MOMENTOUS events are unfolding so far as India&’s relations with its neighbours are concerned. In Pakistan a new democratically-elected government has assumed office. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is leaning for better relations with India. Then there is Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who with a large trade delegation, visited India recently. Of importance is the fact that he chose India as the first destination in his maiden foreign itinerary as Prime Minister. Is there something to be read between the lines here? Or is this just another of those enigmatic Chinese puzzles that will take decades to unravel?
Of interest to some is the detailed exchange of views the two countries had on a piece of emerging real estate called the North-east. Then also is the significant, but underplayed, second visit within one year to India by President Karzai of Afghanistan. Union ministry of external affairs pundits in South Block must surely be burning the proverbial midnight oil.
What does Karzai want? The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation(read the USA) is all set to pull out of Afghanistan by 2014. So where does that leave Karzai, the Afghan liberals and that wishful dream of installing Western style democracy across the Pamir and the Hindukush? The Taliban are once again all set to pounce, US hopes notwithstanding, and one cannot really blame poor Karzai for his show of nervousness. He came apparently to persuade India to sympathetically consider an Afghan request for a meaningful defence tie-up once Nato withdraws. The Afghans need a variety of weapons and technical support, which India can easily accommodate. Of intrigue is the Indian coyness to such a request.
Fears have been expressed that concurring with Karzai&’s request runs the risk of upsetting Pakistan and its new “India-friendly” government. Let&’s get something straight. India&’s interest is to ensure the protection and thus the survival of a friendly government in Kabul. A friendly Pakistan is also something that is much desired, but experience teaches us that accommodating Pakistani concerns has not always been repaid in the same coin!
Then. of course, there is China, a neighbour that&’s flexing its muscles in both economic and military terms. This is a reality that India has to live with, not only in the context of today but more so with an eye on the future. Our experience with our northern neighbour has not exactly been a happy one. We need to go back perhaps to the 1950s, the Nehruvian era, when idealism and the role of India as a champion for non-violence and non-alignment formed the core of our foreign relations policy. In the backdrop of the destruction and suffering of World War II, the advent of the atomic bomb, the cold war and Mutual Assured Destruction, with the threat of total annihilation of the human race, these perhaps gave cause to a belief that nations could forego narrow self- interests for the sake of humanity as a whole. It was an era that naively believed disputed borders issues could be solved and buried under slogans such as “Hindi Chinni Bhai Bhai”. In 1962 we paid for such a belief, in blood. It still rankles, but hopefully as a lesson on the impracticality of idealistic naivety when pitched against the dynamics of cold blooded national self-interest.
Today, China has once again come awooing. It does so not because of any neighbourly love for India. It&’s definitely not out of admiration for our democratic institutions and how we manage these. Actually, it might harbour total disdain for how we handle both our domestic and foreign affairs. The hand of friendship China offers today, as it did in the 1950s, is driven and controlled by that country&’s self-interest. It is in India&’s interest to fully understand the motive behind the offer before accepting or rejecting it. So what&’s behind this latest move of the dragon? Paradoxically, it is a move containing both threats and the hand of friendship, eyeball- to- eyeball confrontation in the cold high mountains, smiles and handshakes in the airconditioned conference halls of Hyderabad House. Good martial art tactics. Create confusion, unsettle the antagonist, then drive a hard bargain. So what&’s the objective? What&’s the ultimate gameplan? Perhaps to make India lose focus, unbalance our thinking, feint towards one direction while striking elsewhere. How does the dragon expect us to react?
An answer will depend on our ability to look into the Chinese mind and analyse what exactly China wants. It is an emerging superpower. This is a fact, but as pointed out by someone, it&’s a First World power with a Third World mindset. A First World power that expects assured access to resources and markets for its burgeoning economy, safe, secure sea lanes for its trade and commerce, recognition and mutual respect from other member-states of the world community.
Fair enough, but complications arise when these expectations are perceived through the prism of a Third World, Asian mindset. Prestige and saving face are primeval oriental values that influence both individuals and nations alike. Perceived snubs and insults play a big role in how China reacts to any given situation. The rape of Nanking, Indian patronage and shelter to the Dalai Lama, US patronage and protection to Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan with its campaign against human rights abuses still gall and greatly influence how China reacts to Japan, India and the USA. China remains chary of situations where its actions are criticised, its image taken for granted or where its prestige is likely to be compromised. As such, any dealing with the dragon will have to bear these aspects in mind.
There is reason to believe that Chinese policy on dealing with economic and political rivals on the world stage will be greatly influenced by the above. It is doubtful, however, if China really sees India as an economic or military threat. On its eastern and southern front it is definitely the USA that is seen as the biggest threat, with Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore as active conspirators to encircle China, both economically and militarily. The flexing of its muscles within the region, a Third World mindset on how to impress neighbours, has not endeared it to many. As a matter of fact it has created more enemies for itself than friends. India&’s new found interest in its eastern neighbours, its economic and security reach out programme to South and Far East Asian nations together with overt American blessings on these goings-on have only added to the dragon&’s woes. In the ultimate analysis China has only itself to blame for the souring of relations with far and near neighbours alike.
There is, however, need to also see things from the Chinese perspective. As a growing economic power, it has to identify its future markets and the continent of Africa plus oil-rich West Asia are not unlikely choices. The Chinese presence there is already enormous and likely to grow. Secure sea lanes through the Indian Ocean, therefore, acquire high priority consideration in the Chinese scheme of things. It explains China&’s quest for naval bases in the area. Sadly, so far, Gwadar port in Pakistan is the only reliable naval asset the Chinese could show for their pains.
Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Maldives have simply offered R&R facilities to the Chinese navy. It&’s doubtful if further substantial support will be forthcoming from these countries, especially in times of crisis. This lays to rest the bogey of the “String of Pearls” concept. China&’s worries multiply, however, as all its sea trade needs to pass through the Malaca Straits, a bottleneck that can easily be choked or blocked by rival forces with a strong Indian Ocean support base. The Chinese realise this and it&’s worrying. Creating more enemies in the region is unlikely to ease such worries.
From a Chinese perspective, riding piggyback on India&’s Look East Policy could, therefore, offer out-of-the-box solutions. For Assam, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, the Look East Policy could only make sense if transit routes through Bangladesh were possible. For these states a Look South Policy has more attraction. For the Chinese, too, the ability to gain passage for their goods and services through Nathu-la and the Stillwell Road to the Bay of Bengal would ensure equitable development for their cut off inland regions like Xinjiang, Xizang( Tibet), Yunnan, Sichuan and Quinghai. This perhaps explains the joint Sino-Indo statement for cooperation in creating infrastructure development for the North-east. If this were to come true it would mean a paradigm change for the region and its people, an end to isolation. Is the North-east and its people ready for this?
The writer is president of Icare, an organisation that focuses on issues of good governance