June 15, 2012 ▪ Interviewed by Viktor Kaspruk
Honorary Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Baladas Ghoshal told The Ukrainian Week about the conflict between China and India as well as geopolitical balance of power in Asia
U. W.: Professor Ghoshal, it is believed that the balance of power is gradually shifting to Asia and the ХХІ century could well be termed as the “Asian century”. How does this relate to changes in the relationship between India and China?
Most analysts are talking about the balance of power shifting to Asia and an Asian century. India and China have already emerged as countries recording the highest rates of growth — that has made them major actors not only in Asia, but also at the global level. They will slowly acquire a larger profile in managing the international system — political, economic and strategic. China is now the world’s second largest economy, surpassing Japan and some believe it is even surpassing the United States. India is also believed to be emerging as the third largest economy in the world.
There are other countries as well in Asia, like Indonesia and Vietnam which have tremendous potential to emerge as important actors and engines of growth. Naturally, this will all make Asia more important, especially in the face of a declining Europe and a partial decline of the American economy.
But there are also problems in Asia, particularly at the political and strategic level, inter-state rivalries, old conflicts as a result of history, nation-formation and the presence of a trust deficit amongst Asian countries, which allows external powers to play major and sometimes unwanted roles in Asian affairs.
For the Asian century to dawn, Asia will have to get its act together, manage differences and develop a mechanism that will help restore autonomy vis-à-vis the external actors.
U. W: At the strategic level it appears that China wishes to maintain stability with India. However, at the tactical level, the territorial and boundary disputes have emerged as the most significant and complex challenge facing the two countries…
India and China are large countries, neighbours with old civilizations and self-images that put a burden on emerging as role models. Naturally, there will then be some amount of competition and strategic rivalry between them. Friendliness/hostility and strength/weakness constitute the building blocks of their images of the other. As a corollary, how the actions of a country are perceived by looking at how the perceiver views the content of the country’s images is an important feature in understanding countries’ international relations and foreign policies.
Perceptions may be generated from power situations, but those perceptions may then shape how power is viewed and further used. David Scott suggests that the relationship between perception and power is exemplified in a negative general sense in International Relations’ (IR) ‘security dilemma’ syndrome. IR constructivism that puts emphasis on the more intangible invisible role of images, perceptions and misperceptions is an important tool in understanding the dynamics and the complexities of Sino-Indian relations. In terms of perceptions and images that each hold of the other, observers of India-China relations have pointed out that there are still “particularly dangerous…psychological estrangements” and antagonisms operating at the popular level between the Chinese and Indian nations.
Fears and misgivings are dominant in Indian perception concerning the rise of China in Asia. Similarly, the Chinese perception of India is characterized by a deep suspicion of Indian intentions. This prompted Jing-dong Yuan, a Chinese scholar based in Australia, to comment that “mutual suspicions of each other’s intentions” as still very much in evidence between China and India.
Their bilateral relationship is also overlaid with their other wider relationship: in the case of India, the growing strategic ties with the United States, Japan and with ASEAN (particularly with Vietnam) and in the case of China, its ongoing robust defence and nuclear relationship with Pakistan and its increasing strategic and economic influence in other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, that heightens each other’s suspicion and acts as an input in their policies and actions.
China has deep suspicion and is wary of the perceived strategic calculations behind India’s increasing ties with the United States and Japan, which seeks, the Chinese believe, a soft-balance and hedge against a rising China. In turn, India is concerned over a Sino-Pak entente that heightens its security predicament and brings the worst-case scenario of the possibility of a two-front war with Pakistan and China even as it actively seeks dialogues with both to diminish the chances of such a dire scenario.
One Chinese assessment concludes that the Indian military sees Pakistan as its main operational opponent and China as a potential operational opponent. It also describes the Indians as seeing China and Pakistan as closely aligned in threatening India. Therefore, both states see each other as a threat, partly because of their bilateral power equations vis-à-vis the other, but also because of the various relationships and understandings that each state has made with other states surrounding the other. This exacerbates security dilemma perceptions of threat and so forth, leading to mutual perceptions of encirclement by each other.
China’s own image of itself as the centre of the world and all others as barbarians together with a victim mentality of being wronged by the Europeans and Americans in a time of weakness breeds an extreme form of nationalism that will automatically impel China to emerge as the hegemonic power in Asia. The likely place from where any threat to its desire to establish its sphere of influence in Asia is likely to come, other than the United States, is from India, the second largest and most powerful country in Asia. Boundary problems undoubtedly are factors influencing their relationship, but there are strategic and civilization rivalries too that will impact their relations.
U. W.: Do you think the opportunity in front of China and India are greater than their disputes?
Opportunities for cooperation are undoubtedly great, for example, on environmental issues, creating a poly-centric world and ushering in a new Asian century. But the trust deficit between them together with self images will get in the way of more fruitful cooperation. This does not however eliminate all opportunities, particularly on selective issues.
U. W.: Professor Ghoshal, as you can estimate the significance of the economic synergy between New Delhi and Beijing?
Economic synergies do exist and that is why trade between the two countries is increasing by leaps and bounds, but to sustain that synergy, China will have to be receptive to India’s concerns about unequal trade practices. China does not want India to be an active player in the Asia-pacific region and has always opposed India’s presence in the emerging security and economic architecture in Asia, e.g., the East Asian Summit, ASEAN+3, and so on.
After the EAS was established, the issue arose whether any future East Asia Community would arise from the EAS or ASEAN+3. China together with Malaysia favoured ASEAN+3 as the focus for community building whereas Japan and India felt the EAS should be the focus of the East Asian Community. China, in particular, strongly opposed the inclusion of India and Australia in the proposed EAS, and in early 2005 while the preparations were going on for its formation, Beijing even went to the extent of dispatching diplomats to Laos, then ‘country convener for India’ within the ASEAN, and other Southeast Asian countries to dissuade them from lobbying for their membership.
Beijing did not succeed in its plan — besides Malaysia (which had its own reasons for objecting to India and Australia becoming members of EAS), nearly all Southeast Asian countries supported India’s participation in the EAS, possibly seeing it as a useful balancer to China’s growing power, and also backed Australia’s participation. Singapore and Indonesia were the strongest supporters of India’s inclusion in EAS process, signifying its stature and its acceptance as a responsible power that can contribute to the peace, stability and development of the Asia-Pacific region.
Once it failed to keep India, Australia and New Zealand out of the EAS, China then came up with a novel proposal to keep them down by dividing them into two groups of states, the ‘core group’ comprising APT (that is, ASEAN plus China, South Korea and Japan) with China as the dominant APT player and the peripheral or secondary states of India, Australia and New Zealand, as ‘outsiders,’ by China’s description. On the eve of the summit, Beijing proposed that the existing ASEAN+3 (APT), and not the new 16-member EAS, should be in the driver’s seat for the formation of a future community-building exercise.
Its proposed division of the EAS into two blocs eventually led to a major rift and drew criticism as “a ploy to manipulate, divide and dominate the evolving East Asian Community.”
India and China have different views on the mechanism of a security order in Asia. New Delhi wants a security architecture that is open, inclusive and ‘polycentric’ in nature and does not want any one country to dominate the region. Beijing, on the other hand, talks about a “regional security environment of mutual trust guaranteeing stability by bridging differences through dialogue on an equal footing”. While there are variations in the thinking of Chinese scholars about a desirable security order that can promote Beijing’s interests and its leadership, but all of them agree on one point, i.e., China must keep an upper hand in any architecture that is going to emerge in the future.
One of the most interesting attempts to capture the complexity of China’s future role in the emerging Asian architecture is by Su Hao, Director of the Centre for Strategic and Conflict Management Studies at China Foreign Affairs University, Su Hao suggests that various institutional venues – ASEAN+1 and +3, ASEAN itself, and significantly enhanced cooperation among the three Northeast Asian states – should be viewed as components of a larger process of regional cooperation.
Su and many other Chinese policy makers recommend that ASEAN+3, which excludes the USA and also India, but which includes South Korea and Japan, should be the main vehicle for any regional arrangement in the region. He calls ASEAN+3 the ‘core’ of the walnut. The ‘shell’ of the walnut is East Asia Summit, which includes India and two ‘western countries’, namely Australia and New Zealand.
In Su’s scheme of things the shell’s purpose is to protect the core from damage – in this case intervention from the USA. He does not specifically mention India but one can infer from his writings as well as from other Chinese writings that behind India’s moves in the Asia-Pacific region through its Look East Policy, there are US designs to contain China’s influence in the region. Su’s views reflect a growing consensus in China that regional engagements and retaining leadership in it “offers a new way of pursuing its strategic and economic interests and consolidating its historical position at the centre of regional affairs.”
U. W: This is visible as China is developing ports and naval bases in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka…
China is increasing both its strategic and economic profile in South Asia through its aggressive economic offensive, cheque-book diplomacy, infrastructure development and what is known as its string of pearls strategy. In South Asia, India’s backyard, China is positioning itself as an important actor and steadily extending its reach with its growing economic and strategic influence in the region. With the world’s largest manufacturing base and the resulting deep pockets, China is emerging as a major trading partner with practically all the countries of South Asia.
Most impressive is China’s growing economic and strategic influence in recent years in Sri Lanka, where it is involved in a massive project in turning the strategically-located port of Hambantota from a fishing hamlet into a booming new port. Chinese are making inroads into another traditionally Indian sphere of influence – the Maldives. China has been developing port facilities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and it is planning to build railroad lines in Nepal to connect Nepalese roads with those in Tibet eroding India’s traditional influence in that country and also making India’s security vulnerable to China.
Bangladesh has offered China naval access to its prized Chittagong port, which New Delhi has long sought but to no avail. India would like to gain access to Chittagong port to help ship its planned natural gas imports from Myanmar to its northeast region. China prizes Bangladesh for its immense natural gas reserves which rival those of Indonesia. Bangladesh’s geographic proximity to Myanmar makes these reserves accessible to China. Both China and Bangladesh have looked upon their bilateral relations to counter India’s growing economic and political might in South Asia region.
Most critical from India’s perception of China encircling India is Beijing’s links with Islamabad, which has long denied India access to western and Central Asian nations, while at the same time literally paving the highway – Karakoram – for Beijing’s direct access to Eurasia. Above all, it has tied down 500,000 to 700,000 Indian troops in the Kashmir Valley for the past 20 years, indirectly helping ease India’s challenge to China’s defences on their disputed border. China, according to the Indian view, has aggressively pursued its own encirclement of India through its policy of creating a ‘string of pearls’ around India, posing an existentialist threat to India’s security.
Given the history of the subcontinent, its overlapping ethnic, linguistic and religious identities and the peculiarities of South Asia with only India having land or maritime borders with all countries in the region while none others having any border with each other leading to an India-focussed domestic and foreign policies of all others, and finally combined with irredentist claims of Pakistan, any strategic support coming from outside the region to its neighbours imposes an even heavier burden on India to manage its already critical relations that are a product of history and geo-politics. The history of the subcontinent in the last 60 years reveals that peace and stability prevailed whenever any external power stopped its active support to any of its neighbours in the region.
Strategically, China has built a naval port at the Arabian Sea Coast in Gwadar, Pakistan. This would lead not only to Gwadar emerging as a transit terminal for oil imports but also facilitate China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean, thereby enabling China to “monitor US naval activity in the Persian Gulf, Indian activity in the Arabian Sea, and future US-Indian maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean.” China became Pakistan’s leading arms supplier after the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan in 1990.
China has always played a significant role in developing Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure. China transferred equipment and technology and provided scientific expertise to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs throughout the 1980s and 1990s, enhancing Pakistan’s strength in the South Asian strategic balance. The most significant development in China–Pakistan military cooperation occurred in 1992, when China supplied Pakistan with 34 short-range ballistic M-11 missiles. Beijing also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi and helped Pakistan develop the 750 km–range solid-fuelled Shaheen-1 ballistic missile. China helped Pakistan build two civilian nuclear reactors at the Chasma site in the Punjab Province.
China’s military and non military assistance to Pakistan is driven by two motives –first, to counter India’s growing power in the region and to divert India’s military force and strategic attention away from China; second, to gain strategic access to oil rich Middle East. Significantly, D.S.Rajan, a scholar at the Chennai Centre for Chinese Studies, pointed out that the PRC’s peace treaty signed with Pakistan in 2005, unique in South Asia, provides for mutual support in protecting each other’s national sovereignty and integrity. This treaty, according to Rajan, found mention in the China-Pakistan Joint Statement issued at the end of Premier Wen’s visit to Pakistan in December 2010. It is viewed in China as a legal document providing for an ‘alliance’ between the two sides against any foreign threat.
U. W.: Will China improve ties with India?
If China‘s foreign policy objective is to emerge as supreme Asian power, it cannot afford to have any inimical relations with a country of India’s size and potential. It made a diplomatic blunder in 2010 by calling the South China Sea a “core interest” and exacerbated that through its assertive diplomacy. The result was an alarm bell in the countries of Southeast Asia, resulting in active lobbying with the United States to have a bigger presence in Asia and an active role in South China Sea issue. While China has not compromised its position of sovereignty over the South China Sea, it has definitely climbed down from its earlier assertiveness in order to build confidence in its neighbours. China’s sudden assertiveness has also led to greater India-Vietnam cooperation and an increased role in the South China Sea, particularly in the field of oil and gas exploration with Vietnam in areas within the former’s territorial waters but which China claims as its own. India-China blow hot and blow cold from time to time. Verbally, China says that it wants to improve relations with India but its actions say otherwise. It wants to improve ties with India, but on its own terms.
Baladas Ghoshal, currently an honorary Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, is a former of Southeast Asia and South-West Pacific Studies and Chairman of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Professor Ghoshal is a doyen of Indonesian studies in India and has been involved with the topic for over 45 years.
Professor Ghoshal is a Member of the International Committee for the promotion of the Malay Language of Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka, Malaysia and a Contributing Editor for Asian Defence Journal. Widely traveled in the Asia-Pacific region, Professor Ghoshal reads, writes and speaks Malay and Bahasa Indonesia.
His most recent publications are India and Southeast Asia (Gyan Publications, 2011), an edited volume with Professor Satish Chandra, “Arabization: Changing Face of Islam in Asia,” INDIA QUARTERLY 66, 1 (2010): 69–89 ; “India-China Strategic Rivalry in Asia,” and ‘India-China Economic and Strategic Rivalry in Africa,” in Journal of Indian Ocean Studies (2011). He has recently completed a monograph on “China’s Perception of India’s Look East Policy” for Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.