question of a balance between major regional powers.
Prior to September 11 terrorist attacks, the US was completely out of South Asia. In such a situation, facing pressure from India, the neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could realise that their vital interests can be protected only when they develop strategic autonomy; accordingly, these nations in varying degrees chose to rely on foreign forces for the purpose of creating a favourable regional balance of their own. However, as seen in the past few decades, such reliance turned out to be not conducive to creating a true balance and stability in South Asia. On this basis and in an atmosphere in which India’s ‘rise’ in the 21st century global system has become a hot topic, other South Asian nations appear to be coming out in favour of adhering to a line of a ‘relative balance’ towards India.
After September 11 terrorist attacks, the US launched the Afghanistan war, which is casting a shadow on the search for a new equilibrium in South Asia. What looks unpredictable is the US strategic objective regarding South Asia’s future. As war against terrorism is in progress, Washington appears to be having no intentions to work out ‘checks and balances’ in South Asia, instead it is hoping to establish a new type of strategic ties with India, as a mean to achieve control over South Asia and win the Afghanistan war. Such US strategy may cause concerns among other nations in the region, on the basis of fears that its direct consequence can be India’s getting a new dominance in South Asia, with the help of the US. The other countries therefore face two difficult options — either align with India or seek help of the external forces to put pressure on India. Neither will be the best option for them, as both options cannot address their strategic autonomy needs. If big powers do not again enter the region, India will naturally gain the leading status. Under this premise, other regional powers, in relative terms, may be averse to India getting strategic autonomy. On the other hand, if the big powers come into the region as a balance against India’s increasing status, India’s position can be restricted, but other countries may find their strategic autonomy goals unattainable. This dilemma requires to be solved through a new approach.
With respect to formation of new South Asian order, the relevance of following three conditions may need to be examined – (i) Other South Asian nations recognise and accept India’s ‘central’ position in the region, (ii) The imbalance in the region does not harm the formal existence of other states and (iii) Big powers gradually withdraw from the region, reducing the impact on major countries in the region and contributing to progress in consolidation of strategic autonomy by these countries. It can be seen on scrutiny that all the conditions mentioned above have either not yet been fulfilled or awaiting improvement. In any case, a matter of all round significance will be the completion of the building of a South Asian order which is a sub-regional component of the over all Asian order; such order once formed will strategically impact on other big powers including China.
Over the years, the backbone of China’s South Asia policy has been to maintain and promote regional peace and stability. In the post-cold war period, the policy provided for China’s maintenance of a balanced posture in order to avoid unnecessary suspicions and geopolitical struggles, though there were difficult times in this regard. From the point of view of China, the question will be as to what kind of regional order, which South Asia should have, in order to realise the goal of protecting regional peace.
Firstly, while seeking strategic autonomy, South Asian nations should walk along the road of regional integration. Whether they will work towards collective security or pursue different policy choices in accordance with their own positions and needs is a question, difficult to answer. After the formation of SARC, regional integration efforts gained momentum, but there is stagnation on this count due to the existing contradictions among South Asian nations. If all SARC member countries agree to strengthen regional integration, avoid clashes and increase mutual dependence, the level of cooperation can go up. In that case, the positions on strategic autonomy of each regional country can also be built further. However, any progress in this regard appears difficult as issues left behind by history still bedevil relations between South Asian nations; establishing absolute trust among them may take a long time. As such, the process towards accomplishing strategic autonomy by these nations may face difficulties, unlike what happened in the case of ASEAN. This may mean that all South Asian countries will seek their own policy options and depend on internal motivation for achieving strategic autonomy. Factors like a decline in the interest of foreign forces in the region or some other reason may encourage them to do so. This hypothesis may lead to a conclusion that the self-seeking strategic autonomy strategies of the regional powers will shape the South Asian regional order.
Secondly, the aspirations of South Asia countries for greater strategic autonomy are closely related to India’s regional posture. On one hand, India, as a newly rising big power, is coming under a requirement to strengthen its own position in the international order; this is influencing its approach towards its own strategic autonomy On the other hand, India’s strategic autonomy position should not be detrimental to the corresponding interests of other regional nations; if this happens, India cannot realise stability in its periphery and such a situation will certainly damage India’s own search for strategic autonomy. As India’s two requirements interact, a new condition appears with respect to building of new South Asian order – India must rectify its periphery policy, so that the attitudes of the neighbouring countries can become more and more in favour of accepting India’s dominant position in the region. There could of course be variables and different possibilities on this score.
Thirdly, a question arises as to whether the foreign forces can create environment and conditions conductive to formation of new South Asian regional order? In the post cold war period, the rationale for foreign forces to compete in South Asia had been disappearing and the region’s position in the international order had undergone a decline. After September 11 attack, however South Asia has started reappearing in the international arena, thanks to the need arisen to counter international terrorism. In particular, Washington began its war against terrorism from Afghanistan and attempted to set up an anti-terrorism alliance in South Asia for the purpose of realising its aim to basically eliminate security threats to the US. However, finding its aim difficult to accomplish, the US has consolidated its entry into South Asia through measures like establishment of a strategic partnership and nuclear cooperation with India as well as extension of increased aid to Pakistan. After President Obama’s taking over, an all round rectification of US strategy has taken place, according top priority to the Af-Pak region. Washington has begun a new round of comprehensive adjustment in its strategy towards Afghanistan with an eye on consolidating its front to counter terrorism. These changes are complicating the scenario with respect to formation of new regional order in South Asia and generating a certain impact on China’s South Asia policy.
First, China hopes to see a stable South Asia, built on the basis of a relatively stable international order. Stability in South Asia is connected with regional balance of power; this connectivity has a logical relation with India’s unique position in South Asia. China clearly does not hope for any country exercising ‘hegemony’ in South Asia. India takes such ‘anti-hegemony’ position of China at its heart, which goes show that New Delhi’s strategic goal is absolutely for realising ‘hegemony’ in South Asia. As the word ‘hegemony’ has a negative connotation, international political analysts are questioning India’s South Asia strategy. When there is a need to build a stable structure in South Asia, conducive to strategic autonomy of each nation involved, India’s acquisition of a leading status in the region will certainly turn out to be a completely negative factor. Another conclusion can also be drawn – if India’s leadership position in the region is recognised or found helpful to regional stability by other South Asian nations, there will certainly be no clash between India’s status and China’s objectives in South Asia.
Next, a question arises as to whether or not India’s present policy helpful to realisation of strategic autonomy by other countries in South Asia? India’s objective all along is to lead South Asia; but in the matter of its realisation, there are all kinds of possibilities. Subsequent to the end of the cold war, India initiated a Look East policy, turning its diplomatic focus on Southeast Asia and reducing its interest in South Asia. After September 11, India shifted its attention to big power diplomacy and made a breakthrough in its ties with the US. These developments have had an impact on India’s international position. Perhaps, India thinks that it has already become a world power. As Indian strategists think, India must not bind itself with the sub-continent and rise as a global power centre in future on par with other big powers. From a long term point of view, such a thinking may lead to acceptance of India’s big power status by other South Asian nations. As the latter do not basically have similar big power ambitions, their objectives may be to develop a South Asia, which is free of geopolitical competition, have capacity to achieve prosperity through cooperation and can provide them space to independently manage their own affairs. These objectives of course cannot challenge India’s big power status. But if India’s status is found helpful by the other South Asian nations for fulfilling their objectives, especially for developing strategic autonomy in South Asia, stability in the region will not be undermined. But, India’s current policies have not yet realised such a condition; this reason should be prompting China to reassess its South Asia policy, even to carry out a certain rectification, in order to bring benefits to the endeavours being made to develop a new position for South Asia in the international order.
When viewed objectively, an India-led South Asia regional order can help in maintaining the region’s independent character, reducing security threats to the region, tackling interventions of foreign forces, setting up a security watchdog organisation and chalking out a unified regional strategy to deal with traditional and non-traditional threats. China, an important neighbour of South Asia, has all along suffered from various kinds of security threats emanating from that region; they include the threats posed by international terrorist forces and organisations to China’s Southwest border. Beijing has therefore been holding consultations with South Asian countries on how to protect the region’s stability. In January 2009, the Chinese Government for the first time sent its special envoy to South Asia to discuss India-Pakistan contradictions arising out of Mumbai attacks. At present, such contacts are being made only at bilateral levels; their efficiency levels are low, with sustainability not high. The Mumbai attacks have shown that traditional and non-traditional threats in South Asia need to be dealt with by a regional mechanism, which can also coordinate with foreign forces. Becoming clear is the requirement for a sustainable South Asian security architecture, which should also be welcome to foreign forces in future. China will continue to support all measures to be taken for protecting stability in South Asia including the formation of a suitable regional mechanism.
A final question will be whether or not a strategically more autonomous South Asia would mean a fall in China’s influence on the region. What looks certain is that it will lead to less reliance of South Asia on foreign forces, the strategic significance of which will be the same for all big powers. China does not need to have a prominent position in South Asia. In the past half century, geopolitical competition in South Asia has been harming China, creating realistic and potential unstable situation in the country’s Southwest border. A South Asia with strengthened strategic autonomy will be beneficial to stability in that border, though China’s influence on South Asia may fall. From the angle of long-term interests, China’s motive for maintaining influence over South Asia would primarily come from the perceived need to ensure lasting stability in its border areas. In this context, China should adopt a dialectic approach and follow a long term South Asia policy. Strategically, China need not have spheres of influence in South Asia; nor it may require identifying of any particular regional nation as a fulcrum of its South Asia policy. China needs to take all measures conducive to promotion and maintenance of a regional structural framework, which can ensure protection of South Asian regional stability. It is basically up to the nations in the region to decide the form of such a framework. If South Asian nations can reach a consensus on building such a framework, China will have no reasons to oppose. Therefore, as the construction of a new South Asian regional order progresses over a long course, it would be possible and necessary for China to play a permanent role in establishing equilibrium and stability in South Asia.