The 21st century is going to be the Asian century, if we go by the continued growth of Asian economy despite global economic downturn. Three Asian power centres – China, Japan, and India – are increasingly influencing global power equation well beyond Asia. As strategic analyst Brahma Challaney puts it “Never before have China, Japan, and India have all been strong at the same time.”
Historically, the three Asian powers have had social and cultural linkages that influenced religious perceptions and life style of Asia as a whole. However, the aftermath of the World War II not only changed Asia’s territorial contours but also introduced political and structural changes. After the end of Cold War and the emergence of a liberalized world economic order, China has developed into a global economic power, overtaking Japan in the process. China now aspires to overtake the U.S., which continues to remain the most powerful nation in the world.
India having grown into a regional economic power has more modest ambitions to expand its linkages with the east and protect its global strategic, economic and political interests. In Japan strong nationalist sentiments are striving to cut loose its umbilical relationship with the U.S in a bid to reassert its global power.
The three nations, despite their divergent aspirations, have a triangular relationship which regularly comes under stresses of their strategic perceptions and world view. Their relationship with the U.S. and its role in the expanded definition of the Asia-Pacific region is perhaps the most important component of the strategic perceptions of the three Asian powers.
They respect the U.S. military and economic might and its impact in Asia. And they have tried to strike a win-win equation with the U.S. to serve their national interests. China though suspicious of the U.S.’ strategic intentions is trying to build meaningful economic relations with it, while protect its own core interests. This was amply demonstrated during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the U.S.
The strategic environment of South Asia is likely to undergo major changes in the next two to three years. General elections in India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Maldives and possibly Sri Lanka in this period could result in change of national leadership as it happened in the recent elections in Pakistan.
This could cause changes in their policy perceptions resulting some realignment of equations in their relations. With the thinning out of U.S. troops and coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the Af-Pak region is likely to face a period of uncertainty and instability affecting the region. The resurgence of terrorism in South Asia bordering Af-Pak region is a real possibility.
India, the dominant power in South Asia, is getting ready to respond to the dynamics of change in the region to safeguard its national interests. China with an agenda to build politico-economic partnership with its neighbours has already made large headway in South Asia. Thus China’s South Asia agenda is also likely to face a challenging period. This will be more so, when its competing interests with India come into full play. Given India’s domination of the South Asian scene, for building a win-win relationship in South Asia, China has to strengthen its relations India.
Shared interests and contentious issues
India the largest multiparty democracy and China the largest one-party ruled country represent two different growth models. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages; however, China’s centralized leadership has been able to marshal its resources better than India and achieve spectacular results in economic growth and human development.
On the other hand India with heterogeneous population and the pulls and pressures of democracy in action has been able to achieve modest growth.
Despite their political and economic differences the two nations share similar interests.
The growth rates of both countries have been affected by global economic downturn. As the U.S. and European economies are unlikely to bounce back in the near term, they would like to expand their trade in Asian markets – particularly the under-exploited South Asian markets.
Their rapid economic growth has increased the disparities between the rich and the poor. While this provided the poor incentive for upward mobility, it has also increased their expectations from the state. If unmet, this could result in social unrest among their populations.
Growing social networking among the people, particularly among youth, has increased their ability to rally together on sensitive political, social and environmental issues.
A rising middle class with growing money power wants to improve the quality of life and standards of governance, eliminating corruption and cronyism.
Buoyed by economic growth, business class is looking to develop beyond national boundaries and wields strong economic and political clout to impact national policies.
Strong nationalist sentiments of the population are increasingly influencing government policies while dealing with international issues.
Despite this, two hardy perennials continue to prevent India and China from building a win-win relationship:
The disputed demarcation of borders and rival territorial claims between the two countries and China’s occupation of Indian territories remains a highly sensitive issue particularly after the 1962 war between India and China. This has left bitter memories that still cloud the dispute. Although 15 rounds of talks have been held between the two countries the problem looks intractable and remains a politically explosive issue in India.
The Chinese continue to be suspicious of India’s attitude towards the exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama and a large number of Tibetan refugees present in India; their activities continue to be China’s core concern. Tibet could face a period of uncertainty as their passive struggle preserve their autonomy, identity, culture, religion and language in the face of increasing domination by the Chinese in Tibet seems to be never ending. This could further be exacerbated if and when the present Dalai Lama is no more on the scene to exercise a moderating influence on younger sections of Tibetan exiles. China would need India’s cooperation and support in managing the situation in such a contingency.
So the relationship between the two countries continues to be hostage to developments in the two issues. However, thanks to far sighted leadership in both countries, India-China relations have steadily grown stronger since 1990. As a result, both countries have evolved protocols and mechanisms to consult, coordinate and manage disputes between them. They have also been cooperating on issues of international concern like global warming and environmental security.
Recently, both nations managed to resolve a military stand-off between the two countries when Chinese troops intruded across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh region in India. This cited as an example of successful use of the dispute resolution mechanism. However, it is good to remember the situation was defused only after strong public pressure forced the governments of India and China to act with seriousness. This underlines the fragile nature of the relationship building between the two countries; it is still largely a work in progress. Under the circumstances both countries will have to handle contentious issues with greater sensitivity and transparency.
The two governments also have a responsibility to their people to ensure the border dispute is resolved in a reasonable time frame without rancour or political gamesmanship. As regards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees, India has recognized Tibet as a part of China and it is unlikely to change its stance. If China wants to gain India’s trust, it should take a relook at its ambivalent stand on the status of Jammu and Kashmir.
The building of a constructive partnership between India and China has to be in this backdrop. It is needed for the peaceful development of South Asia as it would benefit nearly a third of humanity. However, it requires a higher level of understanding, cooperation and trust than existing at present between the two countries in three strategic areas.
India’s traditional economic, political and strategic domination of South Asia is being challenged by China. China already has multifaceted relations with Pakistan – India’s bête noir. This is more so since China made strategic shift in its policy regarding the status of Indian state Jammu and Kashmir – a part of which Pakistan has occupied illegally. In fact, Chinese construction troops are building roads in Indian territory in Kashmir occupied by Pakistan.
Apparently, this reflects China’s response to changes in South Asian security environment which could impact China both internally and externally. Internally, China is investing heavily in Xinjiang’s development. To achieve this it is imperative that internal security of the region, troubled by Uighur revolt, is strengthened. The potential for Uighur revolt increases when the strategic environment of the Taliban dominated areas along Pakistan-Afghan border changes for the worse when American military power is scaled down in the Af-Pak region.
A second aspect, related to earlier issue, is the likelihood of Taliban increasing its clout in the Af-Pak region. In this context, it would be in China’s interest to further consolidate its strategic relations with Pakistan over the long term to ensure harmony prevails along its border. It would also serve China’s global interests: improve China’s backward Western regions’ land access to Chinese managed Gwadar port on Arabian Sea coast, upgrade energy security and improve China’s military options. Of course, an added incentive is a militarily more reliable Pakistan would add to China’s strategic options along India’s western flank increasing its leverage in handling India.
It is inevitable that India’s strategic equation with the rest of South Asia would respond to this emerging scene on the West. Possibly, this is one the reasons for India trying to strengthen its strategic relations with the U.S. and – in East Asia – with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.
The U.S. has been striving to build a meaningful strategic relationship with India even as it tries to manage its schizophrenic relationship with Pakistan. The U.S. is also rapidly enlarging its relationship with Myanmar where it will be challenging the free run China had enjoyed all these years.
Though the U.S. has made clear its posture is not directed against China, it is evident that it is in response to China’s growing economic and military assertion in Asia and beyond.
While the U.S. posture is a matter of concern for China, global economic downturn has given a strong reason for symbiotic, non-confrontational relationship building between the U.S. and China.
Both China and the U.S. appear to be conscious of this and are striving to build better understanding, avoiding confrontation.
China’s increasing effort to build its relationship in South Asia will be taking place in this emerging complex strategic scene. Both India and China will have to be conscious of this complex setting, while protecting their national self interest. To achieve this they have to keep their communication lines open at the highest levels.
With the changes in the strategic environment of Af-Pak region discussed earlier, the Taliban forces are likely to militarily challenge the elected government of Afghanistan. As Jihadi terrorism has established itself as an extra constitutional factor in Pakistan, particularly in the sensitive tribal regions astride Pak-Afghan border, the pacification of Af-Pak region is likely to become an important international issue for preserving peace not only in Afghanistan but in South and Central Asian countries as well.
India’s close relationship with Afghanistan is centuries old. This has continued even after India was partitioned to create Pakistan and subsequently to the time President Karzai-led government came to power in Afghanistan. India had been the largest provider of non-military assistance to Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure and services. India would like to ensure the relationship between the countries remain stable; in order to achieve this India’s strategic relationship with Afghanistan had been growing.
Resurgence of Taliban terrorism could challenge Afghanistan-India relationship as it had been the source of inspiration and support to Pak based Jihadi terrorists like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Both the terror groups have been carrying out terrorist attacks in India.
Pakistan has continued to provide succour and sanctuary to these terrorists on its soil. This has enabled them to act with impunity not only against India but to grow into a major threat to the survival of democracy in Pakistan as well. Their continued existence is a major road block in rebuilding India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan. This in turn has prevented the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to come into full bloom and optimize its potential.
As Pakistan government’s ability to control Islamist terrorists operating inside the country and along Afghan border has become suspect, the rise of Taliban could pose problems to China also as discussed earlier affecting the development of Xinjiang as well as interfering with its plans to make Afghanistan an important source of raw material.
China, as a strategic partner of Pakistan, has multifaceted relations in defence, nuclear, energy and infrastructure sectors. This relationship could come in handy in strengthening China’s ability to influence Af-Pak situation.
Thus ensuring peace and stability in Af-Pak region is in the interest of both India and China. As the biggest powers of the continent, they need to bring in their strengths to ensure the survival of Afghanistan as a peaceful democracy and contain the impact of jihadi terrorism in South Asia. There is no other option.
Trade and commerce
South Asia remains one of the under exploited market economies with ever growing middle class with increasing consumer appetite. During the last decade, China has made large inroads into South Asian countries, including India, in a number of ways. It has emerged as the largest trading partner of India. This is equally true in the case of many other South Asian countries also.
With the RMB remaining strong, many smaller South Asian countries, like some of their European counterparts, have started looking to China for economic assistance and investment to write their own survival and growth story. This is likely to increase as no dramatic breakthrough is expected in global economic downturn.
The increased dependency upon China among South Asian countries has started eroding India’s economic influence in South Asia. This has started impacting India’s special relationship with some of its close neighbours like Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
India’s efforts to build stronger bonds with Bangladesh and Myanmar are also likely to be made a little more complex by the looming presence of China. Despite this India-China trade estimated around $ 66 billion is poised to grow much more as there is sufficient scope for it. However, it is weighted heavily in favour of China; and it is in China’s own interest to give sustenance to it by increasing Indian imports and invest more in India.
China’s foray into building its trade and commerce in South Asia needs to be viewed in this complex setting. Smaller nations like Sri Lanka are already taking advantage of the increasing domination of China over India. This is understandable as long as it is done with a degree of even handedness and China and India continue to increase the levels of mutual trust, which suffers from periodic hiccups.
To conclude, South Asia is likely to figure increasingly in the strategic calculus of India and China as China enlarges its foot print in the sub-continent. Considering their responsibility to the people of the region, India and China have no choice but to build a meaningful relationship with each other, avoiding military confrontation.
However, both countries cannot wish away historical legacies of their uneasy relationship by acts of provocation, distrust and contrarian claims over territory. To build a long term relationship they need strengthen convergences, and even out contradictions without jeopardizing each other’s national interest. To carry out this difficult task, national leadership in both countries will have to rally their strengths and work on achieving time bound objectives.
As this will be an ongoing process, three things are essential to keep a balance in their relationship – keeping in perspective each other’s sensitivities, long term national interests and regional peace, maintaining regular and cordial communication links open, and avoiding selective policy prescriptions adversely affecting the other nation.
( Above is the full text of presentation made by Col.R.Hariharan, at the China-South Asia Think Tank Forum Meet held on June 6 and 7, 2013 at Kunming, China. He represented the Chennai Centre for China Studies-C3S, at the Meet. Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group, besides the C3S. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: www.colhariharan.org)
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