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As Beijing expands its presence in the Indian Ocean, India too is boosting its ties in the region. But its footprints are nowhere close to China’s presence and sphere of influence

~By Seema Guha

As China’s footprints in India’s neighbourhood grow with President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road doctrine and as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor takes off, Delhi needs to recalibrate its strategy in the neighbourhood. Or perhaps rethink its opposition to President Xi’s pet theme.

There is concern in India about China’s expanding presence, not just in the Indian Ocean region, but in the immediate neighbourhood: Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

For several decades, Pakistan has been strategic to China’s South Asia policy to checkmate India. But after a brief period of keeping aloof and not batting for Islamabad, China today is aggressively championing Pakistan. Whether it is by blocking India’s repeated move to bring Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar under UN sanctions or vetoing its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, China has faithfully stood by Pakistan.

CHANGING EQUATIONS

Meanwhile, India’s ties with China are going through a rough patch. The boundary issue has come no nearer resolution after 18 rounds of border talks. China is aggressively demanding the monastery town of Tawang as a part of South Tibet, and Delhi is equally firm on not letting this happen.

When Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, Indo-China ties were poised to take off. Xi visited and started his India tour in Gujarat, the home state of the new prime minister. Photographs of him and his wife on a swing by the Sabarmati river went viral and it seemed like the beginning of things to come.

Modi’s return visit was equally dramatic, with him travelling to Xi’s home province of Shaanxi, and being welcomed by the Chinese leader himself. However, things cooled off soon afterwards and today, ties between the two Asian giants can best be described as lukewarm.

Modi visits Daxingshan temple in Xi'an, Shaanxi, the home province of Jinping. Photo: UNI
Modi visits Daxingshan temple in Xi’an, Shaanxi, the home province of Jinping. Photo: UNI

“Relations have hit a bit of a rough patch, despite the start of a strategic dialogue. There is a stalemate,” said Alka Acharya, Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi. “Neither side is showing any inclination to break the current impasse. We have to watch what happens during two major events which are coming up. Perhaps there will be some indications we can pick up from there.’’

Former diplomat TCA Rangachari who was posted in China as a young officer and was later in charge of the East Asia Division (China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia) in the Ministry of External Affairs, says there are no free lunches in diplomacy. He believes that India will not send a high-level delegation to Beijing in May when President Xi will preside over the One Belt, One Road meeting. “And rightly so,’’ said Rangachari. “We certainly cannot go to Beijing to endorse the Chinese initiative. What is there for us? So far, the Chinese have not given us any proposal. India had earlier wanted to consider what projects China had in mind, but as of now, nothing has come of it.’’ He, however, believes that Chinese companies are putting their money on India. “Investments have not yet reduced.’’

In May, President Xi is holding a mega international meet in Beijing to promote his One Belt, One Road initiative. China is keen that India sends a high-level representation. India is wary of this initiative, mainly because it includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through a part of PoK which India claims as its own. Welcoming the initiative would mean acknowledging Pakistan’s rights over the area. New Delhi has not yet made up its mind about attending it. If it does, it may break the stalemate. However, this seems unlikely and if there is a representation, it may be at a lower official level.

The second event to watch out for would be the BRICS meet. That would be an opportunity to rework this very important relationship between two of Asia’s most populous nations. With a solid mandate in UP and signs of growing popularity nationwide, Modi will be in a position to break out of the current impasse. Will the two leaders decide to reinvest in improving ties?

US TIES

There are many in India who believe that getting closer to the US would be Delhi’s best bet against China. It is a fact that China is wary of the growing warmth in Indo-US ties. Beijing was angry when, for the first time during former US President Barack Obama’s visit in 2015 to Delhi, a statement was issued on South China Sea. China’s growing aggression and its decision to churn sand from the sea to create new islets in the ocean had alarmed East Asian nations. America’s pivot to Asia, proclaiming its intentions to watch over the Asia-Pacific sea lanes had become a sore point with China. Beijing regarded India-US ties as Washington’s way of balancing its growth.

But Donald Trump has opened a new dimension, with hints that the US would be withdrawing into an isolationist’s shell. He has pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), his predecessor’s pet project. China, which was not part of the arrangement, would be happy with Trump. As presidential candidate, Trump had also said that Japan should not be dependent on the US for its defence and should build its own nuclear defences. But after a meeting between Abe and Trump, none of this loose talk has been heard.

Those in India who take comfort from the fact that closeness with the US will help keep China’s adventurism at bay, need to look at the other side. This kind of dependence risks the danger of India becoming a “client state’’, as former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal puts it. America’s business interests in China are massive, and unless things turn drastically sour between them, Washington is unlikely to risk all for India. Having close ties with the US is good for India, but to rely on Washington’s support against China may be stretching things a bit. Instead, while keeping ties with the US on course, India is also accentuating its relations with other countries in Asia.

ARC OF DEMOCRACY

During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s short-lived first term, he had floated the idea of the Arc of Democracy to counter China’s growing military clout. The Arc would be a quadrilateral, stretching from Australia to Japan, including India and extending to the US. All four democracies would work together in a loose defence arrangement to maintain the freedom of Asia-Pacific trade routes through which most of the world’s trade passes. This would mean a greater presence in the Pacific waters.

A preliminary meeting was held, but fell through because of strong Chinese protests. Abe lost his majority soon after, while Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was not interested, as his country’s economic ties with China was thriving. America too turned away.

BlurbNow though Abe is back in the saddle, he has not really pushed the idea of the quadrilateral.

India-Japan ties had taken a dip during Delhi’s nuclear tests of 1998, but since then, it had improved by leaps and bounds. What began during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure is being aggressively pushed by both sides. Delhi’s decision to include Japan permanently in the Malabar exercises that India and the US navies hold annually has given a defence angle to the relations. This was done despite Chinese protests.

But the Arc of Democracy move has lost traction. “That is more or less dead,’’ admits Kanwal Sibal. “Countries with strong economic ties with China are not interested. Australia is divided on this, with some sections interested but the majority not being enthused. About America, it is difficult to make any ass-essment at the moment. We have to wait and watch how the Xi-Trump meeting goes. Yes, we need to strengthen ourselves against China but not by reviving the old idea of a quadrilateral arrangement. A quad is being talked about in Track 2 circles, but has been dropped officially.’’

INDIAN RESPONSE

Former foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon had once said that China and India would both circle each other’s neighbourhood for strategic reasons. China is all around India’s backyard. Whether it is providing submarines for Bangladesh, building a port city in Colombo, a deep sea port in Myanmar’s Rakhine Province, projects in Nepal or an imposing presence in the Maldives, China is spreading its tentacles. Like Saudi Arabia, China can, in future, buy islands in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

India has also been trying to make inroads into China’s neighbourhood. It has long been friends with Vietnam, China’s feisty neighbour. But India’s footprints in that country are nowhere near China’s presence in its sphere of influence. Vietnam and China have competing claims on the South China Sea. India had been given offshore exploration rights in Vietnam and stuck on despite China’s loud complaints. India and Vietnam signed a defence agreement in 2007 and since then, training and cooperation between both have been stepped up.

India is also hoping to sell arms to Phnom Penh. Though the Brahmos missile sale, which Vietnam has been wanting for years, has not happened, there is fresh talk of Delhi selling its Akash missile system to it. If this goes through, it will give India access to Cam Ranh for maintenance and training. Indian presence in Cam Ranh will be the proverbial red flag for China.

Modi also visited Mongolia in 2015, the first Indian PM to do so. As he set out to woo China’s immediate neighbour, he announced a credit line of one billion dollars as a gesture of goodwill.

These are all part of the game. But unlike China, India does not have deep pockets. It is also unfair to blame smaller countries for responding to China’s “cheque book diplomacy” and enthusiastically embracing the One Belt, One Road vision of Xi Jinping.

“It is not as if China will go to war with India. The world will not stand by and allow nuclear-armed nations to do so,’’ said Sibal.

“China can’t eat us up. And if they go for a border skirmish, the Indian military will be happy to fight it out and avenge the 1962 war. We are much better equipped today,” he added.

War, of course, is not an option. Both countries will continue to needle each other. It would, however, be in everybody’s interest for the two Asian giants to reboot ties and keep the promise of an Asian century intact.

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