Pleading for the dragon

Related Link:“India has a stake in the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka”

By G Parthasarathy

(May 27, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) While on a visit to Beijing, the Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, launched a broadside against his senior colleagues in the Home and Defence Ministries on the sensitive issue of giving the Chinese company Huawei access to the telecom sector in India. Mr Ramesh said, “If we continue to be paranoid about Chinese investment in India, we are not going to be able to derive the full benefits of the Copenhagen spirit.”He was referring to the cooperation between India and China at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, when an isolated China made common cause with India, Brazil and South Africa to thwart Western pressures that would have adversely affected the development efforts of emerging and developing countries.

Did Mr Ramesh go through the detailed studies that have been made about Chinese efforts to undermine communications and cyber-security in India before making his intemperate comments on foreign soil? Do we not live today in a world where countries, especially emerging powers, compete, cooperate and sometimes even confront each other? The Prime Minister reportedly admonished Mr Ramesh for his comments. One, however, doubts whether his Ministerial colleagues are going to become more disciplined in this era of coalition politics.

The Prime Minister’s former special envoy, Mr Shyam Saran, who along with two other eminent experts quit over Mr Ramesh’s frequent flip-flops on climate issues, recently remarked that in an era when the centre of gravity of economic power is shifting from the Western world to Asia, India appears to be successfully moving towards a ‘hedging’ strategy of “engaging with all major powers, but aligning with none”. Thus, while we engage and cooperate with China in forums like the G-20 and BRIC and on issues like climate change and world trade negotiations, we should be under no illusion about Chinese determination to become a dominant global power, where little strategic space is to be accorded to others in Asia, like India and Japan.

When an economically backward China decided to take the road of economic liberalisation and rapid economic growth in 1979, its supreme leader, Deng Xiao Ping, advised his compatriots to follow a policy of “lie low, bide your time” in international affairs. In effect, Deng advised that China should not bite off more than it could chew and that it should bide its time before flexing its economic and military muscles.

China did, however, use military power across its borders in its disastrous effort in 1979 to teach Vietnam a ‘lesson’ after it secured American backing to attack an ally of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1980s the Chinese acted in close concert with the Americans to undermine Soviet interests. The Americans, in turn, lavished praise on China and American companies went gaga in investing and building Chinese capabilities.

A resurgent China has now emerged as a global economic power whose foreign exchange reserves are double India’s entire GDP. But the Chinese ambition of dominating Asia as a prelude to its emerging as the global number one has remained constant. The detente with the US was used by China to lay claims on its maritime borders with virtually every neighbour and up the

ante on its land border claims on India. ‘Containment’ of India was sought by transfer of conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities to Pakistan and by active diplomatic, economic and military involvement across India’s neighbourhood.

Throughout this period, the Chinese displayed a healthy respect for American diplomatic and military power. But the American economic meltdown and US President Barack Obama’s statements and actions suggesting he favoured a world order dominated by a Sino-American ‘diarchy’, led to China prematurely discarding Deng’s wise advice of “lie low and bide your time”. The advent of the Obama administration has seen growing Chinese assertiveness across Asia.

In July 2009, the Chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, told his Indian interlocutors that his Chinese naval counterpart had remarked to him: “You (the US) take Hawaii East and we China will take Hawaii West. Then you need not come into the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean and we need not go to the Eastern Pacific. If anything happens there, then you can let us know and if something happens here we will let you know”. On May 6, 2009, China officially banned summer fishing in South China Sea, rejecting a Vietnamese protest on this unilateral ban in disputed waters.

Earlier this year, China announced that it had discovered a new deep water gas field in South China Sea and despatched patrol ships to assert its fishing rights in the waters around Nansha Islands. The Chinese have acted similarly in East China Sea, with the conduct of a military exercise and the commencement of oil and gas exploration in disputed waters, provoking protests from Japan.

Chinese assertiveness is also now evident on issues pertaining to utilisation of river waters. China has refused to join Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as a member of the Mekong River Commission. Cambodia’s Minister for Water Resources noted in February this year that there had been concerns over the lowering of water levels in Mekong, resulting from the construction of dams across the river in China.

There are, similarly, serious concerns about reported plans by China to divert the waters of Brahmaputra. It was only after India provided it with satellite photographs that China belatedly acknowledged that it was building a hydroelectric project across Brahmaputra at Zhagmu and, thereafter, agreed to exchange data on lean season water flows with lower riparian states — India and Bangladesh.

It is true that after vicious propaganda barrages against India over the past two years, the Chinese media has toned down hostile reporting about India after the Copenhagen conference. But it would be naive for India to assume that this presages any Chinese climbdown on its territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh or any dilution of its overall strategies in South Asia and the entire Indian Ocean Region, to contain India by enhanced military/ nuclear ties with Pakistan, and by undermining Indian influence in its neighbourhood. Huawei, the Chinese company so ardently supported by Mr Ramesh, faces charges of bribery, data theft, close ties with China’s military and conspiracy to disrupt a national telecommunications network in countries ranging from the US, the UK and Australia to Argentina and Indonesia.