Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hindi Chini Bye Bye?

The Chinese president came, saw but could not conquer. Much of the bonhomie that PM Modi exuded in Ahmedabad seemed to evaporate once the hard reality of the standoff on the borders began to sink in- and for the PM the timing must have been particularly galling.

Xi Jinping was, no doubt, hoping that he would get India to open up to Chinese investment in a big way, providing China with a useful means of diversifying away from Japan and East Asia, without having to address the border issue. It didn't quite work out. There is talk of $20 bn of Chinese investment happening but there is reason to be sceptical.

One should not be surprised at the outcome. Negotiations can yield a fair outcome only if it happens between equals or between a powerful entity and a less powerful one who is seen as a partner. Neither condition is fulfilled in India's case. China and India remain rivals on the Asia stage so far as India is concerned. China sees the rivalry as settled in its favour given that the Chinese economy is today five times India's and China is far more powerful militarily.

The only meaningful resolution that is possible on the border issue is that India accepts China's claims on the western border (Aksai Chin) while China concedes India's claims in the east (Arunachal Pradesh). This was the deal that Chou-en-Lai offered Nehru but it was rejected by the latter. Today, China is perhaps even warier about Tibet and hence about the status of Arunachal Pradesh which borders it. (Mao had famously said that the issue in the 1962 war was not so much the border as Tibet- he thought India was upto mischief under American instigation).

So, the "talks" on the border are bound to drag on until the gap between India and China is narrowed. This means India's growth rate must overtake China's and it must stay that way for, say, five years. India's economy is bound to accelerate and China's is bound to slow down. The cross-over point is probably three to four years away, which would place it at 2017/18. Five years from then would be 2022/23. It is in the decade 2020-30 that we can expect a resolution of the border issue- provided things don't blow up in our face before that. Going by most projections, this is the decade in which India finally begins to come into its own. The rivalry between India and China will intensify in the coming years no matter that the economic relationship deepens.

The military issue for India is how to counter a vastly more powerful neighbour which has the advantage of geography in the North (since China is positioned at a higher level in Tibet)? The Economist has an interesting article on how India's strategic thinkers see the Andaman islands as a useful counter:
Hawks in Delhi who are suspicious of Chinese long-term aims say bluntly that India and its friends will acquire some sway over China only once the Andamans are treated as a “chokepoint”, a place to disrupt Chinese trade in the event of any future confrontation. Four-fifths of Chinese oil imports go through the strait. Chinese naval strategists warn of Indian designs to drop an “iron curtain” there.

Accordingly, there has been a steady build-up of naval and other capabilities centred on the islands:
An air base that opened two years ago in Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar, has taken Indian military aircraft 300km closer than before to the Malacca Strait. Other airstrips are reportedly being built or lengthened to handle big aircraft, including the Hercules transport plane. Airfields for helicopters will follow. The navy wants to deploy drones to track passing ships. New coastguard stations serve a similar purpose. Regular naval exercises with neighbours are interspersed with big international training manoeuvres hosted in the Andamans and named “Millan”. The most recent involved 17 navies in a disaster-relief exercise meant to mark a decade after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
This makes sense because among the three arms of the defence forces, the navy is the one arm in respect of which India comes close to Chinese capability especially in respect of capability to operate in the Indian Ocean.India's build-up in the Indian Ocean will be welcomed by Japan and others in East Asia. Go round the Malacca Straits and you enter the South China Sea. A book review in the Economist highlights the extent of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea: China is laying claim to a stretch of rock and coral 1500 kms away from China's coast and just 107 kms from Malaysia's:
The Chinese nine-dash line is claimed also by Taiwan, as the descendant of the “Republic of China” whose mapmakers produced it. It sweeps through the “exclusive economic zones” asserted under UNCLOS by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines is challenging its legal validity. But even if it wins, UNCLOS cannot adjudicate on sovereignty over islands, rocks or shoals. And China will ignore it anyway.
America's famed 'pivot' towards Asia is dictated by this display of Chinese assertiveness and the need to counter it. Japan and East Asia are not quite equal to the task. The US may be stretched in undertaking this exercise alone. That's where India and Indian naval strength come in. The US has an interest in bolstering India so that it can be a more useful partner to itself. PM Modi must see this more clearly after the Chinese president's visit. The strategic partnership between India and the US, started by Vajpayee and continued by Manmohan Singh, will be carried forward by Modi although the last years of the Obama regime may not see the proper fructification of it. 

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