Getting China strategy right

| | in Oped
Getting China strategy right

Staying away from a potent regional power is not an option for India. Conflicts with Beijing need quick resolution for a productive Act East policy

India needs its Henry Kissinger who could advise US President Donald Trump that US-Sino relations need not — and should not — become a zero-sum game. In a dramatic turnaround which caught analysts by surprise, Trump moved from a confrontationist to cooperative approach with China within 100 days of assuming the presidency.

Not so with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Brushing aside the glaring national power-difference with China, and the high stakes involved in hostility, he seems to have sought refuge in perception management for political dividends. There is no other way to rationalise India’s outright rejection of Chinese invitation to him and six Cabinet Ministers to participate in the recently concluded Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing.

India’s stated reason for doing so is China’s insensitivity to its sovereignty — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was the flagship of the BRF, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) which belongs to India. The real reason, as mentioned by an award-winning columnist in this newspaper, is that the Narendra Modi Government will be judged for establishing that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not the only game in town. While prognosticating on what all could go wrong with the BRI, he advised the Government to respond with its own connectivity and infrastructure projects under the ‘Act East policy’ for geopolitical gains.

Unfortunately for India, BRI is the only game of its kind in town. Piggybacking on its economic prowess, the breath-taking BRI is about China’s military rise to become the world’s number one power by straddling the Eurasian landmass and the two Oceans — Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. President Xi Jinping’s 2014 military reforms are in support of the BRI — the manifestation of this — is the emerging regional security architecture with China, Russia; and Pakistan as its main protagonists. China, the economic superpower; Russia, the military superpower; and Pakistan, the new leader of the Islamic world (Retired Army Chief General Raheel Sharif heads the 40 Islamic nations’ force headquartered in Riyadh) would be an unprecedented global force to reckon with.

Four observations on the BRF are noteworthy. Attended by 29 heads of Governments and 170 representatives from 100 countries, it was proof of Chinese enviable economy — with more than three trillion dollars in international reserves, China has more resources than developed economies — as a key driver of the BRI. It was also an affirmation that the world attaches ample importance to the BRI; except for India and Bhutan, all invitees felt it necessary to participate in the mega-event.

Moreover, the strategic relationship between China and Russia was finally sealed. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the second keynote speaker after Xi; he sat next to Xi during the round-table meetings, and both stood side-by-side for heads of Government photograph. Putin confirmed that Russia will be a part of the BRI meant to connect Asia with Europe. Next, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the forum with his entire Cabinet in tow.

Finally, three nations which have problems with China — the US, South Korea and Japan — attended the forum. Tokyo, represented by Toshihiro Nikai, politically the second important man after the Prime Minister of Japan, decided to reassess its bilateral ties with Beijing. Shedding reservations about the 2014 China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) meant to fund the BRI, the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) (led by the US and Japan) president of ADB Takehiko Nakao said that both ADB and the AIIB need to work together.

Commenting on India’s announced opposition to the BRI, China said that it would not affect its Kashmir policy. The truth is starker. When China declared in December 2010, that its disputed border with India was a mere 2,000km (India claims it to be 3,488km including the border in the state of Jammu and Kashmir), China had made it known that technically it had nothing to do with the bilateral Kashmir dispute. The unsaid part was that China had gone back on its 1963 commitment made in its joint communique with Pakistan under which Islamabad had gifted 5,100 sq km territory of Indian land to Beijing. As per this legal undertaking, China had committed to re-negotiate with India or Pakistan once the Kashmir issue was resolved. Neither the Manmohan Singh Government, nor the present Government has objected to China’s December 2010 abuse of India’s sovereignty for deviously suggesting that PoK is a part of Pakistan.

This was because India today is little match to China — politically, economically, militarily, technologically and in geo-strategic terms. None of these issues require an elaboration to discerning people capable of shifting rhetoric from reality.

What are India’s constructive options regarding the BRI? Plenty. It should review its China policy — like the US and Japan — to find out how its own ‘Act East policy’ can be harmonised with the BRI for mutual gains. A good beginning can be made by the upgradation of Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor dialogue from Track-I (official diplomacy) to the inter-Government level.

Once this happens, there will be numerous opportunities at the political level for bilateral benefits. Moreover, smaller nations, both in India’s neighbourhood and beyond, would stop playing India and China cards for their own gains. Cases in point are Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Vietnam and even Mongolia.

Taking cue from the BRI, India should build military power. After all, if India genuinely desires strategic reach through its ‘Act East policy’ and ‘Think West’ policy it should be able to protect its people, assets and interests abroad.

For this to happen, India would need to do three things: It should find a peaceful resolution to the military lines with Pakistan and China; it should build a vibrant defence industrial base; and undertake military reforms.

On BRI, no one has said that it would be easy. Both India and Pakistan know this, and China admits this. Prominent Chinese scholar Shi Zhiqin recently wrote that, given the security and political divisions within Pakistan, China is worried about CPEC stability. Considering that the military is in the vanguard in Pakistan and China, possibility of a military solution to the CPEC stability — by providing depth to the corridor at the expense of India’s Kashmir — should not be lost sight of.

Given all this, India has time till 2019 when the next BRF would be convened to both review its zero-sum position towards China’s ambitious project and to restructure its own ‘Act East policy’ to make it wholesome.

(The writer is co-author with Ghazala Wahab of the book, Dragon on our Doorstep)

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