To understand the role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in South Asia, a study of its overall strategic vision at each historical stage becomes necessary. Major determinants of such vision included China’s perceived domestic policy priorities at a particular period. To cite instances of domestic and foreign policy linkages, in the Mao Zedong era (1949-76), ‘class struggle’ and ‘self-reliant development’ were the main domestic goals; to facilitate their accomplishment, China externally adopted a strategy of ‘leaning to one side’, i.e with Socialist allies. Internal priorities underwent a major change in the post-1978 period, with veteran leader Deng Xiaoping initiating a path of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, to be matched by an ‘open door’ foreign policy. As a break from the past, no alliance or strategic relation with any major power was envisaged.
Deng’s line continues till today, but with additional theoretical inputs from his successors sans any basic change. To illustrate, in the post-Deng period, Jiang Zemin formulated national policies centering round his theory of “ Three Represents”, aimed at making the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a representative of majority of the people and codified ‘three major historic tasks’ for China – Modernisation, National Reunification and Safeguarding World Peace and Common Development. He selected a matching external line of ‘Independent Foreign Policy of Peace’. Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao brought forth a development model marking a shift in emphasis – from GDP centric growth to ‘balanced development’; to be backed by his own concept of “ Scientific Outlook of Development”, of which creation at home of a ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ and ‘Sustainable development’ constituted main elements. Designed to suit to China’s ‘primary stage of socialism’, the model provided for analysis of the country’s own development practice, learning side by side from experiences of other countries. Correspondingly, Hu put in place a foreign policy course based on the idea of a “Harmonious World” which lays emphasis on accomplishing ‘lasting peace and common prosperity, through a win-win solution in international relations’. It was left to Premier Wen Jiabao to pinpoint the links between his country’s domestic goals and external approach. In his words, “what China needs for its development first and foremost is an international environment of long term stability and a stable surrounding environment” , which meant that a ‘peaceful periphery’ has become a pre-requisite to Chinese foreign policy.
Signs of China adopting a neutral stand on issues relating to South Asia began appearing by end seventies. For e.g, Beijing at that time started modifying its pro-Pakistan stand on Kashmir issue, with the state-controlled media dropping references to ‘India-occupied Kashmir’ and using instead the term ‘India-controlled Kashmir’. The shift became concrete in December 1996, when the then President Jiang Zemin hinted at a beginning of his country’s ‘balanced’ South Asia policy in his speech to Pakistan Senate, by favouring New Delhi – Islamabad ‘consultations and negotiations’ on Kashmir. A leading China scholar later called this as Beijing’s “South Asia policy under new situation” and observed that subsequent to Premier Wen’s South Asia tour in 2005, the PRC would develop relations with South Asian nations in a ‘parallel’ manner, adding that ‘China’s strategic partnership with India and Pakistan is unprecedented in the sense that each relation is not directed against any third party’.
Developments since the landmark visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988 have been remarkable. China has been more than willing to enter into several key bilateral agreements with India utilising the opportunity of regular exchanges of high level bilateral visits which included – on ‘finding a fair and reasonable settlement to the boundary issue’ and forming a ‘Joint Working Group’ for the purpose (1988), Appointment of Special Representatives ‘to explore the framework of a boundary settlement, from the political perspective of overall bilateral relation (2003), Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity and Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question’ (2005), ‘Promotion of Civil Nuclear Cooperation (2006) and ‘Shared Vision for the 21st Century ( 2008). Also being seen currently is China’s new stress on cooperation with India in the WTO and climate change issues , along with its prescription that ‘no country poses a threat to other’.
Most important development has been the recognition of both the sides that the Sino-Indian ties have gone beyond the bilateral context and acquired a global character. The policies of India and China now aim at “building a relationship of friendship and trust, based on equality, in which each is sensitive to the concerns and aspirations of the other” and ‘promoting bilateral relations, looking beyond the border issue’ . It can be seen without difficulty that a congruence, to a good degree, of policy interests among China and India has emerged over the years; under its impact, in general, the comfort level in their relations has been increasing.
This is not to deny the existence of other motivating factors for Beijing, besides the need for ‘peaceful periphery’, to improve ties with New Delhi. They included neutralising the perceived US regional strategy to contain China, developing economies in areas bordering India, cooperating with India in exploitation of much needed energy resources, protection of oil transport security in the Indian Ocean with the help of India, getting India’s support to ‘One China’ policy and last, but not least, seeking India’s influence to reduce the pressure on China from the resurgence of Tibet issue.
The foregoing does not mean that mistrust and suspicions have completely disappeared in Sino-Indian relations. India has reasons to note with concern that barring improvements in bilateral trade (US$ 40 billion in 2007 with a target of US $60 billion by 2010 and commencement of Joint Study on Regional Trade Agreement), Sino-Indian relations remain bedevilled by lack of progress on settling core issues mentioned below.
China’s stand on the border issue indicates that Beijing is unwilling to compromise on issues concerning territorial sovereignty. The Sino-Indian border talks, despite twelve rounds of talks so far between two Special representatives, have not led to any substantial result in finalising a ‘frame work’ for a boundary settlement in accordance with the 2005 Agreement on Political Parameters. While Beijing’s stand is to approach the border issue in the spirit of ‘mutual understanding and mutual accommodation’, India wants ‘ground realities’ to be taken into account. Interestingly, the Chinese have of late introduced some new elements to the border question by questioning the already agreed position of keeping areas with settled populations out of the dispute. As confirmation of their official position of claiming entire Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing even raised verbal objections to the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Arunachal Pradesh soon after his trip to Beijing in January 2008. Is China ready for a compromise on the border issue? The statement made by the PRC Ambassador to India in November 2006 that both sides should make compromises on the ‘disputed’ Arunachal may be meaningful in this regard. The two sides seem to perceive that the issue is complex, the negotiations could be long and a solution may not be immediate . Chinese academic circles have explained the same in terms of public sentiments in China disallowing any compromise by Beijing on questions concerning national sovereignty as well as the need for priority to solve the critical Taiwan issue first, before any attempt to solve the border tangle with India.
China also considers Tibet issue as sensitive in its relations with India. The March 2008 unrest in Tibet has raised questions for China’s sovereignty over Tibet, a factor naturally connected to the border negotiations. It is being assessed that the Tibet unrest may erode China’s bargaining position during border talks, particularly in respect of its claim over Tawang . On his part, the Dalai Lama has justified the Indian stand on the border issue. Beijing, in response, has accused the spiritual leader of ‘selling’ Chinese territory to India.
China is applying pressure on India by expanding its influence in the latter’s neighbourhood. It has established strategic presence in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Myanmar (Sittwe), Bangladesh and Nepal, as part of its policy to protect the sea-lanes from the Middle East to South China Sea, crucial for Chinese imports of oil. The West calls this a ‘string of pearls strategy’; Beijing claims that it has no plans to try for domination of the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and no intentions to establish a chain to encircle India. Especially, Beijing’s cooperation with Islamabad in the domains of military, missiles and nuclear technology is continuing. The PRC has also a peace treaty with Pakistan, unique in South Asia, providing for mutual support in protecting each other’s national sovereignty and integrity. A Chinese assessment has called it as an ‘alliance’ against any foreign threat .
Beijing undoubtedly has concerns over India’s joining a ‘Western Alliance’ against the PRC, in particular over the growing India-US strategic relations. Its authoritative media have commented that Washington’s intentions to enclose India into the camp of its global partners fit exactly with India’s wishes’ . Also, military experts in Beijing have alleged that India nurtures an ambition to become a regional and world power through collusion with the US . Chinese strategic journals have been vehemently opposing the Japan-US- Australia- India ‘alliance of democracies’ concept, calling it as an ‘Asian NATO’ . They have also questioned the motives behind holding the joint naval exercises involving India, the US, Japan etc. A Chinese comment found the Indian involvement along with Japan and the US, in the joint naval drill off the Japanese coast, ‘intriguing’ and viewed the drill as leading to a ‘new balance of power in Asia’. Days before the first-ever official-level security consultation between the United States, India, Japan and Australia in June 2007, China issued demarches to each of the participants seeking to know the purpose behind their meeting.
On the India-US nuclear deal, the Chinese official position has been non-committal. Beijing has said that they welcome civil nuclear cooperation between nations if the same is in the interest of international non-proliferation regime. Beijing’s ultimate stand at the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting at Vienna in 2008, in favour of granting waiver to India, has further underscored China’s ambivalent thinking on the deal; just prior to the meeting, the People’s Daily strongly criticised the deal. Other Chinese media comments have alleged that India’s development of nuclear weapons is an important reason for nuclear arms race in South Asia and that the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement marks a serious breach of the international non-proliferation regime. Their observation that India’s nuclear strategy is a potential challenge to China’s national security is a strong indicator to China’s basic thinking .
China’s military modernisation continues to be of a concern of regional powers including India. Indian Defence Ministry’s recent annual reports have been indicative of the same. New Delhi may have noted the recent evaluation of the US that China’s military modernisation is changing the regional balance in East Asia. There is a strong feeling in the region that though Beijing’s Defence policy is in the main oriented towards preventing US intervention in Taiwan, it has other intentions, for e.g. gaining capacity to meet contingencies like conflicts over resources and territories. China nevertheless is showing some conciliatory gestures. Its latest Defence White Paper for 2008 downplays Indian concerns about the Chinese naval build up and the ongoing border dispute. On its part, New Delhi has shown a tendency not to highlight the challenge to India coming from China’s military modernization.
Limiting India’s role in the East Asian integration process is also a part of China’s South Asia strategy. Beijing officially supports India’s participation in the regional integration process, including in the East Asia Summit. However, by all indications, it excludes India from any role in the proposed ASEAN Regional Community, which is to come up with ASEAN plus 3 including China in leading position. On the East Asia Summit mechanism, the PRC considers countries like India, Australia and New Zealand as outsiders, desiring to give them only a secondary status. It is also cool to the Indian Prime Minister’s vision for an Asian Economic Community.
China wishes to play a role in SAARC, but seems to be unsure of India’s support to it for the same. As articulated by a Chinese scholar, India faces a challenge in promoting mutual trust with its neighbours and as such, SAARC is yet to become a bridge between China and South Asian nations. The success of China’s ‘balanced’ South Asia strategy would very much depend on India’s motives vi-a-vis the PRC as well as support from Pakistan, besides its own efforts.
Beijing’s goal is to establish a ‘moderately well off’ society by 2020 through quadruplicating the GDP for 2000 and become a ‘modernised medium level developed country’ by 2050. China is confident that its “Peaceful Development” task will face no obstacles as there are no chances of a war breaking out and a ‘long term peaceful international environment’ and ‘favourable neighbourhood’ will continue to prevail . Keeping this in mind, a drastic change in the PRC’s present global strategy, including towards South Asia, is not likely in the near future.
Long-term picture however appears not promising. Will China become aggressive in international relations once its modernisation drive gets completed at some point of time from now? Immediately coming into one’s mind in this regard is the advice given by veteran leader Deng Xiaoping that China should ‘ stand firmly, hide its capabilities, bide its time and never try to take the lead’ in pursuance of its objectives. Worth noting in this context are evidences already surfacing to suggest that China’s strategy is not going to remain static, for e.g. in the new circumstances, the country’s ‘independent foreign policy of peace’ is being made conditional to ‘safeguarding of Chinese Sovereignty, Security and Development’ and the ‘economic growth’ imperative is being balanced with that of ‘military modernisation’. This would mean that the PRC may not hesitate to modify its strategy, if need arises. One has only to note what Robert B.Zoellick, former US Deputy Secretary of State and the initiator of the US-China Strategic Dialogue, said. According to him, though China remains absorbed in its domestic development, a question will remain whether it will have a similar view in next 10-15 years.
It is clear that China – South Asia relations are undergoing a tactical phase. Beijing’s present aim is to ease tensions in that region to help China in realising its modernisation task. That is why in the case of India, it is following the principle of ‘ reserving the differences and working for common development’ and on India-Pakistan problems, it favours a peaceful dialogue between the two. However, for reasons mentioned above, uncertainties seem to be inherent in Beijing’s long-term strategy towards South Asia, on which regional powers like India need to be vigilant.
(The Writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies. This paper formed the basis of his presentation at the UGC National Seminar on India’s Emerging Security Challenges and Strategies, organised by the Dept of Defence and Strategic Studies, University of Madras, on 23 March 2009. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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