SPEAKING FREELY Modi sizes up China's motives
By Abanti Bhattacharya
China's foreign policy has reached a juncture where it has clearly shed all inhibitions of Deng Xiaoping's famous 16-character strategy of "hiding capabilities and biding time" and instead focuses on the last part of Deng's strategy of "striving to make achievements".
In this shifting foreign policy thrust, the present Xi Jinping government has embarked upon an ambitious and adventurist foreign policy path. The ongoing confrontation in South China Sea is testimony to China's irredentist behavior to wrest control of the region by decentering the United States from East Asia.
The other aspect of Xi's foreign policy strategy is to enmesh
China's neighborhood in a dense web of economic interdependencies that would facilitate it to maneuver the region's politics in its favor. Therefore, it has floated a new Silk Route strategy: the northern silk route in the western frontier, the maritime silk route in the southeastern frontier and the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) corridor in the southern frontier. This strategy, while aimed at integrating regional economies, is also a decisive route to superpower status.
Arguably, on both the aspects, South China Sea dispute and the new silk route strategy, China needs the support of India. Of course, it does not imply that its Silk Route strategy is contingent only on favorable relations with India. But in a scenario where China has picked fights with its major neighbors - Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam - and where the US has pledged to support its allied partners in the event of Chinese aggression, it wants relations with India, a regional giant, to be stable.
More than just avoiding an all-front confrontation, China's interest is driven primarily by the need to prevent India from joining hands with China-aggrieved countries. China is particularly anxious about any common front involving India and Japan against China. On May 30, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Shinzo Abe hinted about Indo-Japan cooperation and trilateral cooperation involving India-Japan-US to usher in peace and prosperity in the "confluence of two seas" (the Pacific and the Indian Ocean). Such an anti-China coalition will not only pose a formidable politico-military challenge, but also disrupt its silk route strategy.
Further, China knows clearly that the Modi government has come to power primarily on the promise of ushering in economic development and prosperity. It understands that this is an opportune moment for Beijing to push for deeper economic engagement with New Delhi so that the latter, enmeshed in an economic partnership, would be deterred from rocking its relations with the former.
Quite expectedly, Prime Minister Modi has hailed China as India's foreign policy priority. He has also expressed his desire to utilize the full potential of India's strategic and cooperative partnership with China. To seal this partnership with the new government in India, China's foreign minister is slated to arrive in New Delhi on June 8 as a special envoy from Xi Jinping.
Certainly, this is a good beginning for Modi as his dream for a strong prosperous India is contingent on the twin principles of greater economic engagement and stable peaceful neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the invitation to leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries and Mauritius to his swearing-in ceremony signals India's resolute to move to prioritize the neighborhood in the new mission of nation's development.
But does Modi need to be cautious? While engagement has been the strategy since normalization of India-China relations post-Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China, it will be good to recall that India-China engagement has been based on Deng Xiaoping's conditional normalization of keeping the border dispute on the back burner. India conceded to China's requirement without realizing that Beijing was driven not merely by the urge to mend fences with New Delhi but primarily by the domestic need for reform and modernization.
Arguably, the same urge for peace led China to sign the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2002 and pledged for joint development while keeping the sovereignty question over the South China Sea aside. But today it has jettisoned all peaceful means to resolve that issue and is flexing its military muscles to lay claim on the entire South China Sea. Further, it was just last year that the Chinese military intruded in Ladakh.
Clearly, when China was weak and needed peace at its border, it kept the sovereignty question aside. But now that it has grown powerful it has started flexing muscle to lay sovereign claims on disputed regions. At the same time, it is using economic power to blunt opposition to its non-peaceful means. Though China has kept economic engagement and sovereignty issues separate, it is using economic power to shore up its political claims and determine its foreign relations. This is the reality that Modi has to deal with.
China is indeed seeking greater economic cooperation from India not only on the BCIM corridor and the New Silk Route program but also on manufacturing and investments in India. In a recent interview, the Chinese Ambassador to India, Wei Wei, pledged China's help to boost India's manufacturing sector. The reason for China's generosity is not unfathomable. It wants to shift its polluted production centers to India to have a greener economy.
Notwithstanding Chinese goals, Modi should take this opportunity to strengthen ties with China. Apparently, this opportunity has come at a juncture when both China and Japan are competing to strengthen economic ties with India. This gives India leverage to bargain for the best economic deals conducive to its national interest. Further breaking from the past, India should take the opportunity to expedite settling the border dispute with China and not keep it aside any longer.
Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Delhi, India.
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