India must reach out to all neighbours, including Pakistan, to counter China

New Delhi as a chaotic democracy has not been able to match up to Beijing's economic and military might.

 |  6-minute read |   25-02-2018
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China and India the two major Asian powers have a complex relationship. China has already arrived on the world stage as a major economic and military power bent on reshaping the world its way.

India is equally ambitious but as a chaotic democracy, it has not matched China's economic or military might. India knows that as a big populous nation it too has the potential to be a future global power. What is more, the US, concerned about Chinese dominance is willing to help India's growth to balance the regions power equation.

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The strategy to balance China by giving India a leg-up began during the George W Bush administration and is now being rigorously backed by President Donald Trump.

However unlike India, Chinese planning is long-term. Beijing thinks through and meticulously plans its goals. Before embarking on its ambitious foreign policy goals, Deng Xiaoping the great reformer concentrated on the economy. China also settled all its boundary disputes with its neighbours, with the notable exception of India.

Deng famously advised his people, to keep their heads down and work towards lifting the living standards of the Chinese. Having done that, China is now ready to take on the world under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, one of China's most powerful leaders.

The nineteenth Congress of the CPC (Communist Party of China) was a coming out party for Xi Jinping's China. It is now the second-largest economy in the world. It is also a military power with a blue water navy. It is spending billions on research concentrating on artificial intelligence, gearing the nation to be at the forefront of cutting edge technology.

Chinese submarines and ships are present both in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. President Xi Jinping is consolidating and building on Deng Xiaoping's vision of opening up China to the world. While it is expanding its presence across Asia and Africa, (it also has a military base in Djibouti, east Africa), China is looking at being the number one power in the world. It is still far from closing the gap with the US, and knows on its way to become a super power it needs to first dominate Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. So the hectic activity in the South China Sea and expansion into the Indian Ocean sphere. China is also now playing hardball in India's immediate neighbourhood. Xi's ambitious belt and road and maritime initiatives is part of a larger plan to spread its influence across the globe.

It is but natural that India and China, the two Asian neighbours eye each other's development warily and "circle" each other's periphery.

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The unresolved border problem between India and China, and PLA's frequent incursions, including the recent standoff in Doklam as well as its heavy presence in India's immediate neighbourhood has added to the fear of China pushing into India's sphere of influence.

India too has been stepping up its ties with Japan as well as all ASEAN countries. In fact, this Republic Day leaders of all 10 ASEAN nations - Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Philippines, Laos and Cambodia accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi's invitation to be in Delhi to celebrate not just India's Republic Day but also to mark 25-years of India-ASEAN dialogue partnership. The ASEAN group, which has thriving trade with China, is still wary of Beijing and wants India to play a greater role in the region.

ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei also have problems with China's claim to the entire South China Sea and the islands dotted across the waters as its own.

But China's footprints are much larger in India's backyard. In the past, Pakistan was the only South Asian nation which had close ties with China. But now China has won not just a toe-hold but a foothold in several countries in India's neighbourhood. Pakistan is now a central piece of China's belt and road project. Beijing is investing $60 billion in developing infrastructure around Gwadar, a port China built in Pakistan's Balochistan province. China has already begun using Gwadar for its exports and is likely to deploy a contingent of the PLA to guard its interests there.

In Nepal too, China is becoming a pivotal force. Like all small nations, India's neighbours have often used the China card against India. Nepal's new Prime Minister KP Oli, known to be close to China, frankly admitted after the elections: "We have great connectivity with India and an open border.., but we can't forget that we have two neighbours. We don't want to depend on one country or have one option."

He explained that Nepal needed this to get leverage in dealing with India. India's foolish decision in 2015 of an unofficial blockade in Nepal, following a Madhesi agitation, soured ties between the two countries. While a pro-India government with Oli at the head is in power in Kathmandu, a China friendly leader is also in place in the Maldives.

In Male, President Abdulla Yameen has cracked down on democracy, thrown opposition leaders in jail, and declared an emergency. While India, The US, the UK Britain and the rest of the world have condemned Yameen, China has lent support.

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It has also warned India against interference in the neighbour's politics. Maldives has signed a Free Trade Agreement in December 2017 with China and has invested hugely in building infrastructure. Chinese vessels regularly stop in the Maldives raising fears of a strong naval presence there.

Whether in Sri Lanka, or Myanmar or even Bangladesh, China is present all along India's neighbourhood and beyond. Border talks between Bhutan and China, long in cold storage will begin now, perhaps with Doklam in mind.

China is slush with funds and India cannot match its efficient infrastructure building. Delhi should concentrate on its strengths, which is institution building. Repeating its good work in Afghanistan, it should go for smaller projects which can make a difference on the ground and directly help people. The rewards in Afghanistan have been rich. It has continued in training officials. Both Japan and the US have come forward to work with India on building connectivity both in Asia and Africa. All this is good politics.

The fact that India's ties with the US are thriving is being watched with some concern in China. The need of the hour is to keep working in the neighbourhood, which has both cultural affinities with democratic India as well as excellent people to people contact. India and China will not go to war, the stakes are heavily loaded against a repeat of 1962.

There is little reason to panic, but it is important to work on India's strengths. India should deepen its engagement with Pakistan instead of resorting to foolish measures such as stopping artists from across the border from working in India. This does not reflect the real Indian culture.

Reaching out to the people of Pakistan bypassing the government and the Pakistan Army would have helped India's diplomatic prospects in the region.

Also read: Why generals don't approve of 'Army kids' writing against AFSPA

Writer

Seema Guha Seema Guha @seemaguha1

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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