Where India yields, China will step in.
Quite often, the alarm and indignation comes from a sense of entitlement. Surely, the argument goes, India’s size and geographical location entitles it to a pre-eminent maritime status in the Indian Ocean, so how dare China intrude and construct a “string of pearls” around India?
To be sure, the emergence of China as a regional maritime power is the big story of our times. Over the past two decades, China has methodically developed basing arrangements (the ‘string of pearls’), invested in a submarine fleet designed to counter the US Navy’s aircraft carrier groups and, is now working on a surface fleet (including six aircraft carriers) whose purpose is to project power. This worries Indian strategists, because some of China’s accretion of power will come at India’s expense. While China certainly seeks to contain the expansion of Indian power, the object of its grand strategy is to counter the United States. And it is getting there: not by matching renminbi-for-dollar and getting into an arms race, but largely by developing capabilities that exploit United States’ weak points.
So at a time when China seeks to play in the same league as the superpower of the day, it is to be expected that it will try to extract advantageous positions in the Indian Ocean region at India’s expense. The big scandal is not that China is securing bases in India’s neighbourhood by shoring up nasty regimes and abetting their outrageous policies; but rather, India does not even show any sign of doing what is necessary to protect its interests.
So Home Minister P Chidambaram criticised China for fishing in troubled waters by backing the Sri Lankan government to the hilt in its war against the LTTE. So what else does Mr Chidambaram expect it to do? If the UPA government couldn’t find the resolve to shape a bold Sri Lanka policy that would promote India’s interests, why should he hold it against China for doing so? Similarly, if the UPA government found itself immobilised over its Nepal policy, why should China be blamed for promoting what it sees as its own interests? (See Lax Indica). Surely, the likes of Pranab Mukherjee and A K Anthony didn’t think that China should be held to the statements they made about there being enough space in Asia for two powers to rise simultaneously? (Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr Chidambaram did gruesome damage to the pace at which India could rise in the first place).
Let’s face it: unless the next government—regardless of whether it is the UPA, NDA or a Ghastly Numbered Front that comes to power—firmly resolves to ensure that India’s strategic frontiers are not rolled inwards, strategic containment is assured. Those who take recourse to fatalism and declare that coalition politics doesn’t allow an assertive foreign policy, especially in India’s neighbourhood, better not express indignation when they spot a Chinese aircraft carrier group a few hundred nautical miles from Kochi or Mumbai. Actually, coalition politics has been offered as an excuse for gross mismanagement of neighbourhood policy—other than during the election season, coalition partners limit their foreign policy demands to largely to rhetoric. It stands to reason, therefore, that a central government that can’t stand up to pressure from its coalition partners can’t stand up to pressure from Beijing.