South Asia beckons China

An Assistant Secretary dealing with South Asia in the State Department in Washington a decade-and-a-half ago once took justifiable pride that she only needed a clutch of minutes to get the Indians all worked up into a tizzy. What the loquacious U.S. diplomat, who was an old India-Pakistan hand familiar with the human frailties (and vanities) in our part of the world, meant was that Indians never bothered to crosscheck facts when they came across an unpalatable thought.

She had a point. And her adage holds good. When an opinion piece by the U.S. strategic analyst, Selig Harrison, appeared in the New York Times recently alleging large-scale Chinese military presence in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, history seemed to repeat itself. Our tribal instincts resurfaced. It still remains foggy on what basis Mr. Harrison painted the apocalyptic vision of war drums beating distantly in the obscure Himalayan mountains. The regions beyond the northern edges of Kashmir comprise tangled, inaccessible mountains and it is highly improbable that Mr. Harrison wrote on the basis of any first-hand information regarding the 22 secret tunnels in which 11,000 Chinese soldiers belonging to the People's Liberation Army reportedly huddle uneasily alongside stockpiles of deadly missiles that could be launched against India. (Actually, the Pakistani authorities have invited him to go to that picturesque region and take a good look himself.)

Not much ingenuity is needed to discern that Mr. Harrison based his opinion piece on intelligence sources. All he would say later was that his story was based on “western and regional intelligence sources.” Who could be these sources? Politics should, after all, begin with asking a few blunt questions. Were these sources Pakistani, Afghan, Iranian, Russian or Chinese who guided Mr. Harrison? Seems illogical. Were they Indian sources based in Delhi — or Indian “analysts” comfortably located in Singapore? Indeed, by a process of elimination, we arrive at the conclusion that the greatest likelihood seems to be that Mr. Harrison's sources were American. This of course is by no means casting aspersions on Mr. Harrison's integrity. In fact, he has been most candid about his thesis when he concluded his opinion piece with a stirring call to the U.S. administration. He wrote: “The United States is uniquely situated to play a moderating role in Kashmir, given its growing economic and military ties with India and Pakistan's aid dependence on Washington.

“Washington should press New Delhi to resume autonomy negotiations with Kashmiri separatists. Success would put pressure on Islamabad for comparable concessions in Free Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan … Precisely because the Gilgit-Baltistan region is so important to China, the U.S., India and Pakistan should work together to make sure that it is not overwhelmed … by the Chinese behemoth.”

Both Islamabad and Beijing have since repeatedly and unequivocally refuted the contents of Mr. Harrison's article. Top Indian officials who have full access to intelligence have also off-the-record given their estimation that any Chinese presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region could be related to flood-relief work and some development projects and it doesn't involve Chinese regulars of the PLA. They are also inclined to accept the Chinese assurance that there is no change in Beijing's stand on the Kashmir issue, including the part of Kashmir that is under Indian governance.

Equally, in their assessment, Chinese nationals are not taking up habitation in Gilgit-Baltistan, but come to the region from time to time to build infrastructure projects and they go away upon the completion of those projects. Delhi regards the figure of $1.7 billion as Chinese investment in Northern Areas and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as far-too inflated a figure. As a senior Indian official put it “They [the Chinese] are a business-like people and they won't invest in that kind of area like that.”

Evidently, there is a glaring disconnect in New Delhi between those who know and generally prefer not to speak and those who rave but have no flair or patience for checking the facts on the ground. The problem with disregard of facts is that incrementally you withdraw into a smaller and smaller coil of rage and ultimately resign yourself to a sense of powerlessness, frustration and defeat. Should that be the fate of a great country like India that has survived for millennia?

Ultimately, it all boils down to China's presence in the South Asian region and, as the Prime Minister put it the other day, “we have to reflect on this reality, we have to be aware of this.” The issue is: what is the nature of the “reality” so that we can come to terms with it?

The reality is China's growing power and influence that need to be tackled in regional politics. The security of our region and its future will significantly depend on the choices that China makes. Having said that, we too have choices to make. Even if India fails to overtake China economically, it will nonetheless be the second-strongest regional power and will be the most serious constraint on Chinese power. That is to say, the manner and the directions in which India chooses to use its power is going to be no less important than China's actions in their impact on regional stability.

Of course, our choices are going to be harder than China's. The heart of the matter is that a stable, peaceful South Asia can only be built if India works with China. The alternative will be war and mayhem and history provides many examples. The point is, there is a fundamental choice involved here — the choice between “influence” and stability. India and China are on the same side — both want influence and neither seeks instability.

However, we cannot insist that regional stability is synonymous with India's primacy. The international community will only mock at us if we do so in this era of globalisation. As, for that matter, was the region in a blissful state of stability even in the halcyon days when India's influence reigned supreme? In short, the rise in China's influence in the region can lead to peace and regional stability provided we eschew outdated notions of “sphere of influence.” On the contrary, a struggle will inevitably ensue if India chooses to contest China's growing influence since the quintessence of that choice will be that India is prepared to sacrifice peace and stability in the region in its quest for regional primacy. Our South Asian neighbours will only see our choice as a quest for regional hegemony and they cannot be expected to accommodate hubris.

Alas, a segment of our strategic community seems to think that South Asia can be peaceful only under Indian tutelage. It perceives China's desire to expand its influence in the region as inherently threatening. But what is the alternative? China has already grown to be the second biggest economic power in the world. With such economic power, political and strategic power inexorably follows. To quote from a recent thoughtful essay by well-known Australian scholar Hugh White, “China's power, controlled by China's government, must be dealt with as a simple fact of international politics. If Americans deny the right to exercise its power internationally within the same limits and norms that they accept for themselves, they can hardly be surprised if China decides not to accept the legitimacy of American power and starts pushing back. These days it can push back pretty hard.”

Again, all evidence so far points to a distinct pattern that China wishes to expand its influence in South Asia without breaking international law or the rules set out in the Charter of the United Nations. China has not used its power improperly. The fact that China has growing ambitions to develop communication links via South Asia to the world market bypassing the Malacca Strait (which is an American “choke-point”) or that China aspires to explore the vast untapped potential for regional trade and investment in South Asia do not make the Chinese policies illegitimate. Our dilemma is that we are used to exercising a level of regional primacy in the neighbouring countries and we may have come to regard it almost as a mark of our national identity. Clearly, the instinct to “fight” to keep our perceived regional primacy stems from a wrong notion.

The rise of China's influence doesn't have to be a story of India's weakness but can remain a story of Chinese strength. What is it, arguably, that prevents Indian companies even today from spreading wings to the mountains, jungles and beaches of Nepal, Myanmar or Sri Lanka with the gusto with which the Chinese businessmen are doing? Last week, Yunnan commenced direct flight to Colombo. Why is it that a Raipur-Colombo air link remains “uneconomical?”

Nothing like this Chinese “challenge” ever happened before in the South Asian region. Japan or America or Britain could have mounted it in these six decades, but they didn't. But then, they weren't South Asia's neighbours. China is a neighbour.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 2:47:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/South-Asia-beckons-China/article15949241.ece

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