The New Great Game


Sitaram Sharma

A striking feature of the evolution of international relations in recent years has been the shifting of axis of global politics to Asia and the rise of developing countries and emerging economies, especially India and China. Thus has had a profound impact on the international structure. When the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, met Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, he said to Indian Prime Minister, “Only when China and India achieve development, the world will see a true Asia-Pacific century”.
India and China are ancient civilisations, neighbours and strategic partners. India was the first non-communist country to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing. China and India have extensive consensus on major international issues. On the whole, Indo-China relations have embarked on a road of steady growth. However, the lack of strategic and political mutual trust remains the weak link in the relationship.
Pursuit of world peace is a fundamental tenet of India’s foreign policy. On the other hand, belying China’s claim of peaceful rise, its foreign policy is turning into an infringement of internationally accepted norms. China’s Pakistan policy is a major challenge to India-China relations. In India, the perception about the “China threat” since 1962 is a real issue.
The recent Doklam standoff has not only forced the boundary dispute, but also added to the long list of hostile acts by the Chinese against India, starting with making Pakistan into a bigger nuisance by augmenting its nuclear and missile capabilities, by running the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Indian territory under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. Moreover, India’s disappointment with China’s role in blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and more so creating obstacles in India’s efforts to get back Pakistani terrorists on the UN sanctions list.
What are the reasons for China to force a boundary dispute, escalate tensions and distrust? Is it the Indian joint naval exercises with US and Japan in the South China Sea, permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and hoist the Tibetan flag in India? Is Doklam China’s way of telling India to behave or face war? For all the talk of cooperation, China remains a fierce rival as far as vying for regional influence is concerned. Economy may be the one area of agreement however, based on the Chinese theory of “compete and cooperate”. The boundary question is a complex issue and there are no immediate indications towards resolving it. It will only be possible if two countries put friendship first, foster the security concept of mutual interest, by accommodating each other’s core concerns and appropriately handling differences and tensions. It represents the call of the times.
Obviously, there is considerable competition between India and China to expand their sphere of strategic influence, both in this region and in the vast maritime space of the Indian-Pacific. It is a rivalry that runs along the spine of the continent, as journalist Frank Moraes once wrote quoting what Jawaharlal Nehru had said in 1952.
As regards India’s neighbours, Nepal’s Left alliance has swept to a commanding victory in the historic federal and provincial relations concluded in December. The victors ~ Unified Marxist Leninists (UML) and their Communist allies! were widely seen to be endorsed by China, while India evidently favoured the Nepali Congress (NC). India’s role in the disastrous 2015 blockade of Nepal has resulted in the victory of pro-China parties, while Chinese influence in neighbouring Myanmar is on the ascendant.
Pakistan has come closer to China and also towards Russia at the cost of India. The so-called “all-weather relations” between Pakistan and China coined as “Chi-Pak” followed by regional projects under the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan are matters of deep concern to India. Indian strategists and diplomats have failed to take advantage of increasing Chinese concerns over security and other arrangements for the ongoing projects under the $ 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a network of roads and power projects running through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. There is a perception among Chinese scholars that CPEC’s long-term viability is uncertain unless India is brought on board.
After India realigned its position with the post-Cold War order, engagement with East and South-east Asia had to be one of its priorities. India had first to convince ASEAN that it had seen the light and would befriend counties with which relations had been cool over previous decades.
India had been perceived by ASEAN as close to the Soviet Union, and neither fully Western nor Asian, and India’s cultural uniqueness was not considered a positive element in facilitating its integration with ASEAN. The ‘ASEAN way’ rests on personal relationships, gradual consensus-building and skirting contentious issues, whereas Indians are seen as legalistic, bureaucratic and impersonal. In other words, India was a very late starter, and had to catch up with the established presence of other big countries both from within and outside the region.
The Indian ‘Look East’ policy was in accord with the market model that was in place in South-east Asia. China’s involvement with those countries had already witnessed a strong momentum, helped by people of Chinese origin who had long dominated business in at least half of the ten ASEAN countries. India had fallen far behind in the movement for regional integration, although the political and strategic situation on India’s south-east flank affected its security, even more so after the admission of Myanmar brought ASEAN adjacent to India’s land border.
India had showed no inclination for political leadership in SAARC, but paradoxically it now wants to go beyond South Asia and the Bay of Bengal to extend its influence towards the Pacific. The new emphasis on the East was motivated by the China factor, its social, cultural, religious and linguistic links with ASEAN and the persons of Indian origin who had a presence in the socio-political life of the region. As Indo-ASEAN increased, the role of these communities became more salient.
In general terms, compared with the caution of the early 1990s, India is now a reasonably confident participant in the political and strategic domain of the Asia-Pacific. However, in the economic sphere, India is yet to make any notable headway. The recent conclusion of the Indo-ASEAN free trade agreement exceeded all timelines and it remains to be seen how it will operate in practise.
The leverage exercised by Indian protectionist lobbies on political circles in New Delhi should never be underestimated. In terms of intra-regional trade, in comparison with China, Korea, Japan and the ASEAN members, India has been insignificant. In general terms, compared with the caution of the early 1990s, India is now a reasonably confident participant in the political and strategic domain of the Asia-Pacific.
However, in the economic sphere, India is yet to make any notable headway. The recent conclusion of the Indo-ASEAN free trade agreement exceeded all timelines and it remains to be seen how it will operate in practise. The leverage exercised by Indian protectionist lobbies on political circles in New Delhi should never be underestimated. In terms of intra-regional trade, in comparison with China, Korea, Japan and the ASEAN members, India has been insignificant.
There are several shortcomings in the Indian economy, where the market is virtually closed, the average tariff level high, investment environment poor, and the level of infrastructure development and external trade low, with the result that India is not a highly regarded commercial partner. Its partnership with East Asia will crucially depend on its capacity for making a distinct contribution towards the progress for closer economic integration in the region.
While India’s economic and political contacts are formal rather than functional, its bilateral defence arrangements with individual ASEAN countries have assumed greater relevance. India has never clarified what genuine interests it has to defend in the region, but in general terms, its presence is welcome by ASEAN, an attitude premised on the balance of power. ASEAN welcomes all major powers to participate in the regional security architecture, but in its view, no single power should be permitted to dominate the area.
This is to India’s advantage. Because India has greater military recourses to share with ASEAN than vice-versa, defence cooperation has happened to some degree with almost every ASEAN country ~ in fact more so, in most cases, than with India’s neighbours in the subcontinent. In contrast, there is little Chinese military involvement with ASEAN other than Myanmar. The ASEAN Regional Forum is the first multilateral security forum ever to be joined by India.
It had been Delhi’s traditional approach to keep security issues out of the scope of regional groups such as SAARC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, in both of whose formation it had played a key role. But with the ARF, the objective of ‘containing’ China influenced India to reverse its historical position on such groupings. Competition between Indian and China in the region is predictable because the two countries do not enjoy mutual trust, and there are overlapping perceptions of their historical spheres of influence and interest.
They have made efforts to address bilateral problems with some progress recorded, but given the inherent rivalry and geopolitical interplay, the nature and degree of friction between them is a constant concern of the members of ASEAN. There is, therefore, a competitive edge in India’s policy, to achieve some kind of equal footing with China. But it will be necessary for India to draw China closer into discussions on cooperation and security in the Asia-Pacific region.
The approach of ‘containing’ China by aligning with some individual powers whose strategic goals and military practices do not necessarily complement ours, nor share the long-term vision of India’s relationship with its northern neighbours, will be most unwise. India’s strategic engagement with ASEAN should not be dependent only on the China factor, and military means cannot be considered the preferred method of asserting a regional role in preference to the more valuable soft power assets like culture, technology, IT, trade and investment.
India has taken the initial steps to being regarded as a serious partner in emerging Asia, but it will now have to enhance its economic and strategic relevance that are both largely in the potential rather than the actual sphere. India may already see itself as an influential factor in the ASEAN economic and security space, but this self-perception will not be shared by other major actors. ASEAN has varied levels of consensus on many issues including security, and many among its 10 members regard India only as an Indian Ocean power and not an Asia-Pacific one.
Being part of the Asia-Pacific is a necessity for India’s pursuit of world status, and its friendly ties with USA can boost that strategy, but in matters critical to ASEAN like the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, it remains to be seen whether India has the capacity and will to be involved. For instance, it has given no significant opinion on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions. In security conclaves like the 6-power talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, India is not included, and if the 6-member ad hoc body eventually morphs into an embryonic Asian security construct, Indian relevance and participation might become a subject of contention.
India will be prepared to play a more energetic role, along with the West, in maintaining the security of international sea-lanes, and its ambitions may be on the right lines, but it has incrementally to enhance its economic integration with other Asian countries. India has to make much greater efforts towards the objective of making ASEAN an important stakeholder in Indian prosperity. India is still far from being an indispensable country, and the reality is that the gap between China’s and India’s levels of engagement with ASEAN remains wide, and summit photo-opportunities for our Prime Minister with East Asian leaders will not redress this imbalance.
Military contacts are not nearly as important as economic interdependence, because without such integration, it is premature to talk about any possible role for India in the security architecture in Asia. At this juncture, when the level of acrimony between India and China is disturbing and even reminiscent of the 1950s, it is a sobering though that in the unlikely event of a clash of arms, such international support as India receives will again come, as it did in 1962, mainly from the West, for the West’s own purposes, whereas the so-called non-aligned group of countries will at best sit on the fence, or far more likely, tilt towards our northern neighbour.
The writer is President, Centre for Eastern & North-Eastern Regional Studies, Kolkata.(Courtesy: TS)