India does not appear to be comfortable with the growing tensions in Asia that follow the United States of America’s attempts at ‘rebalancing’ the Chinese assertion of influence in the maritime regions contested by its neighbours. The discomfort comes through loud and clear in the speech given on November 22 by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to the combined commanders’ conference in Delhi. Getting his exact words on record would be useful to understand the prime minister’s anxiety: “If you survey the global strategic environment over the past decade, it would not escape your notice that, just as the economic pendulum is shifting inexorably from West to East, so is the strategic focus, as exemplified by the increasing contestation in the seas to our east and the related ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ by the US in this area. This, to my mind, is a development fraught with uncertainty. We don’t yet know whether these economic and strategic transitions will be peaceful....”
Singh then focuses on the global scenario of “intense competition”: “While globalization has induced growing and complex interdependencies among states and multinationals on the economic and trade front, it has also nurtured intense competition and rivalries in the security domain. Managing this contradictory tenor, which has been highlighted by the global surveillance operation mounted by the US National Security Agency, is also a policy imperative for us. Naturally, our objective must be to acquire tangible national capacity, or what the lexicon now refers to as comprehensive national power.”
India’s discomfort with the US global snooping operation revealed by Edward Snowden, in which India was an important target, also comes through clearly. India has made clear its displeasure at the US’s plans of drastic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan because that promises a more intense jihadi campaign with Kashmir as a prime target. Indian and US diplomats have already been involved in some bitter media sparring in Bangladesh with Delhi backing the Awami League and the US, at least its local envoy, indicating a clear preference for the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami combine.
Now after the India-US-Japan trilateral in Tokyo, it is beginning to emerge that Delhi insists on being left to do its own ‘balancing’ in Asia, and is happy to develop better relations with both China and its neighbours at the same time. Earlier this year, India’s former envoy to the US and former foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, tried to drive home this point to an American audience. On February 4, she said in a lecture at Brown University, “We are part of the Asia-Pacific and an Indian Ocean world that traditionally lived in peace, pursuing the traffic of ideas, the peaceful absorption of different religions without proselytization, pursuing trade and commerce in a non-polarized, peaceful, common economic space. In our view, more than geopolitical, or geo-economic, this was a geo-civilizational paradigm — a creative space with revolving doors where civilizations coalesced and did not clash. One has only to visit the caves of Ajanta in western India or see the murals of Dunhuang in China’s west to see this vision of unity that marked our past... This is the region where we hear the muffled footsteps of historical travellers and thinkers like Boddhidharma of India and Xuan Zang of China beat in our blood, to use a phrase from Rabindranath Tagore. These were lives mortgaged to pilgrimage, and voyages of intellectual discovery. We see that past as a rough guide to our future.”
Seeing this past as the “rough guide to our future” may not exactly impress the US. A “geo-civilizational paradigm” is much too woolly a concept for contemporary diplomacy in a country that understands and promotes “containment” and “balance of power” — key concepts of the European colonial-era diplomacy, provided greater relevance and thrust by US policy during the Cold War and after — a policy that thrived on identifying threats and villains, the bad guys and the good guys, those who need to be boxed into corners and those who need to be used to help that happen. But India — with its long tradition of non-alignment rooted in a philosophical conviction that truth is neither here or there but often in between — has good reasons to attempt a new text of diplomacy in what appears to be an emerging Asian century.
So, Rao had to remind her American audience at the Brown India initiative, “Guided by the strong economic rationale of our ‘Look East’ policy, ASEAN and East Asian countries — including Japan, China and South Korea — have emerged as large trading and investment partners of India. The richness of this engagement is visible in wide-ranging cooperation in areas as diverse as science and technology, tourism, human resource development, transport and infrastructure, health and pharmaceuticals. Indeed, the strategic footprint of our relations with China and Japan, particularly, will exert a major impact on the future of the region.”
So if the core focus of US “rebalancing” is containing China’s growing influence by developing an Asian equivalent of Nato, India’s “rebalancing” involves developing balanced relations with both China and its Asian neighbours like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and other ASEAN countries (together with Australia) in areas of trade and commerce as well as security. That explains why India will do everything possible to avert a conflict-like situation with China that was developing over the Depsang bulge and within six months, pull off the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement with China. That explains why India will agree to take forward the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor plan, and why its foreign ministry will start backing the Kunming-Kolkata Forum. And that also explains why within a month of Singh’s Beijing visit, India will host the general secretary of the Vietnam Communist Party and then plan similar visits by the prime ministers of Japan and Australia. Otherwise, how would one be able to explain India resuming military links with China through joint counterterrorism exercises in Yunnan even when Delhi agrees to supply military hardware to Vietnam. The whole idea is to augment national military power, but use it only as a last resort, avoiding any deployment or military exercise perceived as hostile by China.
It is interesting that the Chinese have also reciprocated US “rebalancing” (essentially, redeployment of US military specially naval assets to Asia) by some aggressive “charm diplomacy” in southeast Asia. Around the time that it was trying to build bridges with India and preparing to host Singh in Beijing, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and Premier Li Keqiang were touring a host of southeast Asian countries. Li’s proposed “2+7” cooperation framework between China and ASEAN (two political consensuses and seven areas of cooperation) is seen as a game-changer because it seeks to upgrade the China-ASEAN region into a Free Trade Area that will ultimately draw in India and create an integrated market for an area with half the world’s population.
During Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s finance ministers’ meeting at Bali, the Chinese proposed multilateral foreign-exchange swaps with ASEAN countries to help them face “external shocks”. This, after having already done similar deals involving 1.4 trillion yuan. In Indonesia, Xi proposed an Asian infrastructure bank to help finance connectivity and crucial regional infrastructure projects like the high-speed railway connecting China to Thailand and Singapore.
China has been countering Washington’s efforts to develop the Trans-Pacific Partnership with its own heightened negotiations on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an initiative to incorporate existing free-trade zones between ASEAN and other countries. The Yunnan-based Link Times was quick to point out, “Although the US and Japan have tried to highlight the potential military threat posed by China’s rise, economic issues remained the primary concern of Asian countries. For example, when the US government shut down and the threat of a treasury default loomed, it was Japan , US’ closest ally in Asia, who joined China in pressuring the US to avoid a default”.
Interestingly, this Link Times article talks of Japan and Vietnam as allies of the US, not of India. Both India and China are keen to promote ever greater regional cooperation in southeast and east Asia to create a “larger cake” (a Chinese expression for a win-win situation for all). Without this new diplomatic ethos that focuses on cooperation and not conflict or containment, an Asian century will remain a dream on paper, manipulated by non-Asians, who would like contests and confrontation to push their armaments exports to a prosperous Asia rather than allow it to emerge as the globe’s economic powerhouse.