'There are too many tensions between India and China'
'There are too many tensions between India and China'
China today looms large on South Asia's radar, whether regarding uncertain ties with India, its patron-client relationship with Pakistan, and its sustained efforts to gain a strategic foothold in other South Asian nations like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and even Afghanistan.
China today looms large on South Asia's radar, whether regarding uncertain ties with India, its patron-client relationship with Pakistan, and its sustained efforts to gain a strategic foothold in other South Asian nations like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and even Afghanistan. China even aspires to to be part of SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation). In an exclusive interview with Lekshmi Parameswaran of South Asia Monitor, Jayadeva Ranade, President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi talks about the rise of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative and implications of China’s rise for the South Asian region among other issues.
Q. You have spoken about the phenomenal rise of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and its implications for China. What are the implications of his rise for South Asia in general and India in particular?
A. Ever since Xi Jinping’s coming to power at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, I think there has been a change in China’s politics and China’s policies. What we need to keep in mind is that in the year before he took over, between 2011-2012, there was an instability in Chinese politics where a colleague of Xi Jinping, a Politburo memeber Bo Xilai made a grab for power. So that unsettled the situation at that time. When the veteran Congress decided to select Xi Jinping, they considered a man who could deliver and they could back him. Since then, he has done two things. He has decided to restore the legitimacy of the Chinese Congress Party and give stability to the Chinese state. He has consolidated his strength and his authority and additionally, he has kept up his commitment to the veteran leadership. He has boosted the power and authority of the Chinese Communist Party, he has used nationalism and ideology to consolidate the party’s position as well as his own position. So, what we are seeing today is a strong part in China.
Now the implications for the neighbors and implications for other countries are the muscular policies that Xi Jinping has adopted. So, basically what he enunciated is the China dream which to put in simpler terms would mean – making the Chinese people prosperous; making the Chinese nation strong and, most importantly, the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation which is what is causing concern to China’s neighbours. Because, it means recovering what China perceives as its lost territory – lost through the imposition of unequal treaties by foreign hostile powers. We are seeing that being translated into action in the South China Sea and, for India, along its own borders.
Q. How do you see the state of India-China relations, particularly after a record bout of meetings between PM Narendra Modi and Xi Jingping?
A. I think the relationship is strained and I don’t expect a change in relations in the near future. The meeting that have taken place, especially in Wuhan, were primarily to reduce temperatures, to reduce the tension and I don’t think they are going to achieve much more than that. What I read in the Chinese media are increased references to Doklam, particularly in the military press, and the build-up that have taken place across our borders certainly means that they are either prepared for tensions and for any adventure or they are building the capability in case they choose to have a military adventure against us. China, being the stronger power, we will be concerned as to what they are doing. I don’t think the relations will be warm and friendly. There are too many tensions and too many obstacles in the way.
Q. A lot of media reports about how South Asian countries, like Sri Lanka, and now probably Pakistan, are falling into the Chinese debt trap. What is your take on that?
A. There are two aspects to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – The first one that it is a strategic, geoeconomic initiative by China is only now begun to sink in, in Europe and other countries. India caught on to it pretty fast and we raised our concerns about what the objectives of the BRI are and what exactly it implies. As far as the Chinese are concerned, if I can put it simply, it was a method by which they could link production centres in China with natural resource centres and markets elsewhere in the world over a China built infrastructure using other states’ money to build infrastructure. But, in the process the states’ normally don’t have money, the Chinese are willing to bankroll them and put to use the idle capital that is lying with them and their surplus manpower and they are going to put to use the idle capacity of their state-owned enterprises for constructing the infrastructure. So, a debt-trap is going to pile up. We have seen the case of Sri Lanka where 85 per cent of the GDP is spent on repaying the interests. Another debt-trap that is looming is the Colombo City Port Development Project, as that nears fruition, Sri Lanka will have to pay for that.
In Pakistan, the Pakistanis themselves are seeing the problem and the amount of support that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is dwindling. That is part of the BRI. In Europe, people have now woken to the fact that there is a strategic aspect to the BRI. So particularly, countries like UK, France and Germany have become wary of Chinese designs and conduct of naval power. In fact, last week, a prominent Russian newspaper has voiced doubts about the BRI and said the people in Central Asia are getting increasingly concerned about the BRI. So I think, the concerns are mounting and BRI will have problems. The Chinese themselves now find that they don’t have enough money to fund the BRI. So, they are not going to be able to bail people out or write off debts that have been incurred. The countries that have received Chinese loans and projects are going to find things becoming more difficult as time goes on.
Q. How do you see China-Pakistan relations post Imran Khan's victory? He has praised the Chinese model of development in one of his speeches. In the current state of Pakistan's economy, do u see Islamabad being smothered as it were by the Chinese bear hug and unable to extricate itself?
A. I think, Imran Khan’s victory by itself is not going to change the texture of China-Pakistan relationship. The relationship is comprehensive and very deep and the Army is supporting that relationship. As long as the Army supports it, I don’t think Imran Khan will have any say in the subject. Having said that, let me say that the Chinese will try and use Imran Khan to reduce the extent of opposition to CPEC that emanates from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. Imran Khan by himself will not have the freedom or space to try and effect any change in the nature of the China-Pakistan relationship. The CPEC gives Chinese access and ingress even to the villages of Pakistan because the project stretches all the way from the North to the South. In each case, China’s labour is deployed.
Q. What are the security challenges India is facing vis a vis China post Doklam with reports that Chinese troops are still very active in that area and still doing their construction activities.
A. The military presence have been readjusted and the forces have pulled back according to the agreement. As far as the Chinese are concerned, they continue to have presence all along the border that they share with us and they are beefing up their defences inside Tibet. We are seeing a number of reports regarding that. The references to Doklam in the Chinese media have increased during and post Doklam. Some of the references to the military buildup are directed against India. They have started a lot of construction activities - they are building airfields in Tibet and they have accelerated the laying of railways lines – which can all be directed only at one place.
At the time, the agreement to disengage was reached between India and China, there was a lot of unhappiness in China. The editor-in-chief of Global Times said the people of China are unhappy. A prominent military commentator, who has so far being supportive of Xi Jinping, said it is a humiliation for China. There is another commentator who said what has China gained? The gains were for India. This is the kind of mood that was in China and, till today, the mood lingers. They feel that they have been humiliated, their plans for recovery of territory in effecting China dream have received a setback. These are factors we need to keep in mind when dealing with China.
Q. How do you see the India-China rivalry playing out in Nepal and Maldives? Should India be worried about what's happening in Maldives and how Male is cold shouldering New Delhi?
A. I think we will have to think of some methods by which we can restore our influence in both these countries. What I am seeing right now is that we cannot match China dollar for dollar, but we have our own strengths. For example, in Nepal, there are cultural ties which go even deeper. We give the Nepalese almost citizen-like status in India - they come here, they get married here, they have property here, they have government jobs here. Over a crore and a half live here, that’s a large number. If push comes to shove, it also makes them very vulnerable to pressure from us. The infrastructure that China builds for them will not offset the pressure we can put by effecting another blockage. I think, the Nepalese are aware of it and they are playing a double game right now. The Communist regime has been visiting both China and India. We have to make sure that our interests are protected – there we have to combine magnanimity with a bit of toughness.
In Maldives, the Chinese have put a lot of money in, they bought an island, they probably bought over the President. We will have to think of measures by which we can restore our influence in the Maldives and ensure a secure strategic space because that is what is causing us concern, given Maldives’s location in the Indian Ocean. I am sure something is being planned and there are options available which I would rather not spell out.
Q. Is the Chinese 'string of pearls' around India a spectre that will haunt New Delhi for some time to come?
A. Well, the "string of pearls" as a concept was an old concept. In essence what it means is that the Chinese are building ports at strategic locations where they can deploy warships in event of need. But the point is that they are yet to build a warship, they are yet to build the capability of sustaining the warships outside. And the bottom line is, even if a country allows them to build a port, whether that country will allow them to use that port for hostile military purposes against India? There are different factors that come into play here. By themselves, I don’t see our neighbours, except Pakistan, allowing the Chinese to mount operations against us.
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