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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 51, December 7, 2013

India-China Relations: Conflicting Claims and Strategic Interests

Saturday 7 December 2013, by Latika Nath


India-China relations over the years have seen a meandering course. Decades ago India supported a young communist China, making every effort to end its isolation at the international level. Today Sino-Indian relations have moved away in different directions. China has overtaken India in international trade, finance and marketing, to mention a few. China’s border differences as in the case of neighbours have also increased over the years as in the case of India and Japan. The South China Sea has its own set of problems threatening to become a multi-nation conflict in the near future.

Territorial pursuit has made the Chinese presence felt in many regions from the South China Sea to far-off Angola. Her pursuit for ports significantly increases her presence encircling India with a “string of pearls”. In the Chinese context, economic engagement and national interest are two separate issues. Myanmar shares a 1624 km border with China. The opening into the Indian Ocean increases Chinese interests significantly in the region. India has several investments made by way of roads and factories in the neighbouring countries. Chinese moves in the region are indicative of Chinese expansion. Increased military expenditure on hardware and fighter planes are factors to be contended with. This also reflects Chinese priorities against the backdrop of her aim to dominate world affairs in the near future.

In recent times China is increasing her growing sphere of influence by advancing claims on nearby areas/region near the LAC. Growth and strategic moves are behind the Chinese policy. A movement-free corridor between Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar would increase Chinese access in the region giving a boost to her market strategy. India’s 3380 km border with China has areas of disputes, for example, Aksai Chin dating back to the British colonial era. Xinjiang and Tibet were annexed by China in the 1950s. The recent display of interest in Arunachal Pradesh is indicative of her plans.

However, regional problems have also affected China. The Sino-Pak border, which witnessed terrorist activities, affected life in the nearby provinces. The border is also a gateway for opium trade. Added to this is the free movement of people/refugees between India and Nepal. Afghanistan poses problems to the region as well. Chinese trade and the opening of the Nathula pass have created a new area of bilateral relations. A need is being felt to work out a permanent solution to the issues and problems that affect the region.

Territorial Policy

The Chinese military exercises in the region are indicative of China exerting her influence over the region. China sorted out her decades-old border dispute with Tajikistan recently. The consequence is that now Beijing exerts sovereignty over more than 1000 sq. kms of land that was once a contentious issue with the former USSR. This could contain oil and natural gas.

China is keen to acquire land. She also held on to her position over the trawler dispute with Japan, asserting her claim over the Senkaku Islands. She has a border dispute with nearly all the states of the South China Sea, Vietnam, and Philippines etc. Her relations with ASEAN have grown over the years.

Even Taiwan is keenly watching the global designs of China. Recently it decided to purchase arms from the US in order to safeguard its interests.

With India there has been an ongoing border dispute. The Chinese aggression of the 1962 has not been forgotten. The recent incursion into Daulat Beg Oldi and the refusal of the Chinese troops to leave the area for days are indicative of the desire by China which for long has eyed parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin. The Tawang monastery holds special interest for the Chinese.

Economic Interest

Presently Chinese influence is being felt in many parts of Asia, South Asia and Africa. Her great domination of markets and other allied interests is causing concern to many countries around the world. According to SIPRI, China has overtaken France as the world’s third largest arms supplier, behind the US and Russia (this is unconnected with China’s illicit arms trade). Her economic interests have taken her to the far-flung corners of the world including Africa.

Chinese trade increased since the economic reforms of the 1980s. She adopted a variety of measures to promote economic development and internationalised her economy to facilitate foreign investments and trade eg. setting up of economic zones attracted foreign investment.

Manufactured goods were exported to foreign markets. She also trades with the US, Western Europe, Asia and Third World countries. Some

African countries are also trading partners, for example, Chad, Sudan and Angola. This trade is done in order to secure concessions in oil and minerals. By 2030, China may well become the world’s largest economy. Today it is a major economic power in the world.

Maritime Interests

China has acquired an interest in ports in many parts of the world. The “string of pearls” may be used to encircle Indian interests in the Indian Ocean region and strengthen Chinese influence including her navy. Her interests are spread over the entire region from Burma, Seychelles, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan to Lamu (Kenya) and Bagamoyo in Tanzania. The dependence of the world on crude oil would increase over the years and by then the Chinese would be in full control over the waterways.

In recent years China changed her national policies to bring it in line with international interests. Growing Chinese influence is slowly being felt in many countries around the globe. Her foreign policy, financial institutions and long term plans have helped to move her close to achieving economic success in international markets to become a market leader.

Chinese Trade

After the Opium wars, the Western nations succeeded in “cutting the Chinese melon”. There was a period when China went into a bad phase with little or no development. It was after World War II that the PRC made a decisive policy. The 1962 war with India was not a victory for China, it only reinforced international opinion that China was in the process of making significant changes in the near future. Its permanent seat in the UN Security Council meant that it could play an important role in international affairs. The strength of the population meant creation of jobs and therefore it followed that overseas trade would be the next step. New technologies, capital and markets have ushered in economic changes and China is in a unique position to achieve her plans. India is not far behind and both countries have enjoyed unprecedented economic growth in recent times.

Through investment and influence China moved forward internationally. Its trade interests and overseas projects have left a mark all over South Asia, Africa and even in far-off Cuba, China has concentrated on gaining access to ports in South Asia. The news of the construction of a canal in Nicaragua similar to the Panama Canal made international news. Overseas investments have yielded rich dividends. Angola, Congo, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have deposits of coal and minerals which they are happy to trade with China in order to secure low interest loans. State owned Chinese establishments have come forward to build highways and power plants which are just added incentives for concessions. If loans are advanced by international organisations they come with certain conditions, for example, human rights records, basic needs of the local populations, non-discrimination etc. Angola has emerged as China’s largest supplier of crude oil. With Cuba its concerns are nickel, oil and biotechnology. China’s brand of market socialism poses challenges to many nations. The local population derives benefits too.

However, low cost Chinese projects, for example, roads and buildings exhibit low engineering construction standards. Chinese textiles easily available in African markets have left thousands jobless.

The determined pursuit of economic self-interest exposes Beijing’s expansionist, imperialist traits. China intends to dominate world markets in the near future. Economic stability ushered in a new phase in China. It is this overriding interest that governs China’s policy, both internal and international. In China food, water and energy are urgent needs of the Chinese Government. The PRC needs to address these issues in order to develop the economy. Her accelerated economic programme with an eye on global markets is increasing steadily. The necessity for electricity and hydro-electric projects is the rise. There is a demand from both industry and her population. This has led China to build a dam across the Brahmaputra River, the highest major river in the world. This
poses serious consequences for India, Bangladesh and the entire region. Decreased water flow could lead to famine in the region. It is evident that China aims to redraw the water map
of the region. The Washington Centre for Strategic International Studies has indicated a focus on sea power in the next decade by the various nations of the world and those include China as well.

The Indian Ocean cannot support two super powers in the region in addition to the US base of Diego Garcia.

  International Relations

The emerging economic power of both India and China has made many of the developed countries re-assess their geo-political strategies in Asia. The South China Sea is a flash-point of regional interests. China rejected an offer for settlement of competing claims through international arbitration. The ten ASEAN nations are in the process of entering into trade relations with China. China wants to deal with issues bilaterally. In the days to come the ASEAN may bring about a code of conduct to deal with these problems. The Philippines, unhappy over the loss of the Scarborough islands, has taken a different stand. The US and its former colony seek to renew ties. With the focus of attention on Chinese imperialism, foreign policy in Asia has to meet the demands of the present situation. Geopolitical strategy, international relations and closer economic ties are being considered the order to deal with Chinese interests in the region. In the light of events of the recent past India does not want to directly confront China. However, Chinese imperialist designs, on the other hand, may succeed in uniting the countries of the region. Such a situation would be difficult for China to contend with. Any alignment of interest in the region would significantly affect the balance of power, posing serious consequences for all nations.

The Indian response in the pre-election year seems to be to gloss over issues that urgently need serious consideration, for example, the border issue. Lack of a decisive policy with neighbours and the will to enforce it has left the governing polity with few options. Age-old border issues with especially China and Pakistan are yet to be conclusively sorted out. Both sides are not keen on sorting out matters and an international solution in this regard has been ruled out. Bilateral dialogue is the only possible course. India’s growing technological advances (with the launch of Agni-V) has placed her amongst an elite group of nations. This in itself has far-reaching consequences.

Strategic Moves

In this charged political scenario regional interests, alliances and associations have come to play an important role. China’s market socialism and interests have become the focus of international attention in recent times. The government needs to have a clear policy to deal with issues on hand. Other nations also need a strong ally in the South Asian region. It is here that diplomacy and international relations come to the fore. This is an opportune moment for India to expand trade with China (given the trade deficit between the two) and take a pro-active stand on the border issue (a challenging task).

This would go a long way to ensure regional safety and allay fears of imperialist designs. With the increasing number of border incursions and the lack of a coherent policy of the government it is increasingly evident that key issues remain unresolved. This will demoralise the Army and displease the civilian population. Kashmir, Leh-Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh have borne the brunt of attacks in the past. Political inertia has not so far solved India-China relations.

Present Trends

Beijing is moving towards realising her global ambitions by forging new strategic partnerships. The new Chinese leadership will undoubtedly focus on progress and policy. Policies are formulated for accelerated economic growth. She is an important power in this region. India is an emerging power and with careful planning and preparation can chart out a path to move forward in future. With the support of regional countries and associations India can play a decisive role in the region and the world. A clear policy and firm stand are necessary to deal with China and other neighbouring countries. Pragmatic initiatives need to be brought forth keeping in mind future developments. In keeping with her importance and development India should firmly push for a permanent seat in the UN. With the enlargement of the Security Council, it would become truly representative of the member-countries of the world.

Border issues must be settled conclusively before expansion of trade and commerce between India and China. Diversion of river waters needs to be discussed at an early date. That is in the best interests of both nations.

India must adopt a pro-active approach to deal with the border and safeguard its regional interests. Beijing must be made aware of New Delhi’s firm resolve and commitment in this regard. India and China are competing for economic power and political influence in Asia. Economic zones, super highways, connectivity and growing trade will usher in great changes in the region. The Chinese strategy has been to dilute the Indian influence in Asia. In furtherance of this she has supported Pakistan as a deterrent to India rise and to maintain the balance of power.

By playing an important role especially by solving the Tibetan problem she hopes to make inroads into India’s influence in the region. Under the guise of promoting economic development in South Asia she intends to pave the way (from observer) to full SAARC member-ship and become an Asian and world power. Keeping our national security interests in mind we need an effective foreign policy. With tremendous growth India is expected to be at the forefront of affairs in the region, by 2028. With the focus of attention shifting from West to East, emerging global trends indicate that India will play a decisive role in determining international political relations in Asia in the near future.

Dr Lathika Nath is an Associate Professor, Department of Law, Bangalore University, Bangalore.

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