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Why Absence of India from APEC Dismays China

Paper No. 5833                                   Dated 28-Nov-2014

By Bhaskar Roy

The November 2014 APEC summit in Beijing should make the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China (CPC), proud. It is not only the summit, but discussions with foreign leaders on the sidelines of the summit that must be read together.

On the sidelines, Chinese president Xi Jinping finally agreed to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and pulled bilateral relations from the brink. Abe agreed to the four-point proposal (nothing new) a behaviour demanded by Xi.

An important agreement was reached with South Korea on the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA), gas import agreement with Russia (reportedly at rock bottom price) pushed further and an agreement made with the US to expand technology trade.

The most important success for Beijing was receiving endorsement for its Free Trade Area Asia Pacific (FTAAP). Though China is the biggest Asian country leading the initiative, the pact also includes the USA which may, when necessary, restrict China’s freedom to wrestle down smaller countries of the region.

At the same time, the US initiated Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which does not include China, is perceived by Beijing as a network of countries set up to encircle or constrict China’s growth and influence. Yet, in a complicated geopolitical game, the FTAAP is also seen as an instrument to counter the TPP. And, with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Australia on the sidelines of the G-20 in Brisbane, China appears to have shaken the US-Australia strategic arrangement to an extent.

Looking at the totality of the season’s political and strategic flavour, China has scored a series of successes. Why then is China dismayed or even frustrated at India not attending the Beijing APEC summit?

The official Chinese daily, the Global Times (Nov-16), the Duowei news, a media outlet run by overseas Chinese, and the Taiwanese news portal Want China Times, joined in a chorus to accuse India of being a trade relations breaker. The Want China Times (Nov.11) article appeared to be somewhat confused and reluctant to fully blame India, though it labeled a series of negative charges on India’s economic and trade rules to justify why New Delhi was denied membership of the economic body in 1989.

The article, however, concluded that from India’s perspective attending as an observer at Xi Jinping’s invitation was meaningless since it was not going to be allowed to accede to the APEC as a full member. The article also speculated that Xi Jinping’s invitation was a move to save India’s face, but could not really clarify.   

Xi Jinping invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the APEC summit as an observer when the two met at the BRICS summit in Brazil in July. The Indian statement came later that since it was not an APEC member, it could not attend.

The Global Times, while pointing out India’s negative attitude, insisted that the world and this organization were waiting for a positive response from India to join the APEC. It claimed that the Chinese invitation to be an observer was an endorsement of India’s membership. There was an implicit message that China was trying to save India’s “face” through this invitation.

The Chinese argument or reasoning lacks conviction. There are no free meals, and China is known to extract a couple of feasts if it offers a meal. There is more than one reason for China’s invitation.

On one end is the tussle in the Asia Pacific region between China, which wants to dominate the region, and the US which wants to ensure this lucrative and strategic part of the globe remains free from Chinese capture. The US initiative, however, predicates a hesitant or unsure approach.  Nevertheless, China does respect USA’s strength and appears to have put aside the theory that “the US was in a clear state of decline, while China was on an unchallenged rise”.

China has acknowledged that India is a rising power and sought after by different powers in the region to correct the power imbalance. While India-China relations have improved in commercial areas, India’s relations with two Asia Pacific countries, Japan and Australia, both US allies, have also improved rapidly.

 

A greater Chinese concern would be giving new life to India-US strategic partnership, defence deals and joint military and naval exercises which can go beyond anti-piracy and counter-terrorism. Beijing would want a neutral India though New Delhi has substantial interest in South China Sea and Sea of Japan to counter China’s muscular approach on territorial issues.

China has used Russia very deftly by manipulating bilateral relations in such a way that Moscow became the front country to counter the US while Beijing was trying to enhance its “new great power relations” with Washington. India should not fall into this kind of trap.

Appearing along with Pakistan and Mongolia as observers at the APEC would do India no good. The Chinese knew that. Here is another example of Chinese efforts to equate India with Pakistan, and even tiny Mongolia in a large international forum. India is not going to hang around listening to sweet nothings from China, relegated outside the door. India would stand to lose face, and this would reflect poorly among its small neighbouring countries.

Finally, as the recent SAARC summit (Nov. 25-28) in Kathmandu revealed China was maneuvering to became a full member of this important regional body. Appeasing India with “I help you in APEC, and you help me in SAARC” could have worked in the old days. Since there is a moratorium on new membership in this organization, Pakistan pushed China’s case as a dialogue partner. There would be other SAARC members who would be quite happy to have China in, with an important role to corner India. As a member China would manipulate the SAARC countries to anchor its Maritime Silk Road initiative. Sri Lanka has already agreed to be China’s Maritime Silk Road mascot.

Some of India’s small neighbours are salivating at this prospect. They do not realize their sovereignty would be submerged. For the time being the crisis has been averted – a fractured SAARC cannot expand its membership without putting the original house in order.  

Nevertheless, the innocent faced Chinese multipronged strategic initiative is masterly, and to be acutely wary of.   

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)                 

    

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