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Sparing India’s strategic space for China’s entry in the East

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Paper No. 5966                                Dated 08-Jul-2015

By Col R. Hariharan

Chinas latest strategy paper provides insights to Xi’s thinking on power projection. India should keep its options open while sparing its strategic space to China by participating in the BCIM corridor project.

At last India also seems to have made up its mind on joining the China-promoted Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor project to open up a land access route between South Asia to China’s South Western region.[i] General VK Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, recent statement that the recent standoff with Burmese Naga insurgents in Manipur would not affect the Project amply clarifies that New Delhi is clear in its decision.[ii]

Perhaps, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the decision to join the Project after clarifying his mind on some of India’s strategic concerns about China after his May 2015 visit to Kunming capital of Yunnan Province where he inaugurated a Yoga Institute supported by India. The Chinese also “acknowledge that unlike in the past, when it was perceived to be dragging its feet, India is now showing enthusiasm over the project” according a news report in The Hindu from Kunming.[iii]  With its changed stance Chinese have high expectations of India speedily completing the last bit of 200 km of road on Indian side of the border to provide four-lane highway connectivity between Kunming and Kolkata.

Ever since President Xi Jinping came to power two years back China has been vigorously promoting the BCIM corridor as part of its strategic outreach to South Asia, mainly India.[iv]

Yunnan has become the focal point of this effort. For the last three years China had been convening the China South Asia Think Tank Forum at Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to improve its people to people links with South Asia in a bid to overcome apprehensions about China’s strategic intentions and objectives in the region. 

The project is expected to trigger start greater investment inflow because it links India and China which are topping the global economic growth charts first time in two and a half centuries and have the money and inclination to invest in green field areas in the region serviced by the BCIM.

Tenuous land links the landlocked regions of Southwestern China with Northeastern Indian states. The whole region is rich in natural resources including minerals, forestry, petroleum, forestry and energy. Lack of development in the BCIM region is one of the causes for age old tribal and territorial animosities coming up frequently to result in insurgency movements. However, there are signs of most of the insurgency movements in India’s Northeastern states talking peace for some time to end decades of conflict. Development and economic growth expected in the wake of BCIM project can speed up this process to improve the quality of life denied to the people of the region. It could also contribute to peace and prosperity to the whole region contributing to the economic viability of the BCIM project.[v]

Perhaps this is what made Prime Minister Modi to decide upon joining hands with China to complete the BCIM project, keeping aside the historical baggage of unresolved territorial disputes between the two countries relevant to the security of the Northeast. Ideally, on completion the BCIM could provide a win-win situation for all the four member states and promote greater understanding and harmony among them, lessening the chances of confrontation.

But India has to recognize a few home truths. The bottom line is India will be sparing its strategic space for China’s entry into India’s East through the BCIM project which fits in with President Xi’s belt and road strategy and supplements the 20th Century Maritime Road initiatives. These pave way for greater assertion of China’s economic, strategic and political clout. And this could be at the cost of India, which had been the cock of the walk in the region for hundreds of years till it failed to build upon its strengths due to its own national and regional preoccupations and pulls and pressures and seemingly endless ethnic conflicts sometime stoked by China. This had resulted in a cycle of conflict, poor governance and lack of development. In the 90s India embarked upon the Look East policy to the Northeast by improving the connectivity of landlocked region to ASEAN and Southeast Asia. But it made tardy progress till Prime Minister Modi preferred to Act East rather than merely Look East. 

In this context, the China’s military strategy paper released by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing on May 26, 2015, provides interesting insights into the dynamics of Xi’s strategy. [vi]

The strategy paper is different in both form and content from the last White Paper “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Force” published on April 16, 2013.[vii]  Unlike the earlier one, this is more focussed on concepts of strategy and doctrine than details. So it is less obtuse than the earlier document and provides a clear correlation between President Xi Jinping’s world view on key strategic issues affecting national development and security as well as employment of Chinese armed forces. However, core concepts of the doctrine appear to remain the same as enjoined by the Communist Party of China (CPC).

A few things stand out in the whole paper. These include getting the armed forces ready for a global role, to protect strategic interests outside China (including protection of maritime rights), and ensuring the CPC’s continued doctrinaire control over the armed forces. On the modernization of armed forces which has been progressing for nearly two decades the focus is now on modernizing the logistics in tandem with the development of road, rail and air communication networks. This was perhaps the weakest link in China’s strategic Westward move. Similarly the emphasis on nuclear deterrence and second strike capability, cyber warfare and space warfare provide Chinese leadership’s employment of forces on emerging threats to the realisation of the Chinese Dream.

President Xi would like the world to see his Chinese Dream as the Chinese peoples’ aspiration  “to join hands with the rest of the world to maintain peace, pursue development and share prosperity.” In essence this is what the earlier military white paper also said.

President Xi and other leaders have been repeatedly proclaiming China’s peaceful intentions even as China is making strategic inroads into South and Central Asia and the world beyond. Chinese war ships are increasingly asserting China’s claim to the South China Sea; Chinese navy has become a regular part of the Indian Ocean landscape to protect its national interests. 

The Paper probably hopes to set at ease the doubts about China’s strategic intentions in the minds of its neighbours like India and ASEAN over the “Belt and Road” strategy and the 20th Century Maritime Silk Road projects. There is also latent fear among them about China’s promotion of the communication links in tandem with the Asian Infra-structure Investment Bank and broad banding the BRICS network to build a strong Chinese-led economic and strategic counterpoise to the West. When successful, it could make China’s economic and strategic domination of Asia complete and holistic making the RMB the transactional currency among the networked countries.   

Even if China’s proclaimed intentions are peaceful, can India be lulled by these words? The answer to this question is closely related to India joining hands with China on opening the BCIM corridor. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval delivering the annual KF Rustamji Lecture on May 22, 2015 on “Challenges of Securing India’s Borders: Strategising the Response” cautioned that while India’s relations with China ‘were looking up’, India’s border issue remained critical for bilateral relations with China.[viii]  And India needed to remain on a ‘very very high alert.’ In particular, he spoke of India’s concerns about the Eastern Sector where the Chinese have claimed Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. He was only articulating what Narendra Modi asked China “to reconsider its approach on some issues that hold us back” during his recent visit to Beijing.

It is a moot question whether the publication of the White Paper was timed to coincide with the worsening situation in the South China Sea.  The U.S. and its allies notably Philippines are locked on near-confrontation over China’s development of an air strip on the disputed Spratly islands after artificially expanding the reef. The issue has caused concern to all stakeholders using the sea links including India because it strikes at the root of China’s much professed recurrent theme of “peace and harmony” with all the neighbours. But Beijing seems to be confident of India understanding the Chinese point of view.[ix]

Prime Minister Modi has the difficult task of deciding how far and how much India can trust China and cooperate with it. He seems to have taken a calculated risk in promoting the BCIM project perhaps in the interest of bringing peace, harmony and good governance in the region and to wean away people from insurgencies. It would also reinforce his Act East policy, and provide for greater Indian investment and trade to flow eastwards.  It also augments his overall strategy of building bridges with India’s neighbourhood to reinforce our soft power to achieve strategic objectives for the common good of the people living in the entire region.

However, participation in multilateral economic and development initiatives comes with some cost to the country’s freedom in decision making and sovereignty. India has joined major Chinese strategic initiatives i.e. BRICS grouping and its economic initiatives, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). India also appears to be interested in signing a Free Trade pact with the Eurasian Economic Union.[x] So India will be coming under greater pressure than ever before in the coming years from diverse countries and multi lateral associations while taking strategic decisions in its national interest.  

So India will have to closely monitor the progress and operation of the BCIM project lest the outstanding sovereignty issues with China affect the Northeast region in the course of the laudable development initiative.

[Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. Their websites carry many of his analytical articles. E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com Website: www.col.hariharan.info  ]

 

END NOTES



[i] Atul Aneja, China India fast track BCIM economic corridor project, May 26,2015  http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/china-india-fasttrack-bcim-economic-corridor-project/article7355496.ece?homepage=true

[iii] China, India fast-track BCIM economic corridor project, June 26, 2015 The Hindu   http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/china-india-fasttrack-bcim-economic-corridor-project/article7355496.ece

[iv] Fully text of Li Keqiang’s speech at opening ceremony of Boao Forum (1), April 11, 2014 http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/853912.shtml

[v] Liu Zongyi, Beijing and New Delhi can open an Indo-Asia Pacific era http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/881546.shtml

[viii] Settling border issue key for india-china relations says NSA, May 23, 2015 http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/settling-border-issue-key-for-india-china-relations-says-nsa/84174.html

[ix] Sino Indian ties can conquer West’s doubts http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/921831.shtml   

[x] India to sign free trade pact with Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow, June 19, 2015. India Brand Equity Foundation http://www.ibef.org/news/india-to-sign-free-trade-pact-with-eurasian-economic-union

 

 

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