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Round-Table Discussion on ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘India-China Relations’

C3S Event Report No: 017/2019

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) organized a Round-Table Discussion on the themes- ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘India-China Relations’, led by Dr. Liu Peng, Associate Professor, Master Supervisor, Certified Economist; Research Fellow, The New School; Visiting Scholar, Washington University in St. Louis; and Dr. Hu Xiaowen, Associate Professor, Institute of Indian Studies, YNU, China; Research Fellow, India China Institute of The New School, USA. The event held at C3S on September 3, 2019, was chaired by Cmde. R.S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Director C3S.

Cmde. Vasan set the agenda of discussion revolving around three significant points- The importance of the Indo-Pacific in lieu of the rising influence of India and China, the geographic centrality of Indian Ocean, and the centrality of India to the region. The problems such as lack of capacity building measures and the inefficiency of humanitarian aid, and the perception that there are too many extra-regional players within the Indian Ocean Region, were marked out as well. On the other hand, positive outcomes like effective disaster management measures and maintaining the Indian Ocean Region as a ‘Zone of Peace’ highlighted the efforts of the discussion to deliberate on solutions which could create more arenas of cooperation in India-China Relations.

Dr. Lieu Peng listed several dimensions with regard to the Indo Pacific. These involved the genesis of the term Indo-Pacific, who are the major stakeholders as well as the difference between ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘Asia-Pacific’ as seen through the prisms of think-tank discussions. The question of what does the Indo-Pacific construct is designed to achieve was also raised. It is once concept with many interpretations. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the Shangri La Dialogue (2018), called for an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. ASEAN desires itself as a central actor in the Indo Pacific. The USA speaks of Free and Open Indo-Pacific. There are also perceptions held by Japan and France. In fact, Japan had included the term ‘Indo Pacific for two years in its Defence White Paper but  Tokyo felt this was not given due importance. This led to Shinzo Abe announcing the Indo Pacific strategy in 2017.

The speaker expressed that the meaning of Indo Pacific is not clear: it is clearly geographical but not economic, and one is not sure if it is strategic. Dr. Liu added another question- that of what opportunities are raised in this context for India and China to cooperate.

Mr.Rajaram Muthukrishnan, Investor and Director, Voice Snap Services Pvt. Ltd; Member C3S, in continuance with the complexity of defining Indo-Pacific Region, underlined important India-led initiatives in the recent past such as tangibility in disaster relief operations, reconstruction, and capacity-building measures in damage-prone areas and forming a larger all-inclusive coalition beyond the IOR. The role of the International Solar Alliance in relation to energy prospects within IOR was put forward and discussed by other members present in the discussion. On a personal note, Mr. Rajaram carved out the reluctance of Indian and Chinese Scholars of moving beyond western elucidations to understand the Indian Ocean Region.

Ms.Asma Masood, Research Officer at C3S, asked whether a difference existed in the scholarly interpretations emerging from interior provinces like Yunnan as compared to major cities while studying India. Dr. Liu Peng stated that a difference is observed, wherein provinces such as Sichuan and Yunnan research on avenues for India-China cooperation. The idea behind BCIM was generated in Yunnan.  On the other hand, Beijing focuses on issues of concern, while Shanghai has an overall general approach.

Mr.Prashant Rastogi, Research Officer at C3S brought forth the question of a zero-sum game between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Indo-Pacific as strategic constructs adversarial to each other’s interests. Cmde. R.S. Vasan in response emphasized on the role of initiatives such as by India, and BRI by China, as being seen as strategic outreach by either side.  Dr. Liu Peng stressed on the lens of cooperation but acknowledged the conflicting areas concerning India-China relations. Dr. Liu stated that it was not possible to have trust as a predecessor to cooperation. It is necessary to build functional cooperation instead. The competition will exist in certain areas. But immense care must be taken on whether this is a competition that needs to be pursued at all. For example, energy security of India and China with regard to West Asia. India and China are the two largest energy consumers in the region. There is a common concern about the safety of SLOCs. The two states can also cooperate in energy imports. Another potential area is implementing ODA schemes in areas of importance. Afghanistan is a success story in this context. Both India and China want a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. India is the fourth largest contributor to UN Peacekeeping while China ranks lower. It seems like a competitive arena but we need to change our mind-sets and enhance cooperation. As scholars, we need to have an objective analysis of our national interest, and cannot follow media the line- for example, the call to boycott Chinese goods. Such trends do not indicate a rational approach.

Ms. Situ Kumar, Research Officer, C3S queried on the security architecture of the Indian-Ocean Region. In response, Dr. Liu underscored that there is an anarchical nature in the region and the need for security arrangements in IOR while bringing out the challenges confronting efficacy of the measures. Dr. Liu viewed that the many proposals and the committee for sustaining the region as a Zone of Peace were not effective. This has led to the need for escort fleets to tackle piracy in the region. A security arrangement is necessary but this will be time-consuming and expensive. Besides, it is not a short term commitment.

Cmde. Vasan responded to this perspective by stating that there has been no naval war in the region since 1971. The only conflict that exists is with Pakistan. Challenges do exist in the IOR but they stem from non-state actors. Naval cooperation in the form of bilateral exercise is conducted by the regional players. Moreover, India had readily accepted the UN Tribunal’s judgment which favored Bangladesh in a maritime boundary dispute. , India is taking advantages of its own geographic capacity, such as the Andaman and Nicobar being vital for surveying to prevent piracy; and India having access to both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This enabled quick response after the 2004 tsunami hit. Similarly, China can assist in HADR both in its own backyard of South China Sea and in the IOR. The two countries can hence cooperate in joint efforts in areas of mutual interests.

Mr. Subramanyam Sridharan, Computer Scientist; Member C3S, mentioned that piracy was a major challenge in the South China Sea as well, and the threat is more intense than in the IOR.

Based on her visit to Sri Lanka, Dr. Hu Xiaowen spoke of the Chinese debt trap as perceived by other nations. Conversely, Beijing’s investments in Sri Lanka have created employment opportunities and increased development prospects. Being a commercial and not a strategic venture, there is room for a trust rebuilding process that can be enunciated by both countries. Based on this need for exchange of perceptions, Cmde. R.S. Vasan proposed a joint program based on a joint research project between C3S and Yunnan University, as an effort to understand empirical facts and not situate policies on rhetoric narrated by media platforms.

Mr.Rajaram Muthukrishnan explained that the perceptions of ‘debt trap’ in the Chinese context exist because of the lack of transparency in its financial investments. Besides, Chin has a unique definition of confidentiality in commercial agreements with other nations. Due to its emergence as a power to reckon with, Beijing needs to acknowledge and address the suspicions of other countries. Instead of using the Chinese style to communicate in layers, China needs to use its legacy of diplomacy and the heritage of statecraft to strengthen relations with other countries.

Cmde. R.S. Vasan underlined the ineptness of local laws and the exclusion of Sri Lanka’s menial unskilled labors in projects undertaken by China. Dr. Hu Xiaowen admitted that there are challenges within China related to education and poverty, apart from external pressures which need to be addressed. This signifies the gap between what is and what ought to be in China’s success trajectory. While acknowledging the criticism emanating from other countries, Dr. Liu Peng stressed the difference between situations in Hambantota port and Hong Kong, the latter’s legal system being a victim of British colonial legacy. On the other hand, the Hambantota project had been suspended for a while due to Sri Lanka’s internal decision. The disparity in the scrutiny of projects led by the US and China found mention in the discussion as well, where it was expressed by Dr. Liu that his country was often pointed out while the USA was not questioned as intensely.

Cmde Vasan thanked the gathering and concluded that management of perceptions is needed, thus opening opportunities for think tanks to act beyond merely the New Delhi-Beijing circle.

(Compiled by Asma Masood and Prashant Rastogi, Research Officers, C3S.)

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