China's String of Pearls

An interesting article by Bhaskar Roy

China has been working at a break-neck speed to develop its economic power to a level it can compete with super powers like the US. In a virtual sense, China is almost there.But it has also limitations, such as paucity of natural resources, of energy and a burgeoning population that has developed its own aspirations and needs to be provided for accordingly.The bulk of imports from India are iron ore and other such materials. China’s paucity of such natural resources and its imperative need to source them from Asia, Africa, Central Asia and other regions may be leading to a prospective competition with India. Such competitions tend to become confrontationist, depending upon the importance of the issue. China’s driving ambition is to emerge as a global defining power as soon as possible. In this quest, it has first to dominate Asia. The competitors here are Japan and India, but in somewhat different perspectives. Japan is a small country, but is a powerhouse of both economic and unpublicised military strength, covered by the US-Japan treaties, agreements and understanding.Despite intense distrust of Japan and the open Japan-US alliance in East Asia and the Asia Pacific Region (APR), China can do little to dismantle this system. However, it can create problems for India, perceived as the weakest in a prospective US-India-Japan alliance, that it believes will counter its own rising domination. India is viewed in Beijing somewhat within the same basic parameter as China itself.In terms of geographical size, population, economic development and the like the two countries have commonalities.Yet India’s democratic system, its intellectual property, independent and yet well-rounded foreign policy approach tend to threaten China’s unique power status in the long run. It is well known that China followed a two pronged strategy to keep India in the South Asia box.On the one hand, it was encirclement of India in South Asia using Pakistan’s visceral anti-Indianism as the pivot.On the other hand, it was countering an emerging India in regional and global fora, as India tried to emerge out of the South Asia cocoon in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the liberalisation policies of prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. China’s opposition to India is well known — from APEC membership to ASEAN and UN Security Council among others. In many cases, China was supported by some countries which are now seen as India’s friends, like the US.The position that China adopted in the last 72 hours of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) meeting in Vienna in September to prevent India from getting a waiver for international civilian nuclear commerce, left no doubt as to how far it is willing to go to work against India’s search for a place commensurate with its established attributes on the world stage.China’s position at the NSG has removed whatever fig leaf was there to support the Sino Indian strategic partnership for cooperation and development that Chinese leaders from the very top (president Hu Jintao, premier Wen Jiabao and foreign minister Yang Jiechi) had assured India that they would not obstruct India’s case at the NSG. It retracted only when, forced by the US and India with an “or else” option. Apparently for China, the NSG waiver for India and the culmination of the India-US deal has become one of its biggest international strategy set backs.Why? To be fair, China never hid its position that the nuclear deal will create a power imbalance between India and Pakistan in South Asia, and this was not in its interest. It warned that this would lead to an arms (nuclear) race in the region.China is preparing to restrict India in concentric geopolitical circles.The immediate encirclement is obviously in South Asia. There is a 1995-96 strategy to use the Indian Ocean rim countries through military and economic assistance to position them against India politically.These include the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles.China shifted its position in Nepal very smoothly from its pro-monarchy stance to support a Maoist-CPN (ML) position. It used both threats and allurements, and fomented anti-India sentiments in the country. A senior Chinese strategic analyst, Wang HongWei, has charged that India has a “Sikkimisation” plan for Nepal, and China will not allow it. While on the one hand it speaks highly of China’s foreign policy success, on the other, it has thrown an open challenge to India that the India-Chinese buffer is moving to Nepal’s boundary with India, and New Delhi had better see where the red lines are drawn.The past one month has witnessed a rejuvenation of Chinese support to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in a posture that the message is read in India. Assurance to these countries that China will protect their national sovereignty and territorial integrity begs the question where such threats to those countries are coming from.These countries have been assured that China is there behind them in regional and international fora. A close reading of these Chinese statements would remind one of its positions in the 1970s and early 1980s. The increase in military aid to Bangladesh, especially transfer of C-802 surface-tosip missiles must be seen in the perspective China intends it to be seen. These are just examples of Chinese penetration in India’s neighbourhood and by no means, comprehensive.It is well known how China has spread itself all over Myanmar (Burma), its proposal for port facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh; the already constructed Gwadar Port in Pakistan, and its probes to acquire similar support facilities in Sri Lanka’s Humbantota, for example. The linkage between these points is obvious. The developments suggests that much as Indian government policymakers may insist, or even plead, China does not think there is enough space in Asia for both India and China to execute at the same level.The greatest weakness of India’s China policy is the perception that appeasing China, and brushing China’s misdemeanors under the carpet would resolve all problems.This is an unfortunate thought.All things said, a contribution of developments discussed suggests the equilibrium in the immediate South Asian land mass may get disturbed.China has taken to openly emphasising in the international arena that it cannot accept an Indian position beyond South Asia. It has made no bones that Pakistan must be given the same status and access at the international dinner table as India is given. Or else, China will devise its own initiative to ensure Pakistan’s party with India in the conventional and strategic military muscle. To lend emphasis, special invitees from South Asia to China in August and September may be noted : Pakistan’s PM and president; Nepal and new PM and delegations from Nepal’s leading political parties; Bangladesh’s caretaker government’s chief advisor (de facto prime minister); and Sri Lanka’s PM to visit China in October. It is time that Indians really open their eyes. The bottom line will have to be drawn in India. It is time to stop looking the other way from China.

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