New Balance of Power in Asia? India is challenging China’s assertiveness

    “India must increase investments in education and infrastructure, achieve more equitable economic development if it is to emerge as a major driver of the global economy. Only then will it be able to make a significant contribution to Asian and international security and contribute to a new peace-promoting balance of power in Asia”, says the author.

    By Anita Inder Singh

    India’s decision to help Vietnam boost its defense modernization – against China’s wishes – raises yet again the question whether a new balance of power is emerging in Asia. India, Vietnam and Japan will try to coordinate security and economic policies. That suggests India is challenging China’s assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region and staking a claim to explore the energy-rich resources of the South China Sea. Economic and strategic diplomacy were intertwined when Prime Minister Modi visited Japan and the US – and when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India in mid-September.

    India needs investment to improve its rickety infrastructure and Japan, China and the US have come forward with offers to help India renew it. Companies in all three countries seek new investment destinations and potentially India is one of the biggest. Mutual economic interests are not enough for India to increase its contribution to Asian and global security. The simultaneous interest of Japan and the US in India’s development and its greater role in Asian security only highlight India’s economic weakness and the blunt fact that its ability to enhance its regional role will hinge on its economic performance improving quickly and steadily.

    India has much to gain – and learn – from closer ties with Japan, which is Asia’s oldest democracy. Neither history, nor political/territorial disputes divide India and Japan. As Asia’s post-1945 economic wunderkind Japan had surpassed India, China and many west European countries by the early 1960s. India and Japan are already collaborating on maritime security, counter-terrorism, and energy security. At their summit talks, Modi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to strengthen defense ties and forge a special strategic global partnership, emphasizing that a developed India and a prosperous Japan were important for Asia and for global peace and security.

    Economics and strategy mixed again when Modi met Japanese business leaders. The 21st century, Modi asserted, would belong to Asia – exactly how would depend on “how deep and progressive” the Indo-Japanese relationship is. This is the immediate context in which he deplored the “expansionist” tendencies among countries, caught in an 18th-century time-warp, to “engage in encroachment” and “intrude” into the seas of others. Evidently Modi was not letting trading interests blur the real political differences with such countries. These comments, made before President Xi Li Ping visited India, were widely interpreted as anti-China. The state-steered Chinese Global Times has downplayed any idea that China counted less than Japan with India.

    “China’s GDP is five times that of India’s. Mutual trust between Beijing and New Delhi, facing strategic pressure from the north, is difficult to build as there is also an unresolved border conflict between the two,” its editorial said. That appeared more of a threat than an olive branch to India. Modi carefully avoided running China down. Before leaving for the US he stated that the world should trust China to observe international law. But Xi’s visit did not enhance trust between New Delhi and Beijing. Even as Xi assured Modi of $20 billion in investment in Gujarat Chinese troops made one of their frequent forays into north-eastern Indian territory, which Beijing claims belongs to China.

    Those forays followed a pattern. China unilaterally invokes “history” (its version) when referring to territorial conflicts with India – and other neighbors. China’s attitude to India echoes that with its Asian neighbors, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. By claiming a territory in the name of history it creates a dispute, dispatches its ships or aircraft – (or in India’s case, troops) – to back up that claim. That is how it unilaterally outlined last November an “air-defense identification zone” over an area of the East China Sea covering Senkaku islands that are also claimed by Japan (and Taiwan). Strong trading ties have not stopped China from using history to make claims on neighboring territories.

    In fact Japan is the largest foreign investor in China. And China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner. In New Delhi Xi’s reference to historical ties between ancient civilizations was marred by the assertion that the Sino-Indian border dispute had historical roots. Such statements imply that the border disputes will remain unsettled; more importantly, that Beijing will continue to lay claim to the Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh regions. In that case India – like Japan and Vietnam – may find itself simultaneously taking up the politicalstrategic gauntlet and engaging in much-needed trade with China.

    China does nothing to dispel the fears of its neighbors and insists on bilateral solutions. Its claims to un-demarcated maritime waters, including the East and South China Seas (Beijing defines the latter as a ‘core’ interest) are contested by its neighbors, who want the disputes those claims give rise to be settled through international arbitration. That explains why, without naming China, the Obama-Modi communiqué, called on all parties to avoid the use, or threat of use, of force in advancing their claims. It also urged a resolution of their territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with the international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. At another level, China has taken advantage of America’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan and is increasing investments there. It is also securing its energy supplies in the oil and gas fields of Central Asia. Moreover, it is India’s main competitor for influence in the Indian Ocean area, which is bounded by Asia on the north, on the west by Africa, on the east by Australia, and on the south by the Southern (Antartic) Ocean.

    There is nothing improper about these activities. But they alarm China’s neighbors and the US, none of whom wants China to gain primacy in Asia. Unsurprisingly, Obama and Modi stressed the need to accelerate infrastructure connectivity and economic development corridors for regional economic integration linking South, Southeast, and Central Asia. The US and India want to promote the India- Pacific Economic Corridor, which will link India to its neighbors and the wider Asia-Pacific region, with a view to facilitating the flow of commerce and energy. That will not be lost on China. Meanwhile uncertainty hovers over the nature of America’s rebalance or pivot to Asia since it has been announced at a time when Washington is cutting defense expenditure. India must increase investments in education and infrastructure, achieve more equitable economic development if it is to emerge as a major driver of the global economy. Only then will it be able to make a significant contribution to Asian and international security and contribute to a new peace-promoting balance of power in Asia.

    (The author is a visiting professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, New Delhi)

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