Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wary of One Asian Giant, China’s Southern Neighbors Court Another

China’s growing power and muscle-flexing vis-a-vis its neighbors have now resulted in a regional balancing effort. In October, the presidents of China’s southern neighbors, Burma and Vietnam, made official visits to India — as much in recognition of India’s growing economic and political heft as in acknowledgement that India is a good bet as they seek strategic balance in a region transformed by China’s rapid ascent.

This is a time of great turmoil in the Asian strategic landscape, and India is trying to make itself relevant to states in the region. With its political and economic rise, Beijing has started dictating the boundaries of acceptable behavior to its neighbors. In July, an Indian warship on a friendly visit to Vietnam reported an unidentified Chinese radio warning when it was about 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast. Tensions are rising between China and smaller states in East Asia and Southeast Asia over territorial issues. The United States and its allies have already started reassessing their regional strategies, and a loose anti-China balancing coalition is emerging.

India’s role becomes critical in such an evolving balance of power. As Singapore’s elder-statesman Lee Kuan Yew has argued, he would like India to be “part of the Southeast Asia balance of forces” and “a counterweight [to China] in the Indian Ocean.”

Other regional states, too, are keen on a more proactive Indian role. And the visits of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and Burmese President Thein Sein to India should be viewed in this broader context. Both Vietnam and Burma have hit a rough patch in their ties with China. China has sparred with states including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, asserting its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.

Some, like the Philippines and Vietnam, have pushed back. Philippines President Benigno Aquino Jr. told his nation: “We do not wish to increase tensions with anyone, but we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours.” Ever mindful of not provoking China, Vietnam has sent its top party leader to China and the president to India, but has made it clear that it wants the United States and India to counterbalance Chinese power.

In September, when Beijing told New Delhi that its permission was needed for India’s state-owned oil and gas firm to explore energy on two Vietnamese blocks in the South China Sea, Vietnam quickly cited the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea to claim that blocks 127 and 128 were in Vietnamese territorial waters. New Delhi supported Hanoi’s claims and has made it clear that its state-owned firm would continue to explore in the South China Sea. This rare display of spine has helped India strengthen its profile in the region and its relationship with Vietnam in particular.

The two nations also have high stakes in ensuring sea-lane security in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Given that Vietnam and India use similar Russian and erstwhile Soviet weapons systems — from submarines to jet fighters — Hanoi has been seeking collaboration with New Delhi on defense.

Naval cooperation between Vietnam and India remains the focus with Vietnam giving India the right to use its port in the south, Nha Trang, situated close to the strategically significant Cam Ranh Bay. During Sang’s visit to India, the two sides reiterated the need to enhance cooperation in ensuring safety and security of the region’s sea lanes and launched a security dialogue. To give strong economic foundation to the bilateral ties, it was also decided to increase the trade target to $7 billion by 2015 from the present $2.7 billion.

Burma too has made its own overtures to India. Thein Sein has pursued a range of reforms in the domestic realm, including the cancellation of the China-funded Myitsone Dam project. These efforts could be viewed as an attempt to seek a rapprochement with the democratic world, and that may be why for his first visit abroad as president of a nominal civilian government, Thein Sein chose India.

During his visit, Thein Sein sought greater Indian investment in Burma’s energy sector even as the two nations agreed to expand cooperation in oil and gas exploration, open border trade, and speed up construction of natural gas pipelines. India, which is investing in the Kaladan multimodal transport system, connecting India’s eastern seaboard to its northeastern states through Burma, further offered $500 million in credits for infrastructure projects.

While India is under pressure from the West to demonstrate democratic credentials, its strategic interests have been winning out in relations with Burma in recent years. Due to such strategic interests, New Delhi has only gently nudged the Burmese regime on the issue of democracy, gradually gaining a sense of trust at the highest echelons of Burma’s ruling elite. India would be loath to lose this relationship. As such, India remains opposed to Western sanctions on the country. Burma’s recent moves towards democratic transition will give India a larger strategic space to maneuver, and compared to Beijing, New Delhi will be a more attractive partner for Naypyidaw as it tries to find a modus vivendi with the West.

India is emerging as a serious player in the Asian strategic landscape as smaller states in East Asia reach out to it for trade, diplomacy and, potentially, as a key regional balancer. The “Look East” policy initiated by one of the most visionary prime ministers India has ever had, P.V. Narasimha Rao, is now the cornerstone of India’s engagement with the world’s most economically dynamic region. India’s current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear that his government’s foreign-policy priority will be East and Southeast Asia, poised for sustained growth in the 21st century.

China is too big and too powerful to be ignored by states in the region. But the states in China’s vicinity are now seeking to expand their strategic space by reaching out to other regional and global powers. Smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and America’s anticipated retrenchment from the region in the near future, while larger states see India as an attractive engine for regional growth.

To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India must do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region. Neither India nor the regional states in East Asia have incentive to define their relationship in opposition to China. But they are certainly interested in leveraging their ties with other states to gain benefits from China and bring a semblance of equality in their relationships. Great power politics in the region have only just begun.


By Harsh V. Pant, author of “The China Syndrome,” lecturer in international relations at King’s College London in the Defense Studies Department.

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