India’s balancing act with China

In spite of pressure from Japan and the US, India has refused to join an infra project to balance its relations with China

shankar

Shankar Kumar | September 19, 2018


#India   #China   #Nirmala Sitharaman  
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, exchanging mementos in New Delhi on August 20
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, exchanging mementos in New Delhi on August 20

On the first day of his August 19-20 visit to India, when Japanese defence minister Itsunori Onodera held talks with his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman, several defence and strategic-related issues had cropped up in their annual talks. But a big smile flashed on Sithraman’s face when Onodera, as per sources, raised the matter of a move by Japan, the US and Australia to launch a joint infrastructure scheme in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Ever since the then Austrian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, during his February 23-24 visit of the US, discussed with president Donald Trump the plan to counterbalance China’s investments in the Indo-Pacific region by having an alternative infra scheme, there have been attempts by these two countries, which were later on joined by Japan, to rope in India for the project. But India has been steadfastly refusing to join any scheme which would lead to a ‘us versus China’ rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region. It turned down Australia’s request to join the 22nd edition of the Malabar naval exercise conducted during June 7-16 by Indian, American and Japanese navies off Guam, a major US naval base in the Western Pacific.

Yet it has not stopped India and Japan from carrying on with the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), the ambitious project which is actually an answer to China’s BRI initiative. The Japanese defence minister who landed in New Delhi two days ahead of Chinese defence minister Gen Wei Fenghe’s August 21-24 visit, broached with Sitharaman issues like China’s growing involvement in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar – all these countries together with Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and others are part of Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.

India and Japan are jointly investing in road construction and strategic assets in these countries. While Japan has earmarked $30 billion, India has so far not officially disclosed as to how much money it will pump in to build ports and other infrastructure in South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Africa. But Sachin Chaturvedi, director general of Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), a New Delhi-based think tank which is attached with the ministry of external affairs, says India has committed to give $10 billion for the AAGC. Trincomalee Port in Sri Lanka’s eastern province, Dawei and Yangon ports in Myanmar, Matarbari port and a power station in Bangladesh, Mombasa port in Kenya, Nacala port in Mozambique and Toamasina port in Madagascar will be built under the AAGC initiative.

Onodera, after reaching Colombo in the evening of August 20 in the second leg of his India-Sri Lanka four-day visit, made a swift trip to Hambantota to see the contentious port which has been handed over to China on  99-year lease by Sri Lanka in a deal which critics say threatens the island nation’s sovereignty. On August 21, accompanied by Sri Lankan Navy’s Eastern Area Naval Commander Rear Admiral Sumith Weerasinghe, he landed in Trincomalee where Japan, India and Sri Lanka are jointly building a deep sea port. Interestingly, both India and Japan are keen to make AAGC a viable project with “transparency and inclusiveness” invested in it. New Delhi wants that AAGC initiative, which emphasises on sea connectivity in comparison to BRI’s land and sea connectivity, to be a reality in the next 10 years.  

Under the Act East policy, India is working on three main strategic blocks to strengthen its position in the Indo-Pacific region. While its engagement with BIMSTEC, ASEAN members, Japan and South Korea is aimed at solidifying relations with them on the basis of economic, political, strategic and defence cooperation in South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia region, it is investing political, diplomatic and strategic capitals in the Pacific region by strengthening bilateral engagement with Australia, New Zealand and others. Indian Ocean is another key block of the Act East policy. Its importance for India, however, rests not merely in its richness but in its being a major source of economic activity.

Thus, in spite of its Act East policy’s stated aim and objective being economy and security, India has tactically decided to avoid being overt anti-China in its activity. And this approach started building up after newly appointed foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s return from his Beijing visit in February 2018 and his consequent talks with the prime minister’s principal secretary Nripendra Mishra. Following this, directions were issued to all senior officials and public representatives that they should avoid being too much critical against China. Immediate impact was seen in New Delhi’s muted participation in the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India.

Yet it was after Modi and Xi Jinping’s informal Wuhan summit in April that New Delhi categorically hinted that it would not become part of any geopolitical game which would be openly anti-China in its stance. It is seen as India’s calculated move vis-à-vis China. Nitin Gokhale, a well-known strategic expert, claims that after the 73-day Doklam incident, a lot of “churnings” have taken place within China too. “President Xi Jinping has realized that he was briefed wrongly by his advisors on India’s NSG aspiration, Doklam and Belt and Road Initiative,” he says.

While such claims are debatable, there is a buzz in New Delhi’s diplomatic circle that even as India made no headway at the NSG’s plenary summit in Latvia on June 14-15, at the next meet of the 48-member export control regime in December, there are chances China would not come in the way of India’s membership. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, who made an “unnoticed” visit to Russia on August 24 in preparation for president Vladimir Putin’s October visit to India, is said to have been assured by Russian authorities that Moscow would do the needful in taking China into confidence on the NSG issue.

Experts say that there are several reasons why India wants good neighbourly relations with China. First, the 2019 parliamentary polls are not far away; the Narendra Modi-led government doesn’t want any kind of tension with China when the nation is a few months away from the next general election. Secondly, there is a huge economic, defence and strategic gap between India and China and, since this gap can’t be filled in a short-term period, New Delhi doesn’t want any direct confrontation with China. Thirdly, under its ‘Make in India’ initiative, the government wants to make the country a manufacturing hub. It aims to increase the share of manufacturing in the country’s GDP to 25 percent by 2025. And this can’t happen in the absence of peace and stability in the region.

These factors have not restrained India from undertaking its engagement with strategic partners in Southeast Asia. Soon after the red-carpet welcome to China’s defence minister Gen Wei Fenghe in New Delhi, Sitharaman flew to Bangkok on August 27 on a two-day visit. In the first ever BIMSTEC joint military exercise, scheduled to start from September 12, Thai royal army members are participating in the weeklong drill in counter terrorism. Only 30 army personnel from each BIMSTEC member will participate in the joint military exercise. During the weeklong military exercise, army chiefs of the seven member nations of the group are also expected to meet in Pune, which will be the first of its kind in the region.

Attended by prime minister Narendra Modi, the BIMSTEC concluded its August 30-31 summit in Kathmandu. It is during this time, precisely from August 26 to 29, that minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj undertook a four-day visit to Vietnam and Cambodia to deepen India’s strategic cooperation with the two key ASEAN nations. All this is happening even as Modi in his Shangri-La Dialogue speech in Singapore on June 1 made it clear that “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together.” He had also said India never viewed the Indo-Pacific region as “a strategy or as a club of limited members”.

Sources say there are several other reasons why India is resisting against the proposed joint regional infrastructure project in the Indo-Pacific region. First, no name has been given to the project; second, it is not clear how Japan, the US and Australia will mobilise money for the project which also needs clarity on how it will foster a free, inclusive, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region; third, the unpredictability of the US leadership. Yet, India participated in the June 7 meeting of Quad (comprising India, Japan, the US and Australia) in Singapore. This was the second informal meeting of the Quad and it was attended by joint secretary level officials of all four countries. But the question is what purpose Quad serves for India when it has been unveiled with the sole aim of maintaining maritime security in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, fight off terrorism and oppose China’s aggressive design across the world?

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(The article appears in the September 30, 2018 issue)

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