Being credible

New Delhi must not buckle to Chinese pressure in its engagement of Indo-Pacific countries.

After hiatus of over a year, I resume my monthly column in the Business Standard on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Indo-Pacific region. As the edit page is behind a paywall, I will put up unedited drafts, excerpts or the published column a day or two after it is published.


The central argument of the first innings of this column (September 2010-October 2015) was a simple one: that India should recognise that East Asia is a part of its extended neighbourhood and that it is in our national interest to invest in the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region.

Why? Because by the mid-2000s, China under Hu Jintao was shedding the facade of ‘peaceful rise’ and beginning to take assertive positions on its territorial disputes and claims in the waters off East and South-East Asia, causing the countries of the region to look towards India for support. In their strategic calculus, if they fail to bring the United States, China and India into a balance, they had little choice but to hop onto the Beijing bandwagon. Month after month, your columnist exhorted New Delhi to exploit the geopolitical and geoeconomic opportunities that Beijing had unintentionally created.

That prescription is just as valid today as it was seven years ago. Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping has moved from assertive to aggressive, always arrogant and increasingly adventurous. The men in black suits and hair dye in Beijing have not only completely blown the cover story of ‘peaceful rise’ but have managed to antagonise the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific.

Even as Beijing pushes Chinese hegemony under clever phrases such as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), Maritime Silk Road and “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC), it does so in the absence of the regional goodwill that enabled its entry into the ASEAN-centred economic and security architectures in the early-2000s. South East Asian countries watch with increasing anxiety as their more of their ASEAN counterparts are attracted or coerced onto China’s camp. The divide that your columnist had predicted within ASEAN is now gaping wide.

President Xi appears to have moved beyond merely maintaining China’s claim in a dispute to pressing it. He might have calculated that Beijing is now strong enough to negotiate where it cannot just coerce the other side into caving in. In November last year, Hong Kong authorities seized military vehicles belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces on their way back from routine exercises in Taiwan. Given that the Singaporean armed forces have been training in Taiwan since the 1970s with China’s tacit non-disapproval, it is clear that Mr Xi deliberately upped the ante. Similarly, Beijing coerced Mongolia into submission after the latter allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar the same month. Since the Dalai Lama had visited Mongolia at least eight times earlier, Beijing’s reaction this time stands out as extraordinary.

This week, China sent its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan straits quite likely signalling a more aggressive stance on that issue. This comes a few weeks after it challenged the US Navy in the region by stealing an underwater drone from under its noses. It is uncertain how the incoming administration of Donald Trump will handle the military dimension of its relations with China, but Mr Xi is not done with testing the nerve of Washington’s new establishment.

As much as there is a regional demand for India to play a stronger role in regional security, it has become harder and riskier for New Delhi to do so. The Modi government is reportedly considering selling medium-range surface-to-air missiles to Viet Nam. Both New Delhi and Hanoi will come under Chinese pressure and possible retaliation if the deal goes through. It would be imprudent for New Delhi or Hanoi to back down under pressure. It is in Beijing’s interest to create a perception that India is unreliable as a partner, whose promise falls short of delivery. Chinese commentators suggested as much after Beijing arm-twisted Mongolia over the Dalai Lama’s visit, drawing attention to the fact that New Delhi’s promised $1 billion line of credit failed to save Ulaanbaatar from China’s economic coercion.

New Delhi should thus be scrupulously careful about the commitments that it makes, implies, or might be construed. Once made, it should not hesitate to keep them in the face of China’s opposition. With rising risks and emerging uncertainties, credibility is the new currency in the Indo-Pacific.

This is by no means an argument to deliberately antagonise China: it is in India’s interests to nurture a close relationship with its northern neighbour. To be an effective swing power, we must enjoy better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other.

This will not come by wishing for it, especially if the wishing is one-sided. Nor will it come by succumbing to Chinese hegemony. To the extent New Delhi accumulates economic strength and demonstrates foreign policy credibility, Beijing is likely to reciprocate India’s desire for amicable bilateral relations.

Copyright: Business Standard

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