How should South Asia deal with a China which believes in its destiny to be the predominant Asian power.
The dramatic event of India’s conducting nuclear tests on 11 and 13 May and declaring itself a nuclear weapons state changes the terms of reference of China’s relations with South Asian countries qualitatively. The statements of the Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes describing China as a major threat even before the tests and Prime Minister Vajpayee’s mentioning the Chinese threat as an impulse for India’s nuclear weaponisation in his letters to the heads of governments of nuclear weapons states has changed the gradually and painfully created atmosphere of stability and tranquility in the South Asian region.
Regretfully, Sino-Indian relations have deteriorated precipitously after the tests, and the tension between the two countries affects the security of all the countries of the region. The setback to the process of normalisation of relations between India and China is a regrettable development which could have been avoided if Indian spokesmen, notwithstanding India’s tests, had been more reticent and measured and if the Chinese reaction had been more patient. What has instead happened is that the strategic balance in the region has undergone a major change about which China has reservations – a change which India could not avoid in terms of its long-term regional strategic interests.
It is worth considering whether India’s security concern vis-a-vis China is an articulation of an undercurrent of views that exist about China among the countries of both South and Southeast Asia. Are there deep and as yet not fully articulated concerns about China in this region, and are these concerns valid?
Perestroika sans glasnost
At the macro level, China’s strategic position vis-a-vis the Subcontinent and the ASEAN countries is without doubt based on its domestic political compulsions, its perceptions about likely developments in regional politics and power equations, and its own military and technological capacities.
In terms of domestic compulsions, China has undergone profound transformation over the last two and a half decades. It has undertaken extensive and successful economic modernisation and reforms. The governing principle of this transformation has been a measured and effective “perestroika” with a firm rejection of “glasnost”.
The present top leadership, represented by President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, is fully and effectively in command of the complex Chinese polity. The international community sees China as a politically stable country, an attractive economic partner, an effective technological and military power. All this is confirmed, among other things, by the country’s average annual growth rate of nine to 11 percent over the last decade, its control of both inflationary and recessionary pressures, and by the considerable achievements in the quality of life index. China is a superpower in terms of its nuclear weapons and missile capacities, and it has trained manpower in all fields of science and technology.
China, of course, exhibits some negative characteristics as well, most glaring among which is the growing economic disparity between the special economic zones like Shanghai, Pudong, Hong Kong and Guangdung on the one hand and on the other, the northern, north-western and north-central regions which remain economically backward. This has generated political tensions, as acknowledged by the Chinese leaders themselves. There are also the simmering ethno-linguistic, religious and cultural centrifugal forces which can affect Chinese territorial integrity and unity. China also faces prospects of food shortages and large-scale unemployment in the next decade.
An immediate challenge to the Chinese state arises from the departure of the senior communist leadership from the “Long March” days, which has created a need to create a new equilibrium between the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party. The older relationship was semi-military because they were both political leaders and military campaigners. This is not the case with the new Chinese political leadership
These, then, are the factors influencing China’s attitudes and policies towards the world at large and, in particular, towards its Asian neighbours. Based on these, one can say that China’s external orientations will be guided by the following objectives/motivations:
- At present China wishes to concentrate primarily on domestic political consolidation and economic development. The focus is inwards.
- China wants an atmosphere of stability and peace at its borders in order to meet its own need for domestic stability and development.
- China, therefore, desires a practical, cooperative, working relationship with all its neighbours as well as with the US, Russia, Western Europe and Japan.
- Because China believes its destiny to be that of a country with superpower status, it will continue to build its technological and defence capacities to surge ahead of other technologically advanced countries.
- China is not at ease with a world order where the US and the West remain politically and militarily dominant.
- China has stood by its basic foreign policy principle of not interfering in the affairs of any other country while being absolutely firm and decisive in protecting its own national interest.
It is against this evolving mindset of the Chinese state that one may study Beijing’s relations with its South Asian neighbours. The purpose here is not to proceed with a factually detailed description of Chinese relations with each of these countries. The objective is to describe these relations in broad strategic terms and general political orientations.
While in the case of Pakistan and Sri Lanka, relations with China have been relatively steady, Beijing’s associations with India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma have had their ups and downs.
Due to its differences with the Soviet Union which cropped up in the early 1960s, Beijing had been opposed to Soviet influence in Central Asia. For this reason, it cultivated Pakistan and developed a strong political, defence and economic relationship with it. China opposed the Soviet-supported revolution in Afghanistan but now has reservations about both the ongoing civil war there and the religious extremism dominant in the power structure of Afghanistan.
After the emotive friendship of the early 1950s, Sino-Indian relations have on occasion descended to the other extreme. Chinese territorial claims against India, rejected by the latter, resulted in a boundary dispute which led to a war. Despite the bitterness of the 1962 war, however, relations have gradually improved over the last decade. Since the late 1970s, both sides have agreed that the boundary dispute is complex and may be resolved in time by nurturing cooperative relations in various spheres.
The period between 1991 to 1994 witnessed a qualitative improvement in Sino-Indian relations. Both countries signed an agreement in September 1993, agreeing to maintain peace and tranquility at the Line of Actual Control. It was also agreed to pull back forces on both sides of the Line and to implement mutual confidence-building measures which would ultimately lead to a final settlement of the boundary question. The whole process has, of course, now been jeopardised by the nuclear explosions as also by the recent statements of George Fernandes, and his avowal that India would not be pulling back the forces.
None of the facts quoted by George Fernandes in support of his assertion are new or of recent development. India has all along been aware of China’s military strengths and missile deployments in Tibet, and it has also been aware of Beijing’s defence and economic cooperation with Burma and Pakistan. Both India and China, while being aware of the implications of these phenomena, were consciously trying to build a working relationship insulated from the likely pressures
generated by Chinese equations with India’s neighbours. The strong and negative Chinese response both to India´s tests and to Fernandes’ off-the-cuff remarks was to be expected, and it will take some time to bring Sino-Indian relations back on track.
Other South Asians
The tensions in China’s relations with Nepal and Bhutan are by-products of India’s relations with both these countries. Both China and India are apprehensive about the other becoming excessively influential in these two Himalayan kingdoms. While Nepal has shown a tendency to play each of its large neighbours against the other, Bhutan, being more dependent and hence closer to India, does not have a strong relationship with China.
The issues relating to Tibet are, of course, a major factor affecting China’s relations with India, Nepal and Bhutan. Tibetan exiles and refugees in these countries are becoming increasingly vocal in their agitation against China, some demanding full independence and others greater autonomy. All three countries, of course, have recognised Tibet as an autonomous part of the People’s Republic of China, but the Beijing government remains concerned about these neighbours being used as a base for separatist activities.
China had opposed Bangladesh’s liberation, but after the initial bitterness, Dhaka´s government has assiduously cultivated China, along with Pakistan, to balance off the politically overwhelming presence of India. Meanwhile, China’s relations with Burma have become particularly close, with Beijing having provided assistance of up to USD 2 billion over the last decade. They have also been given some visiting facilities at the Coco Island naval base in the Bay of Bengal. The politico-strategic equation that Beijing has developed with Rangoon is certainly affecting the security in both South and Southeast Asia.
Position and responsibility
South Asia’s governments and public must understand that China believes that it is its position and responsibility to be the predominant Asian power of the 21st century. Within the framework of this expectation and aspiration, China considers South and Southeast Asia as the definitive areas of Chinese influence. China does not consider the large powers other than itself in the region, India and Indonesia, as challengers to the role it desires. Nevertheless, Beijing is committed to maintaining its position at a higher level of political influence vis-a-vis those two countries, by remaining ahead militarily, strategically and technologically.
China would also like to develop equations with Asian countries further afield, including Iran and the Gulf states, in order to develop its position as a balancing centre of power vis-a-vis the US, Western Europe and the Russian Federation, as well as Japan.
As far as the immediate interests of India, the dominant power in South Asia, is concerned, China will continue to have a close relationship with Pakistan and will have a benign but positive attitude towards Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and to a limited extent with Bhutan. India’s own relationship with China will remain complex and tenuous for some time to come, particularly after the severe buffeting it has taken recently.
Political stability and development in all of South Asia require a practical and stable working relationship between, first and foremost, New Delhi and Beijing. The Sino-Indian confrontation, if it continues, will generate pressures on smaller countries in the region and will introduce elements of instability in their foreign policies. Such a confrontation would also intensify Sino-Pak cooperation in the spheres of defence and strategic affairs, which could snowball into adversary reactions from India. This has to be avoided.
It is not just desirable but imperative that Sino-Indian relations are brought back on track, restoring the dialogue for normalisation. So, while China’s reservations about India’s nuclearisation should be accepted as an unavoidable reality, China should also delink its views on India’s nuclear weaponisation from the processes of normalisation which are so essential to ensure the fundamental interests of both China and India. For this reason, both sides should make every effort to avoid drifting back into confrontation, based purely on past memories and speculative apprehensions.
The other countries of South Asia can contribute to this process by encouraging India and China to sustain the efforts to develop ‘normal’ bilateral relations. Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, having borders with China and India, can play a particularly positive role in the process.
The guiding principle to manage the asymmetry between China and the Asian countries should be that of being aware of the competitive and confrontationist potentialities of the national psyche of countries like India and China and to temper them through regional processes of integrated political and economic cooperation.