China and India, playing geopolitics

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the problems of Sino-India rivalry, “President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington has had media outlets abuzz about cybertheft and sandcastles rising out of the South China Sea. But in many ways, these issues are side plots to a larger story: the New Great Game for influence in the Indo-Pacific, which has arisen at the confluence of three strategies, China’s Maritime Silk Road, India’s Act East Policy, and the United States’ Rebalance to Asia. It is possible for all three strategies to work together, but it won’t be easy—particularly for the United States”.

The article argues “India and China might struggle for political and commercial influence in the Indo-Pacific region, but both would do better to coordinate their policies, since as neighbours, their economic and political success depends on deepening engagement with each other and other countries in the region. At the moment, both recognise that there is little to be gained from proxy wars and have instead favoured soft power diplomacy. Huge stakes are involved. Trade, energy, and geostrategic imperatives are driving both Chinese and Indian ambitions. Between the Indian and Pacific Oceans lies the main choke point of world commerce, the Malacca Strait. Today, more than half of the world’s container traffic and one-third of all maritime traffic crosses the Indian Ocean and passes through this point and into the South China Sea”.

The writer notes the feelings of China of the toward this weak spot, “so over the last decade, China has sought to secure its access to the critical sea lanes, including by creating artificial islands with airfields in the South China Sea and declaring an expansive and novel Exclusive Economic Zone—one that is far larger and includes far more prerogatives than permitted under The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—over the area. From this perspective, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai’s recent, and rather incendiary, declaration that the South China Sea “belongs to China” makes strategic sense: It is after all their path to the greater Indo-Pacific. Plenty of ink has been spilled over the South China Sea, and appropriately so. But the South China Sea is just an example of a larger game that is already underway”.

He adds that to avoid this Malacca problem China has given money to Pakistan and Burma but “this approach has been hurt by China’s more muscular activities in the South China Sea, which have scared the country’s smaller neighbours into closer alliances with India, Japan, and the United States.  As China has become more assertive, India has focused on its own rapidly growing need for access to critical sea lines and opportunities for trade and investment. In 2011, maritime trade constituted close to 41 percent of India’s overall GDP; the figure reached 45 percent in 2015. India now imports about three-fourths of its oil through the Indian Ocean. India fears that China, relying on its alliance with Pakistan, might encircle India on land and at sea. For Indian strategists, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that China would use its increased maritime capability to create a zone of naval exclusion that stretches from the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf”.

He mentions that in response to this “India hopes to use its funding, increased trade focus, military diplomacy, and cultural ties—its so-called Act East policy—to maintain and expand its leverage over the Indian Ocean Rim states to preclude a more permanent Chinese presence in those waters. Competition in the Indian Ocean begins in Bangladesh, a country that is currently the second-largest recipient of Chinese assistance in the region. Over the last decade, two-thirds of Chinese assistance has gone to the transportation sector, since, China believes, new port and rail links from China to Bangladesh can serve as a pressure valve for the Malacca Strait. China has spent significant capital upgrading Bangladesh’s port infrastructure: Bejing is a major donor to the Chittagong Port project and had agreed to build a deep-sea port at Sonadia before the plans were shelved when India, Japan, and the United States voiced concerns. Now Beijing is eyeing another deep-sea port project at Paira”.

The writer then notes the tussle of the two nations over Burma, “China has invested heavily in Bangladesh’s next-door neighbour Myanmar. Beijing stayed friendly with the military regime in Naypyidaw during the regime’s decades of isolation to cultivate an ally for trade and access to raw materials. From 1988 to 2013, China built ports, dams, and oil and gas pipelines throughout the country, accounting for 42 percent of the foreign investment in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu Port became the cornerstone of Beijing’s strategy in the country, as it provides valuable land-based access to the Indian Ocean. In 2013, the countries inaugurated a gas pipeline from Kyaukphyu to China, which is scheduled to begin moving crude oil later this year”.

Yet this has been matched by India, who has sought to go “beyond development cooperation. Taking advantage of a May 2014 border and security cooperation agreement, in June 2015, Indian Special Forces launched a raid on an insurgent camp in Myanmar. The move relieved pressure on Naypyidaw’s forces, which were then stretched thin battling anti-state militants in three other regions of the country. Previously in 2013, India agreed to build four Offshore Patrol Vehicles for Myanmar’s navy and to train more of Myanmar’s military officers. In turn, Myanmar, long a client state of Beijing, has started pivoting away from China. The first major blow to the relationship was the suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project on the Irrawaddy River in 2011; after the Myanmar military junta dissolved in 2010, the new government caved to public pressure against the dam. The second was China’s authorization of live-fire drills along the Burmese border in June 2015. In China’s strategic loss, India is the big winner—a pattern that has replicated itself across several Southeast Asian countries”.

The piece goes on to discuss Pakistan which is no loss to India. Indeed, it would be bizarre if India even bother to woo Pakistan after all that has occurred.

The piece adds that the two nations are struggling over Sri Lanka, “A final case study makes the nature of the growing rivalry between China and India abundantly clear. Under the previous government, India ceded influence in Sri Lanka to China because China had provided the previous Sri Lankan government with the military hardware and diplomatic cover that enabled it to win its 25-year-old civil war against the Tamil Tigers. The funding was something neither India nor Western countries were willing to provide due to fears of human rights violations. And so China built Hambantota Port in southern Sri Lanka, which, when the third phase of construction is completed this year, will be South Asia’s largest port. China also started building a $1.4 billion port project near Colombo. The agreement will last for 99 years and gives Beijing jurisdiction over 50 acres of land. Indeed, the Colombo Port City Project, as its name suggests, will be a city under Chinese lease, replete with apartment buildings, shopping malls, and golf courses. In times of conflict, China would likely be able to make military use of the facilities. Indeed, in 2014, Sri Lanka granted a form of privileged access to China, permitting Beijing to dock its submarines at the Colombo South Container Terminal—a deep-water facility built and managed by Chinese firms—instead of at the Sri Lanka Port Authority, which is mandated to host military vessels. The Sri Lankan government then attempted to keep the media in the dark on the matter, in contrast to its usual vocal pronouncements when other countries made port calls in the country”.

Interestingly however the writer notes that Sri Lanka too could fall to India, “in February 2015, Sri Lanka’s newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, whose campaign focused on charges of corruption in the Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, changed course. He made his first foreign trip to India, signing a broad range of agreements to strengthen strategic and economic ties, including on civil nuclear cooperation. Sirisena has now put the Colombo port project on hold, although Beijing is using all its leverage to restart it. During Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, the first by an Indian premier in 28 years, India agreed to deepen strategic, economic, and defense ties with the country. Modi extended a $318 million line of credit to Colombo for the expansion of its railway sector, and the two countries struck agreements to jointly develop Sri Lanka’s coal and petroleum sectors and launch a joint task force on the ocean economy”.

Crucially he writes “Instead of shouting itself hoarse about Chinese encroachments, India has focused on revitalizing its relationships in South Asia and expanding its contacts with potential partners from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. At the same time, it has directly challenged Chinese positions throughout the region. Speaking in front of the Sri Lankan parliament, Modi said that his vision of an “ideal neighborhood” was one in which “trade, investments, technology, ideas and people flow easily.” This vision matches with the United States’ own ambitions in the region, expressed in the “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” signed in January, and later in the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy,” which specifically embraced India’s Act East policy”.

He concludes “China and India will continue to acquire new hard power in order to protect their economic interests in the region. In 2013 and 2014, India was the world’s largest importer of arms; China was the third largest in 2013 and fourth largest last year. That growth is reflective of a broader trend in the region: 12 of the top 15 arms importers in the world were scattered across the Indo-Pacific region. This is not to suggest that the two Asian giants are headed toward inevitable conflict. Indeed, competition has the potential to drive dramatic economic benefits to the region as countries soak up Chinese- and Indian-funded infrastructure. The resulting increase in trade infrastructure and connectivity would also benefit both China and India. Yet that positive outcome will require proactive management from all parties and a sustained commitment to balance competing interests. And that is where the United States comes in. In order to secure shared prosperity, the three powers will need to be realistic about the legitimate security concerns of the others. Not surprisingly given Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea, the United States has moved to strengthen bilateral relations with India while calling for greater Indian activism in the Indo-Pacific”.



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