New Delhi shies away from confrontation with Beijing

By Swaran Singh Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/29 21:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

China has become an increasingly influential driver of India's foreign policy decisions. Four of the last five foreign secretaries were formerly India's ambassadors to China and one of them rose to become the national security advisor (NSA). India's first NSA as well was formerly charge d'affaires in China during the difficult years after the 1962 war. Brajesh Mishra was especially sent by prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1968 to head India's Beijing mission. Mishra's famous handshake with Chairman Mao Zedong on a May Day function in 1970 was to later become the turning point in the history of China-India relations.

Over the years, China's influence became more palpable. This remains especially true of India's policy initiatives vis-a-vis the Asia-Pacific region. The revival of the quadrilateral coalition of US-Japan-India-Australia in November and now the presence of national leaders of all 10 members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at India's Republic Day celebrations on Friday had China written all over. Experts insinuate the same reasons for India's expanding engagement with Japan.

In all these cases, official expositions and press briefings denying China being the trigger only betray their persistent vacillations. These perhaps also reflect the context of growing asymmetries among these nations. China's $12 trillion economy and its $450 billion annual trade with ASEAN speaks volumes about leverages of India's $2.6 trillion economy and $70 billion trade with ASEAN.

The 2007 quadrilateral strategic dialogue, known as the Quad, had died following a harsh response from Beijing. Even on the South China Sea, ASEAN has not so far put up any joint response. Even among the two strongest contenders to China's claims to South China Sea - the Philippines and Vietnam - their responses to China have been at extreme variance. The Philippines that took its claims to parts of the water body to the Hague Court of Arbitration later chose to ignore their verdict altogether, and communist Vietnam not only fought wars with communist China but today is seeking partnerships with the US and India.

Indeed, both India and ASEAN remain ill-at-ease with their inability to either address or redress their dichotomy of continued dependence and discomfort with China. Both see China as their important trade and investment partner that makes them overtly conscious of not pushing the envelope on Beijing's core concerns too far.

Both India and ASEAN have become aware, even complacent, to these growing asymmetries and accepted Beijing's lead in several initiatives. Their Delhi Declaration last week at the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit commits them to enacting Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership where China has been playing the leader. India is the second largest stakeholder in China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which also includes ASEAN members.

India's Act East, therefore, seeks to ground its strategic engagements on geo-civilizational frame of reference. Together India and ASEAN seek to balance, not confront, rising China. While India remains absent from the Belt and Road initiative, it is engaging ASEAN for its parallel connectivity projects. The Delhi Declaration commits them to work for faster implementation of India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and to take it to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

India is also conscious of China's decade-long lead in promoting World Buddhist Forum. So it seeks to revive cultural links with ASEAN nations in which Buddhism is popular. It is the state religion in Cambodia, and 95 percent of people in Thailand, 87 percent in Myanmar, 33 percent in Singapore, 20 percent in Malaysia and 12 percent in Vietnam are Buddhists. India seeks to project its multiculturalism and leading epic Ramayana as its umbilical cord with Southeast Asian nations.

Right from the beginning, ASEAN's explorations in engaging India were part of their search for a possible counterweight to rising China. Even today experts in Southeast Asia are imagining India trying to fill the power vacuum created by a rapid shrinking of US role in the region. India, however, continues to fight shy and does not wish to trigger any confrontation with Beijing. New Delhi's policy of multi-alignments seeks to build partnerships with as many countries in as many sectors as possible. So engaging ASEAN in India's Act East policy in no way implies annoying or not engaging China.

The author is a professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy, New Delhi.


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