Managing China - Can India Learn To Fish In Troubled Waters?

Managing China - Can India Learn To Fish In Troubled Waters?

by Jhinuk Chowdhury - Tuesday, May 12, 2015 12:53 PM IST
Managing China - Can India Learn To Fish In Troubled Waters?

While confidence building measures with China must continue, India should also take a broader view of how the larger Asian region, especially around China, is evolving, how that affects Beijing, and how India can leverage the situation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems all braced up for his maiden visit to Beijing next week. In a bid to connect with a larger audience, he joined China’s largest micro-blogging site Weibo.

As he sets the ground for a bilateral summit with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, there are some pieces of advise from experts which Modi could take note of. Significant among them is what Arun Shourie said in a media interview,

“…look, not at what they are saying, look at what they are doing.”

A clue to this could be the recent softening of Chinese rhetoric on India. Following the Indian PM’s visit to Indian Ocean Region, the Chinese State-owned Global Times said that Sino-Indian relations are not engaged in a zero-sum game in IOR. It rather suggests, as two of the Indian Ocean’s biggest powers, India and China should hold strategic dialogues concerning regional security.

In the same breath during an interview, China’s ambassador to India, Le Yucheng, said that China was,

“willing to strengthen communication and coordination with India, to link the ‘Belt and Road’ initiatives with India’s ‘Spice Route’ and ‘Mausam’ projects, and bring tangible benefits to the peoples in our two countries and throughout the region.”

In another statement, China said,

“There are lot of perceptions about border issue. So long as the two leaderships have strong political will we have good prospects for the resolution of the border issue.”

However, when the PM visits Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing registers a strong protest stating that Arunachal is “undeniably” an area under “huge dispute”.

What looks like a mixed message from Beijing has a deeper tactical strategy. To sum up this strategy, Shourie, in his interview, rightly quoted General V Raghavan, who points out how they (China) lull others by talking “strategic reassurance”, even as they forment “tactical turbulence”.

The example is well-corroborated in last year’s border stand-off between the two countries even as Modi and Xi spoke of deepening bilateral ties during the two-nation summit in India.

Perhaps it is in this blend—strategic reassurance and tactical turbulence—lies the clue for India to manage its relations with Beijing.

While steps like relaxing of border trade norms with China ahead of Mr Modi’s visit, or asserting that the defence dialogue must continue, India should also take a broader view of how the larger Asian region, especially the one around China, is evolving, how that affects Beijing, and how India can leverage the situation.

Photo: AFP/India
Photo: AFP/India


The Northeast Asian bloc is volatile today with North Korea’s nuclear overtures. According to a recent report released by China, Pyongyang has the capability to manufacture additional nuclear material and weapons. As per the estimate, North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, may already possess 20 warheads with the capacity to generate additional weapons-grade fissile material. This worries China even though it has a bilateral relation with North Korea.

However, what’s more alarming for Beijing is Washington’s preparations to counter North Korea in the region. It is excessively militarising its allies in the region to counter what it perceives as a threat.

South Korea is at the centre of Washington’s efforts towards reinforcing deterrence and improving capabilities on the Korean Peninsula to defuse any attack from North Korea. The most publicised step from the US here is the offering of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system to Seoul. With THAAD, Seoul can potentially counter any North Korean preemptive attack within minutes. Beijing, one of South Korea’s biggest trade partners, doesn’t want Seoul to accept Pentagon’s THAAD offer. The Chinese perceive it as a threat to their own military strategy.

In addition to this, arch-rival Japan is gradually coming out of its self-imposed military pacifism. The country now is moving towards a military build up and aligning with allies like the US in its defence cooperation. The recent summit between the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and President Obama had military ties as one of its focal points.

One of the outcomes of the Japan-US meeting was the drawing up of new guidelines for defence cooperation between the two countries which eliminates current geographic limitations on activities by Japanese forces. As per the US, the disputed East China Sea is under Japanese administration.

This has obviously raised concerns in Beijing.

Now India is not only expanding its defence ties with the US, but also getting closer to Japan in military terms. India should further focus on deepening ties with Japan to create a counter pressure on Beijing.

In the Southeast Asian region, India views countries like Vietnam—in dispute with China over South China Sea—a major partner for its ‘Act East’ policy. President Pranab Mukherjee visited Hanoi in September last year. The visit concluded with the issue of a joint statement that declared ‘defence cooperation as an important pillar’ in the bilateral relations between the two countries.

Interestingly, Vietnam is also one of the focus countries for the US’ Asian rebalance policy—which incidentally will be based on military ties with allies and partners in the region. The US recently offered the country its guided missile destroyer and a littoral combat ship to engage with Vietnamese Navy vessels.

Incessant arming of Pakistan by China has always worried India. What New Delhi could do is ‘use’ these partnerships in the region, especially the one with Japan to pressure Beijing to commit that its deepening defence ties with Islamabad will in no way threaten India’s security.

After all, the last thing China would want is India—even remotely—lining up with US allies in the region against China.

Both the US and China have high commercial stakes in the waters of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) While the US wants to secure its trade highway traversing the Indian Ocean, for China, now the world’s largest net oil importer, the Malacca Strait is a key choke point for its oil supply.

Beijing has always been concerned about the security of its energy imports, more so about the reliance on American forces along the route from the Middle East and Africa transiting through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca.

While for Washington, with its preoccupation with the Middle East and focus on Southeast Asia, a growing maritime power in India serves as a good stabilizer in the region counter-weighing China.

For Beijing, closer ties with India in the IOR is in its long-term interest, where building of a combined maritime might will reduce its dependence on American forces in the region.

Also the political situation in strategically crucial nations like Sri Lanka, a key gateway to the Middle East and Central Asia, is changing, with a pro-India government coming to power, led by President Sirisena whose first foreign visit after assuming office was to New Delhi, a meet that culminated in the inking of the Indo-Sri Lanka civil nuclear and defence cooperation agreements.

To maintain its influence in the island nation, China will need India. This is evident in the recent proposal by President Xi for a trilateral partnership between Beijing, New Delhi and Colombo.

So, while India should seek ways to be a beneficiary to all the economic initiatives of China, it should also be deft enough to deploy the same pressure tactics—of getting closer to China’s contenders—something Beijing has been doing to arm-twist India by aligning with New Delhi’s rivals.

Jhinuk Chowdhury is a freelance journalist who writes on South Asian affairs. Her twitter handle is @jhinuk28
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