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Chinese Encirclement or China Encircled

October 5, 2010 by  
Filed under foreign policy, geopolitics

World map depicting Asia

The Asian Tigers

The title says it all. In its quest to pursue its global aims, China is keeping India tied to the pole by needling her in a geopolitical bind while maintaining a straight face. The discussions in various events over the last month brought out Chinese dynamics in Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan and Nepal. This also brings in the Sri Lankan narrative. Apparently, the two regional heavy weights are busy shadow boxing in South Asia with India kind of getting bitten by a China phobia. In strategic circles, Chindia is a dirty word.

60 years on, there is nothing to show for the border disputes. Dutifully, the Indians, Pakistanis and the Chinese glare at each other – over colonial border issues. These border issues are less than peripheral to our nations. We have allowed the past to hold our future as a hostage.

The pace with which China is getting actively involved in economic and military activity in the sub continent is a reminder that the Dragon wants to spread its signature across the continent and the Indian Ocean. The philosophy of five fingers and a string of pearls has long been nursed by Indian analysts. Despite volumes of literature being churned out on the subject, there is no tangible action institutionally to tackle the troubles spawned out by this Chinese maneuvering. Of late though, there is a growing awareness of this Chinese influence as India tries to catch up in Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This though appears to be too little too late, especially when we have handed over the initiative in each of these countries to China. Then there are the added problems of the “all weather friend” attached to China in all these countries operating counter to Indian interests. Studying Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma the indications of the space we have lost to China in South Asia including the Indian Ocean is amazing.

A recent issue of  The Economist quotes Brajesh Mishra:

“Its (China’s) main agenda is to keep India preoccupied with events in South Asia so it is constrained from playing a more important role in Asian and global affairs”.

But with or without China, India does embroil herself with her South Asian neighbours. Recent history indicates disputes with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A greater game is unfolding through a China Pakistan ploy to destabilise India as per K Subrahmanyam. “Both countries are interested in fragmenting India. Both have tried to encourage extremist and secessionist groups within the country in J&K, the North-east and the Maoist areas. It is therefore natural for China and Pakistan to attempt to ensure that US President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to India does not take the Indo -US relationship further forward”. China wants to duplicate the Indo-US nuclear deal by offering two more reactors to Pakistan in defiance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines.

Then there is the feedback from these countries being subjected to this regional rivalry. This media report in Sri Lanka on the eve of visit of the Army Chief General VKSingh is largely reflective of how this shadow boxing is perceived in the region.

“China two weeks ago officially became the world’s second biggest economy, overtaking Japan. India last week announced an 8.8 percent economic growth in the last three months and is expected to reach 9 percent by the end of the year. Indian economic growth could touch 10 per cent in the next couple of years and may even beat China in the next four years, Dr. Kaushik Basu Chief Economic Advisor of the Indian Finance Ministry was quoted in The Hindu, last week.

These spurts in economic growth have made the once poverty stricken Asian giants to be considered the two leading economic superpowers of the 21st Century — if not in military terms — influencing and dominating countries near and far reminiscent of the Western colonial empires such as Britain, France and Germany did in the 18th  and 19th Centuries.”

While the official circles discredit the “encirclement theory” by the Chinese, there is a growing realization in the strategic community of growing Chinese influence in the region. Reports of growing military and specifically naval cooperation with Burma as exemplified last month by port calls in Burma by Chinese war ships indicate an enhanced presence in the Indian Ocean region by the Chinese Navy. Hambantota is also a cause for concern. General Singh’s visit comes ahead of trips to Colombo by defence secretary Pradeep Kumar and foreign minister S.M. Krishna. This signals Indian keenness to regain lost ground in Sri Lanka – a ground lost due to ethnic characteristic of Sri Lanka’s war on LTTE in the face of domestic opposition.

The Sino Indian rivalry is, apparently, largely driven by the PLA where in the opaque but not monolithic CMC considers India as a potential threat to its interests in the Indian Ocean region. Needling India on Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh ties down India and suits domestic nationalistic fervor. At the same time it  pleases Pakistan. Amongst all the theories doing rounds, this appears most plausible as it keeps India in check militarily while allowing China to continue with unbridled trade with India and through the Indian Ocean. As per Chinese experts, India intrudes into many of the issues the military sees as important: Tibet, Pakistan, Myanmar and naval security. The latter is rising Chinese strategic concern, writes Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, because Beijing faces “an unprecedented reliance on the seas for China’s economic well-being”.

The Economist in an article titled “A Himalayan Rivalry” last month articulated that the mullti dimensional and complex contours of relationship between the two neighbours. Of interest, apart from the routine boundary and water disputes, is the theory of India being pursued by America as a bulwark against China. This worries Chinese the most and so they too have gone on supporting all Indian neighbours economically and militarily to complete the strategic encirclement of India. While some experts rubbish this theory, there is a lot of substance in the argument as evident from Chinese actions in the region. The theory of encirclement can be played in a variety of ways depending on who is looking. While India feels encircled by China, China feels encircled by America. Then there are the growing Chinese worries of increased American influence in Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia to counter Chinese interests. For an analysis of Chinese fear of encirclement in Afghanistan and CAR read this article published last month.

Pertinent amongst the Chinese fears are America’s historical records, since World War II of strangulating its rival’s energy needs – be it Japan or Iraq. China fears a similar fate and thus has resolved its Malacca dilemmas through Pakistan and Burma. China’s economic rise as the world’s largest cheap labour platform has necessitated a vast expansion of its imports of raw materials from all corners of the globe. More than half its vital oil and gas is imported, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. For this reason, China is determined to secure its sea routes across the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea by building  a blue water navy. The US is just as determined to prevent this happening and to maintain its own naval predominance. However these indirectly or directly impinge on Indian interests in the region and thus the cycle of animosity and jostling for influence intensifies.

China appears to be acting out of insistence of its military to keep India engaged regionally while it tackles the American influence in the region. China is therefore attempting to de isolate itself from a larger encirclement while encircling India – a game that will never end. As K Subrahmanyam says:

”Times have changed, as has the international strategic milieu. Even while retaining Russia as a friend in the Asian context, India has to develop a new balance of power equation to deal with the challenge from China and Pakistan not merely to our external security but to our national development as a pluralistic, secular and democratic nation”.

India too has its ancient strategic wisdom, preached in the Panchatantra, Hitopadesa and Arthasastra, encompassing sama (cooperation), dhana (buying up), bedha (causing division) and dhanda (use of force). It is time to invoke that ancient wisdom and devise an appropriate international strategy to counter the Chinese-Pakistani challenge.

This Indian ability to call the China Pakistan bluff through artful state craft is critical to the present regional equation.

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4 Responses to “Chinese Encirclement or China Encircled”
  1. Dinesh Thakur says:

    In an article in Times of India Gautam Adhikari presents a bleak picture of China in the years ahead. For now, other emerging powers are, well, emerging. China has arrived.

    They talk now and then about the growing influence of the G20 or the impressive economic growth of Brazil or India, but for many Americans the world is effectively being led by a G2 comprising the two largest economic and military powers today. Just in the past week, influential pundits like Robert Kaplan and Thomas Friedman urged close attention, respectively, to China’s massive naval build-up and its headstart over the rest of the world in using alternative sources of energy to cut back dependency on fossil fuels. Seminars galore scrutinise China’s rapidly rising power.

    Today China is a model of apparently stable corporate authoritarianism. As some new books on the subject explain, the Communist Party is like a giant corporation that controls everything, with its Politburo acting as a board of directors.

    But is such a management model a recipe for long-term stability? When demand in the open market rises many times, when social pressures erupt because of changing demographics, when an expanding middle class wants an increasing array of choice, and when perhaps galloping inflation once again rears its head because of mistaken policies or as yet unforeseen global conditions, will the model hold?

    India, at first glance, looks a mess. Its leadership sometimes appears as incompetent as that infernal Games Organising Committee. But a more dynamic set of leaders, maybe a younger lot, might help us run better. The track ahead looks promising.

    I find India more promising too less its inept bureaucratic style of governance

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