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Asian Century: Striking Alliances To Meet The Challenge

| by G Parthasarathy

Powerplay among India, China and Japan will determine the contours of the Asian century. New Delhi is still shaping its strategy and sometimes appears to be apologetic in dealing with Beijing. This needs to change

( September 12, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The 21st century is often described as ‘Asia’s Century’. This is primarily because of the rapidly growing economies of East and Southeast Asia and the declining rates of economic growth in the US and its European allies. Thus, while the US can no longer unilaterally decide the course of events in Asia, it will remain a key player in moulding the balance of power within Asia.

The actual balance of power within Asia will primarily be determined by the interplay among a rapidly growing, militaristic and jingoist China, an aging but technologically innovative Japan seeking its legitimate place in the sun, and an India, still uncertain about how to manage this triangular relationship, to its best advantage. One salient factor is that India and Japan have no territorial or maritime boundary issues which can escalate bilateral tensions. China, however, has adopted policies, on land and maritime boundaries, which could lead to escalating tensions with India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-profile visit to Japan and the forthcoming visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, together with the latter’s visits to Pakistan (since postponed) and Sri Lanka, should be seen in the context of these emerging power equations in Asia. It has long been Beijing’s effort to ‘contain’ India within South Asia. Nothing else can explain its policies of equipping Pakistan not merely with tanks, warships and fighter aircraft, but also by promoting the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile production capabilities. This has been accompanied by China’s untiring efforts to undermine India’s influence in its immediate neighbours, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

China took note of Mr Modi’s comment in Japan: “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mindset; encroaching on another country, intruding on other’s waters, invading other countries and capturing territory”. While noting that Mr Modi had not named any country, China’s official mouthpiece, the Global Times observed: “Japan is located faraway from India. Abe’s harangue on the Indo-Pacific concept makes Indians comfortable. It is South Asia where New Delhi has to make its presence felt. However, China is a neighbour it cannot move away from. Sino-Indian ties can in no way be counter-balanced by the Japan-India friendship”.

Beijing’s message to New Delhi in the article was: “You are merely a South Asian power bordering a strong China. We may move, at will, across the Indian Ocean. You should, however, not dare use your relationship with Japan to transgress into the Pacific Ocean — what you and Japan describe as the Indo-Pacific”. China has no intention of changing its policy of ‘strategic containment’ of India, even if India is useful in promoting its interests at BRICS and the G-20.

Mr Modi’s visit to Japan yielded substantial progress in industrial collaboration, with a target of $35 billion of foreign direct investment in the coming five years, together with a projected increase of Japanese overseas development investment. Defence industry collaboration and joint exercises between the two Navies, both in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, are to be expanded. Japan will play a key role in the development of industrial corridors in India. It is easing restrictions on collaboration in space and defence industries. India-Japan collaboration in exploration of rare earths will erode the Chinese monopoly in this sector. We should, however, welcome cooperation in areas like industry and infrastructure with China, if it can match the terms which Japan is ready to provide in transfer of technology and development of work skills. There is much we can learn from the efficiency that characterises the construction of infrastructure projects in China.

India’s trade deficit with China in 2012 was $39.1 billion. A recent study by the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, commissioned by the Reserve Bank of India, has noted that such a deficit is “unsustainable”. Recent studies indicate that making this trade deficit “unsustainable” are a series of Chinese non-tariff barriers, not just on pharmaceuticals, but also on items like steel and auto components. Moreover, India receives discriminatory treatment on registration of its products and faces barriers in services like banking, insurance, warehousing and freight forwarding.

Over 41 products have been identified, which India exports significantly worldwide, but they are prevented from entering the Chinese market. They include plastics, manmade filaments, electrical and optical machinery, and vehicles. Registration of Indian companies in China is exceedingly difficult. It takes three to five years to secure registration in China — a process that normally takes six months in India for Chinese companies. Some reciprocal measures are called for to deal with such non-tariff barriers, including imposition of higher duties on items like power equipment manufactured in India, both in the private and public sector.

China is in no hurry to resolve the border issue. It steadfastly avoids clearly defining where the Line of Actual Control lies in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Better logistics across the Tibetan Plateau give its armed forces the advantage of far easier access to disputed areas. While contacts between military commanders have been increased, face offs along the LAC continue.

Spelling out ‘Guiding Principles’ for resolving the border issue, India and China agreed in April 2005 that the Sino-Indian Boundary “should be along well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features to be mutually agreed upon”. They also agreed that, “The two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”. In accordance with this Agreement, the border in Arunachal Pradesh should logically be an extension of China’s delineated border with Myanmar. In Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains are the most prominent “identifiable natural geographical features,” separating India and China.

While India is strengthening its defences along the Sino-Indian border, by raising new strike formations, improving communications and deploying frontline SU30 Squadrons, our negotiators sometimes appear to be excessively defensive and even apologetic in dealing with their Chinese counterparts. It is time to change this mindset and join partners like Vietnam and Japan, to build a stable balance of power in Asia.

Given China’s readiness to intimidate its neighbours on its maritime boundary claims, India should, at the very least, supply Brahmos anti-ship Cruise Missiles to friendly countries in the Indo-Pacific region like Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia, to secure their maritime frontiers. At the same time, cooperation in multilateral forums like the G20, the East Asia Summit and BRICS can be expanded and bilateral cooperation in areas like infrastructure, industry, communications and energy, pursued vigorously.

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