You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

China’s lust for more: What Modi must do

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-06-2014 Sandipan Deb

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi will be visiting India as President Xi Jinping’s special envoy this Sunday. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has said that China is ready to work with India’s new government to take bilateral ties to a new high. Wang wishes to familiarise himself with the Narendra Modi government’s approach towards neighbours, reports The Times of India. China is reportedly concerned about reports painting Modi as India’s Shinzo Abe, the tough Japanese prime minister, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) supposed leanings towards Japan.

A week ago, I wrote about the subtle message that Modi had sent to China as he assumed the mantle of power. It may be time now to look at the broader picture of the threat that China presents to the region and what India should do about it.

The 2008 global economic meltdown and the sudden weakening of the US economy invigorated Chinese hawks. By early 2009, Beijing had decided that the US was in terminal decline and it was time for China to achieve its global dominance ambitions. Since then, it has been brazenly claiming various islands, reefs and patches of land and a couple of seas (3 million sq. km of water!) as its territory. The elevation of Xi Jinping to president in 2012 has escalated the aggression. On 4 June, 2013, China expert Robert Lawrence Kuhn wrote in The New York Times: “Xi (as head of military) frequently inspects People’s Liberation Army forces, especially naval fleets, exhorting China’s military to ‘get ready to fight and to win wars’ and ‘to win regional warfare under IT-oriented conditions.’” Slash and hack.

China claims sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea. In 2012, China dislodged the Philippines from the Scarborough Shoal, a reef contested by the two countries, and in recent years, has repeatedly detained Vietnamese fishermen and cut the cables of Vietnamese vessels operating near island groups disputed between Beijing and Hanoi, even setting one Vietnamese boat on fire. In January 2014, the southern Chinese province of Hainan enacted regulations requiring all non-Chinese fishing vessels operating in the claimed waters to first obtain permission from Beijing.

Tokyo claims that in 2012, Japan was forced to scramble fighters 306 times in response to Chinese planes approaching its airspace. In April 2013, eight Chinese ships entered the territorial waters of the Japanese-controlled (and Chinese-disputed) Senkaku Islands on a single day, with military air support. This came a week after Chinese soldiers had set up camp 19km inside Indian territory in Ladakh. On March 22, 2013, four Chinese navy ships conducted exercises around the James Shoal, rocks claimed by both Malaysia and China, though they lie 80km off the Malaysian coast, and 1,800km from the Chinese mainland.

In November last year, China unilaterally announced a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, covering island groups that are disputed between China and its neighbours. Both the US and Japan condemned China for this blatant disregard of international law, but China has paid no heed. In the meantime, as I mentioned in my last piece, China has also been attempting to encircle India by influencing countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka (and of course there’s Pakistan to the west). It is trying to encroach into Nepal and has territorial disputes with Bhutan. And it believes Arunachal Pradesh is part of Tibet.

The current Chinese passport has a map of China that is a reflection of China’s grand ambitions. Time magazine reported: “The map counts as Chinese the barren Kashmiri region of Aksai Chin—16,000 sq. miles occupied by China since its 1962 border war with India. It also counts as Chinese most of India’s Arunachal Pradesh, a rugged northeastern Indian state that holds regular democratic elections and sends parliamentarians to New Delhi. Much to the ire of Vietnam and the Philippines, the map also includes shoals and archipelagoes in the South China Sea that Beijing claims almost entirely, but which are contested—and in some cases patrolled—by a number of other Southeast Asian nations.”

It is time that Japan and India came together in a close alliance that would serve China with a warning that its arrogant bid to create a new Asia-Pacific order that stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific will not go unchecked. At the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of Asian nations held at Singapore this weekend (India was not present), Prime Minister Abe said as much. “In India, Mr Narendra Modi has become prime minister through another free and fair election. I am absolutely certain that when I welcome Prime Minister Modi to Tokyo, we will successfully confirm that Japan-India cooperation, as well as trilateral cooperation including our two countries (and the United States which, under the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, is committed to defend Japan in case of attack) will make the ‘confluence of the two seas,’ that is the Pacific and Indian Oceans, peaceful and more prosperous.”

Abe went on to pledge that Japan would play an ‘even greater and more proactive role’ with stronger defence ties with Southeast Asia, including an offer of coastal patrol boats. The US secretary of defense Chuck Hagel supported Abe. The Wall Street Journal reported that a senior Chinese general present at the conclave “called the two speeches ‘simply unimaginable’ and ‘a provocative action against China’”. Other Chinese officers accused the US and Japan (now, don’t laugh) of using coercion and acting hegemonically!

Japan and India have to provide leadership to the Asian nations threatened by China’s lust for power. They must form an Asia-wide axis that should include Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The Japanese Diet is already preparing to change the country’s constitution to allow participation in “collective defense”. The pieces are falling in place. Till now, Japan has been taking the leadership. It wants India to be its partner in this project that could decide the fate of Asia and its seas. Apart from forming a bulwark against China, India’s coming on board as co-leader of this coalition will economically benefit the region enormously, including India.

Merchandise trade between ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and India has grown significantly from $7.1 billion in 2000 to $77 billion in 2012-13, with a compound annual growth rate of 22%. Yet, it is still far below potential. As Modi’s foreign policy mavens build the necessary coalition, it is also absolutely essential that a dense network of transport linkages throughout this larger neighbourhood is developed, that can facilitate trade and stronger ties.

The agreements for an ambitious Asian Highway Network are all in place, under the auspices of the United Nation Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). Currently, the Network extends through 32 member countries and comprises 142,000km of highways with a few missing links. The Trans-Asian Railway Network faces the same problem. Interestingly, most of the missing links exist on the route from India’s North East through Myanmar and Thailand up to Cambodia. India must tackle this on a war footing.

The concept of the Mekong-India Economic Corridor (MIEC) has been under consideration for several years as a major India-ASEAN connectivity initiative. Integrating the four Greater Mekong countries—Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam—with India through its east coast and North East region, it will link vibrant emerging economies through a network of land and sea infrastructure. The Corridor is envisaged as a dynamic industrial region comprising large investment zones, rapid port and rail connectivity, and smart cities. India must take the lead in pushing this through aggressively.

There’s much to be done, and it all needs to be done quickly. The correct unequivocal message has to go to China from Japan and India and a united coalition of ASEAN countries.

Oh, and after writing the paragraph above, with which I had wanted to end my piece, I just discovered that China and India are supposed to be celebrating 2014 as the “Year of Friendly Exchanges”! May the exchanges be friendly, but let them also be fair, frank and fearless.

More From LiveMint

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon