Saturday, July 13, 2024
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China is watching

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

China is the new Big Brother if not the new kid on the block!  Like India, China is an ancient land and the Chinese have made the world feel their presence.

The past few years have seen more and more attention being focused on the Indo-Pacific, a construct that denotes countries and regions deep down in the Pacific to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and further up encompassing Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia (countries of South-Central Asia of the erstwhile Soviet Union).

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, left, and India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa, India, India-China relations are not normal, quipped Jai Shankar

New blocs

Our own MEA has focused quite a lot on the Indo-Pacific either at the policy level or in engaging with individual countries in the region. Any policy in relation to China ought to stem from Chinese actions and policies affecting us, especially after India’s independence, and in the recent past. Every single Chinese action, including the visits of their leadership to this country, has to be viewed in the overall context of China’s expansionism, actions and transgressions in northern Kashmir, Ladakh and on our eastern frontiers.

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The Indo-Pacific is more than a geographic reference region or a mere construct.  It is what strategists, regional powers and influential economies believe in, and expect to act as a bulwark against the threats from an economically and militarily stronger China. 

For over three decades since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, western interests and attention have shifted to China with it becoming, at least for many, a necessary evil. Its rising economic clout and military might make middle powers such as Australia, Malaysia and India worry, yet China is a reality that countries have to deal with, a bully for want of a better word!

China’s growing economic prowess and political influence

Hegemonistic ambitions 

A rising China has been a concern to many. Situated strategically as it overlooks countries, big and small, economically weak, and middle powers, including India, the Chinese presence and threats have been real and for all to see.  

Its hegemonistic ambitions manifest in more ways than one. In the South China Sea, its naval vessels are on the prowl threatening other countries’ navies. The Malacca Straits at the entry to the world’s shipping lanes and in close proximity to India have been worrisome for countries big and small, and as far away as Japan, Australia and for the major economic powers in North America and Europe. Their worry is that merchant ships plying these waters could be sitting ducks should there be a conflagration.

China sitting pretty on LAC with India

Enigma and reality

India, for the first time since 1962, finds itself facing a renewed threat from its northern Big Brother. It has always been at the receiving end since the heady Hindi-Chini bhai bhai days.  China is viewed with suspicion, a threat and a not-to-be-trusted neighbour. To many, it remains an enigma.

Yet China is a reality. An economic giant. Its human power and factories produce everything from matchboxes to sophisticated integrated circuits and smartphones.

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PR pundits 

It’s not about incidents, minor and major, in Ladakh, or ingress in Arunachal or the 1962 incidents in Chicken Neck. The Chinese are smart enough to show off their border with India near Gangtok in Sikkim, which for all practical purposes is quiet and peaceful.

On a recent tour of China, Indian YouTubers were all praise for the “friendly Chinese people”, especially across the border, with peaceful streets and thriving businesses.  All of this undertaken by their PR gurus with finesse and sophistication. One YouTuber even covered up his trip showing that he was in a Chinese city shopping for furniture for his newly built apartment. So much for soft power to showcase a country, its people and lifestyles!

China’s encirclement of India

Neighbourhood first

China’s encirclement of India became a reality and complete with the vital road in Tibet linking it to Pakistan and beyond. The Chinese influence in Nepal and down below in Sri Lanka, now extends to Iran, Middle East and Africa, all of which were traditional areas for India, perhaps not so much of influence, as for friendship, a cliched expression often used in diplomacy.

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to India concluded with a vision document by the two sides. The thrust of the document appears to be broad, stopping short of specifics. At the same time, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo sent out a strong message of India’s support to the island nation reeling under an economic collapse. India has endorsed any economic recovery package to Sri Lanka, including becoming the first to give the requisite assurances to the IMF.

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In terms of India’s defence preparedness, discussions within the military establishment on integrated theatre commands seemingly focused on China is still underway and yet to be complete. Once ready, there should be a more efficient system in place for quick-action responses and better overall preparedness to meet eventualities.

Opportunities for India in QUAD, heads of Australia, US, Japan and India

Relations Down Under

To India, forever looking at ways to deal with Chinese belligerence at discussions at multilateral fora –including at the United Nations – or the innumerable minor and major border skirmishes and infiltration attempts, the Quad offered the first real non-militaryopportunity to deal with the menace that China had become. All credit to Japan, and in particular to its late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for initiating the Quad.

India was initially cool to the informal grouping, and quite rightly so too, as was Australia which didn’t want to upset the apple cart, given its then steadfast economic relations with China. A mandarin speaking Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Foreign Minister (later PM), led this love affair with China.

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India, on its part, had begun taking part in military exercises such as Operation Malabar, by no means muscle flexing or anything like that, but nevertheless a good beginning. The thaw in relations with Australia, and India’s own new, friendlier approach to the US – as witnessed in the historic signing of the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement by Dr Manmohan Singh -were all forerunners to developing deeper relations with Australia.

India beefs up sea power with new assets. Armed drones in the works

Navy’s preparedness 

As a counter to the PLA Navy’s launch of a drone carrier Zhu Hai Yun earlier in the year, India is believed to have developed its own sea drone in collaboration with Bharat Electronics Ltd. 

The Chinese drone carrier was a threat in every sense of the word as it mounts its surveillance and prepares for attack roles in the Indian Ocean.

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The Indian Navy vessel can and will possibly be used in intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, mine sweeping, and even in active combat if required.

PV Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh, economic reformers

Economic reforms

The emergence of India as an enormous economic opportunity – thanks first to Rajiv Gandhi for laying the foundations and later Narasimha Rao’s push and support to Dr Manmohan Singh – opened the doors of India to the world. 

The end of both the Cold War and the dominance of the US as the sole economic powerhouse all meant a churning for the good. 

The end of government control of  business and public sector disinvestments such as by AB Vajpayee in the late nineties and later all augured well for India’s emergence on the world scene. By then, of course, the interdependence of the world had become clear and evident. 

Self-reliance was no longer the buzz word for at least pragmatic economists and leaders. Self-interest had begun to be seen as the pathway, which is to be pragmatic and practical. To the credit of the government led by PM Narendra Modi, India has maintained a healthy mix of both, Make in India being a strong policy reflecting the approach.

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The Americans have always been clever in their approach, particularly in running business and economy. They were not jingoist when it came to doing business with others. Import anything and everything you want was their approach, the exception being aeronautics, space and defence capabilities. Such openness got them the revenues they wanted. American brands manufacturing in Vietnam, China, Thailand, Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka since the early and mid-eighties gave their multinationals cheaper options, changing the face of American business forever.

Pearl S Buck

Not just a Red Star

American author Pearl S Buck immortalised Chinese peasant life through her writings for western audiences.  She won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her vivid accounts on China and life in the unknown and forbidden land. A personal favourite is The Good Earth, a fictional account of life in a Chinese village that also stirred interest in China and the Orient of westerners.

Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China portrayed the Long March, and Communism’s fight and victory against ‘imperialism’. Snow spent time in China and revealed aspects that were little known to the outside world. Among the Chinese leaders that he met and interviewed was Mao Zedong.

Today’s Chinese society and the country have grown beyond imagination. The enterprise and hardwork of the Chinese has brought them to where they are. 

US journalist Edgar Snow and Mao Zedong

Whether  China is a necessary evil or not, the powerhouse that it has become needs to be engaged with, if not for anything but for our own good. Why not get China to rein in Putin and have Russia disengage from Ukraine? The world will be a better place if this were to happen. And more people will become friends with China! Like it or not, governments cannot ignore China. If not the pivot, China can and must be factored in global dialogues on key issues.

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Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"

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