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The implementation of the BRI project at sea: South Maritime and Arctic Silk Roads

Maria Smotrytska

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In 2013, China started to launch a global system of transport corridors that should connect China with the entire world – the countries of Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania. Within the Framework of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), it was planned to build roads and railways, open sea and air passages, lay pipelines and power lines. Thus, China decided to involve 4.4 billion people – more than half of the world’s current population – in its orbit of influence through the new geopolitical initiative.

Launching BRI land corridors, the PRC created an additional branches of the project – the “Maritime Silk Road of the XXI century” (MSR) and the “Polar (Arctic) Silk Road”. On March 29, 2014, in Nanyang city (Southeast Asia) was hosted a Symposium of East Asian States, dedicated to building the community of China and the ASEAN countries and implementing the regional “MSR project in the XXI century”, proposed by the Chinese President in October 2013 at the Council of people’s representatives of Indonesia and during the 16th China – ASEAN summitin Brunei.

The initiative to create alternative routes was not proposed by chance, since they all have a clear focus:the main land BRI corridors (“New Eurasian Land Bridge”;“China – Mongolia – Russia Corridor”;“China – Central Asia – West Asia Corridor”;“China – Indochina Peninsula Corridor”;“China – Pakistan Corridor”;“Bangladesh – China – India – Myanmar Corridor” (see Figure 1)) are generally aimed at Central and Western Asia, Central, Eastern and Western Europe, and the “Maritime Silk Road” – to South – East Asia and Africa, “Polar Silk Road”potentially covers northern part of the BRI, connecting China with Europe.Thus, China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy is aimed to improve China’s diplomacy with countries all across the world.BRI blueprint encompasses over 60 countries, which account for 60% of the world’s population and a collective GDP equivalent to 33% of the world’s wealth. It focuses on connectivity and partnerships with neighbouring countries and builds upon existing multilateral mechanisms.

The “MSR”, as well as the land corridors, were planned along an ancient trade route: from Guangzhou in China along the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, past to the Red sea (with branchesto the Persian Gulf and Africa), through the Suez canal in the Mediterranean. Before the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the Chinese considered Crimea as a separate entry point to Europe – a deep-water port was planned to be built in the Western part of the Peninsula. In addition, Russia and China discussed another route – the Arctic one: it was mentioned about the possible inclusion of the Northern sea route development project (NSR) into the BRI strategy.

fig.1

China currently does not have access to the Arctic ocean. Thus, with no physical access to the Arctic, Chinese strategists have long been concerned about the country’s chances of becoming an Arctic power.

In June 2017, the state Committee for development and reform and the State Oceanographic administration of China named the Arctic as one of the directions of the “One belt, One road” project. The “Concept of cooperation at sea within the framework of the BRI”refers to the need to involve Chinese companies in the commercial use of Arctic transport routes.

Soon after Russia has signed a Memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Oceanographic authority, aimed at expanding international cooperation in the field of Arctic and Antarctic researches. The same documents were signed with China by Norway, the United States, Germany, Chile and Argentina.

There are three potential routes across the Arctic: the Northeast passage around Eurasia, the Northwest passage around North America and the Central Arctic ocean route. For China, they offer a shorter and cheaper alternative to current shipping routes, which reach major markets in Europe via the Indian ocean and the Suez canal.

In practice, Yong Sheng, owned by COSCO Shipping, was the first Chinese cargo ship to master the Northern sea route (Northeast passage) in 2013. After a trial voyage, the Chinese carrier COSCO showed interest in further using this project. However, analysts expressed doubts about its profitability. The main problems were that when traveling along the Northern sea route, ships of lower cargo capacity have to be used, the route is seasonal, and the travel conditions are extreme.

In the summer of 2017, another six Chinese vessels took this route. In September, the Chinese research vessel Xue Long made its first Northwest passage voyage along the Northern coast of Canada, reducing the travel time from New – York to Shanghai by seven days compared to the route through the Panama canal.

It should be borne in mind that China’s position is quite convenient in geopolitical terms : it is one of the observer States of the Arctic Council. In total, there are eight countries in the region (Canada, the United States, Denmark, which has access to the Arctic via Greenland, Norway, Russia, Iceland, Sweden and Finland) and 13 other countries that do not have access to the Arctic, but whose using the function of monitoring the relations of the countries in the region. Thus, China is actively using its status with the development of the Arctic programme.

fig.2

It should be empathized that Beijing’s position on the development of the Arctic route supports the view that both routes contain potentially very profitable transit points that can shorten the path between Asia and Europe, not to mention between Asia and parts of North America.

In January 2018, the state Council of China published the first “White paper on China’s Arctic policy”, which states that Beijing is interested party in Arctic Affairs. It was noted that China intends to create,jointly with other States, the sea trade routes in the Arctic region within the framework of the “Polar Silk Road initiative”. Thus, it was decided that the Polar Silk Road will be part of the broader Chinese “Belt and Road” program, creating sea trade routes and strengthening trade relations with different countries in the region.

Due to the fact that other Trans – Eurasian sea transportations may be extremely unstable in the long term, especially in terms of security, the Chinese authorities have shown interest in the Northern, alternative sea route.

Analyzing the logistics of the existing route through the Suez canal and the Mediterranean sea, even taking into account the planned expansion, it is easy to see that it is already overloaded. Secondly, the middle East is still azone of instabilityand its infrastructure requires large financial investments.

Another potential route, through Central America – the Panama or Nicaraguan canal – is also not entirely rational in terms of reconstruction and big amount of investments. It makes sense to use it for Asian – American trade, which is also planned to be improved in terms of logistics and infrastructure.

Based on this, it can be noted that the two remaining Polar routes have begun to arouse real strategic and long-term interest on the Chinese side(see Figure 2).

The first of these routes is the American Northwest corridor (Northwest passage), first passed by water byRoald Amundsenat the beginning of the last century, but it also retains certain problems. First of all – with Canada, which believes that the Northwest Passage passes through its territorial (internal) waters. The second problem is the US position: the country’s authorities do not want to have a trade highway under the control of such strategic competitor as China.

The second alternative is the Northern sea route, which runs North of the Russian Federation (see Figure 3). Due to China’s increasing interest in developing the logistics of the Northern route, the Russian government has set a high bar for a large-scale Arctic project running along the coast of the new sea route, which is becoming more accessible to navigation as a result of climate warming and ice melting. The head of state outlined a large-scale task: to reach the level of 80 million tons per year by 2025.

In addition to the development of the construction of a new port in Russia’s Arkhangelsk (the capital of the region on the White sea is one of cities in the Far North), construction of a new port and a railway line has begun, which should connect with one of the branches of the Chinese BRI.

fig.3

Thus, it can be noted that today the Arctic opens up new prospects for trade between Europe and Asia. The North, which has huge reserves of hydrocarbons, is of interest not only to Western countries, but also to China. The use of sea routes and natural resources in the Arctic can have a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China, which is one of the world’s leaders in foreign trade and is the largest consumer of energy in the world. For example, the Northern sea route will allow China to deliver cargo to Europe by sea faster than the 48 days (that it takes on average) to travel from the Northern ports of China to Rotterdam via the Suez canal. Last year, the Russian Arcticgas tanker “Christophe de Margerie” reached South Koreafrom Norway without an icebreaker escort, and the journey took only 15 days.

Thus, the Northern sea route will allow China to deliver cargo to Europe faster by sea, reduce the route by 20 – 30%, and save on fuel and human resources. Given that 90% of Chinese goods are delivered by sea, the development of the Arctic silk road promises Beijing serious savings and profit growth .

In addition to gaining possible economic advantages, China hopes to increase its energy securitythrough Arctic trade routes. Currently, most of the fuel imported by the Asian giant crosses the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian ocean with the South China sea.

Thus, it can be traced that China is interested in Arctics Arctic natural resources. This region contains a fifth of the Earth’s natural resources. However, even if this is the case, China’s interest in Arctic underground storerooms is rather long-term and the calculation is made for the remote future. The problem is that China is still dependent on foreign technologies for offshore drilling, even in the warm seas surrounding it. Technologies for extracting natural resources in Arctic waters are much more complex, and China does not have enough sufficient experience in this area.

Also, analysing the logistics of BRI routes, it can be seen why China is getting more interested in developing alternative North corridors :

The transport routes of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” project cross the Eurasian continent in the middle, the route of the “MSR of the XXI century” project runs along the South and there is no Northern water route yet. The main value of the Arctic sea route is that the regions through which it passes are relatively calm and stable. It should be noted that the “Economic Belt” crosses many countries with high conflict and crisis potential (Central Asia, Middle East, East Europe). The “MSR of the XXI century” runs through the South China sea, South – East Asia, and the Indian ocean  – the region which has similar problems. Also in terms of infrastructure development these roads may cause certain risks, connected with big number of participants, different level of infrastructure capacities of countries and different legislative obstacles. Thus, the Northern route may act as a more stable alternative that it can become a serious incentive that will contribute to the Eurasian economic integration.

The economic component of Arctic direction of the BRI is no less important. The Chinese expert reminded that the routes through The Northwest passage and the Northern sea route would save Chinese companies time and money on their way to Western countries. Taking into account the melting of ice in the Arctic ocean, the Northern sea route can become an alternative to the main transcontinental route that runs through the southern seas of Eurasia and further to Africa via Suez canal. Thus, the passage of a cargo ship from Shanghai to Hamburg along the North sea route is 2.8 thousand miles shorter than the route through Suez canal.

The modern logistics projects such as “Arctic Silk road” and“MSR of the XXI century” connect China with other countries of South – East Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and some EU countries through sea trade routes, such as such in the Red sea. Thus, it can seen that three new transport corridors will connect Europe with the Russian Federation, Central Asia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. Analysing “MSR” logistics it becomes clear that the project is designed to connect three continents into a single transport system: Europe, Asia and Africa. It is no secret that many of these countries have a lot of political differences, but the benefits that the implementation of this large-scale project promises can make them forget about old claims to each other.

One of the long-term prospects for the development of the BRI project is the creation of free trade zones with countries participating in the initiative. The result of such multi-countries collaboration may be the emergence of a large-scale free trade zone from the North – Western provinces of China, Central Asia, to Europe and Africa. About three billion people live on the project’s path. In this case, we are talking about the “mega – market”, and, of course, about the “mega – potential”.

PhD in International Politics, Central China Normal University, Wuhan, the P.R.of China Research Associate , Ukrainian Association of Sinologists

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East Asia

Suga Faces A Tough Road Ahead Without Enough Political Juice

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image source: japan.kantei.go.jp

Authors: Alexandre Uehara and Moises de Souza

The quantity and dimensionality of problems inherited by a sober and discrete Yoshihide Suga as the first new Japanese Prime Minister in almost a decade will demand that “Uncle Reiwa,” as the statesman is known, employ the skillst hat he has so amply demonstrated in the past: the ability to negotiate and find elegant solutions to complex questions. Suga’s competence as a negotiator was recognized as an important factor behind the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which entered into force on December 30, 2018. This agreement—considered doomed to failure after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the TPP in January 2017—succeeded largely thanks to the vital leadership and tenacity of Japan, with Suga playing a key role behind the scenes. Suga also took the lead during the EU and Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement signed in 2019, considered by many as another example of outstanding negotiating performance. With such a resumé, these skills and experience proved critical in Suga’s victory in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership race, enabling him to garner support from a wide array of sources, ranging from LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to various factions within the Komeito, a partner in the coalition government.

The question now is whether his past performance can be replicated as Suga targets the current challenges that so recently have fallen into his lap. He is taking the helmata delicate moment for Japan, with uncertainties that will force him to show, domestically and abroad, what kind of leadership Japan will enjoy after a larger-than-life figure like Abe Shinzo steps down. And these challenges are coming from all quarters: the economy, public health, and regional security, just to name a few. Each of them has the potential to shape the future of the nation and the reputation of its prime minister, and certainly Yoshihide Suga is no exception. On top of that, legacy problems remain. On the one hand, the implicit promise of continuity with Shinzo Abe’s policies played a crucial role in winning the LDP the elections: on the other, this very factor is an element of concern, since opinion polls were already detecting signs of decline in the popularity of Abe’s cabinet. If Suga has any political ambition left, he cannot afford to make any mistakes in the short- and medium-term.

On the domestic front, there are two important and interrelated problems: The COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. These coterminous phenomena essentially represent a contradiction between uncertainty and reality. While few in Japan are clear about whether the current pandemic will turn into an ongoing ebb-and-flow in terms of virus contagion rates, the economic impact as a result of the response measures is already real. The profound effects have been translated into a new period of recession this year, an experience with which the Japanese a real ready very familiar, given their recent past. To make matters worse, the medicine intended to heal the wounds of economic recession was neutralized by the virus. Operating under the old adage that you have to spend money to make money, Tokyo expended over US$5 billion, with plans to spend US$2 billion more in 2020,to prepare the city to host the Olympic Games. Prospects showed that these investments would pay off. According to a report published in June 2020, it was projected that the Olympics would impact the Tokyo economy alone to the tune of almost US$190 billion, with a spill over effect on the overall Japanese economy of nearly US$300 billion and a potential impact of 0.2% of its GDP.Based on the same prospects, Japan signed an accord in 2013 with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), assuming total responsibility to bear all the costs alone in the (at that time improbable)event that the games would have to be postponed. Well, in what one might call the Forest Gump Effect, to wit: “life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get,” the games were indeed postponed. Investors, according to reporting by Bridgestone, reported losses of around US$3 billion so far as a result of the postponement. It also affected the IOC, which registered losses of more than US$800 million. For Japan’s economy, Goldman Sachs is calculating losses of about US$5.1 billion in terms of domestic consumption alone. Suga will have to find a solution for this imbroglio, which even Abe could not or did not have time to figure out.

In the international arena, Suga—like all Japanese Prime Ministers before him—will have to walk a tightrope, executing a delicate balancing act between Beijing and Washington. So far, his biggest challenge is to find his place amid the rising tensions between Japan’s two most important trading partners. On paper, the logic is simple: Tokyo has developed initiatives to strengthen its alliance with Washington concerning security, without hurting its bilateral trade with Beijing. In recent decades, the latter has become increasingly economically important to Japan. In practice, this is not an easy job for two reasons: First, the erratic temperament of Donald Trump and the tendency of his administration to play hardball even when negotiating with partners. The trade deal negotiated in 2019 stands as a case in point: Essentially, Japan walked away from the negotiating table with a commitment to give the United States access to its agricultural market in exchange for a vague promise that the Trump administration would not consider Japanese auto imports a “national security threat.” On top of that, Trump made it clear that he still wants Japan to pay for the American military bases on Japanese soil.

The second reason comes from Japan’s powerful neighbour, with an increasingly assertive China under Xi Jinping. In November 2019, after China proudly displayed its new ballistic and hypersonic cruise missile system, Taro Kono (then foreign minister and now the minister for administrative reform and regulatory reform) publicly demanded that Beijing make its military budget and strategic goals transparent, to avoid raising the level of alarm and anxiety in the region.In addition, a few weeks after taking the center seat, Suga had to deal with the presence of two Chinese ships in the disputed waters of the East China Sea—a practice that has been taking place more and more frequently since Xi became chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. It is exactly these episodes of Chinese assertiveness that motivated Yoshihide Suga to choose Vietnam and Indonesia as the destinations for his first official diplomatic trip as prime minister. As much as Abe did, Suga intends to strengthen security ties with both Southeast Asian nations. This, tempered with a degree of restraint in the use of strong anti-Chinese rhetoric, is intended as a clear signal to Beijing: the rules of the game haven’t changed, with or without the presence of Abe Shinzo.

Using the same logic, Suga did not alter the basis of Japan-Taiwan relations that developed so fruitfully on Abe’s watch. In fact, besides workingfor close relations with Taipei, Abe also developed a friendship with Taiwan’s current President Tsai Ing-wen. Suga’s decision to appoint Abe’s brother, Nobuo Kishi, as defense minister was a clear signal to China that, with regards to Taiwan, it will be business as usual in Tokyo despite the transfer of power. It a secret to no one in Japan (orin China, for that matter) that Kishi enjoys close ties with Taiwan, a place he has visited several times over the years, including meetings with President Tsai, as representative of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The last visit took place on the occasion of the funeral of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in August 2020. Such proximity makes Kishi the most trustworthy channel of communication between conservative Japanese leaders and Tsai, as well as with the Taiwanese elite itself. In response to Nobuo Kishi’s appointment, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin saidin a statement that the new minister of defense of Japan must “abide by the one-China principle and refrain from any form of official exchanges with the Taiwan region.”

Few specialists in Japan believe that Yoshihide Suga will have as long a mandate as his predecessor Abe Shinzo. Despite being technically qualified, Suga still lacks enough political juice to retain the position of prime minister beyond the general elections that must take place in one year’s time. The tide may eventually turn in favour of Suga-san, depending on how well he and his new cabinet manage the daunting challenges that they inherited from the previous administration. More than mere negotiation skills are needed, however, and there is no doubt that Suga will have to make some tough decisions that will come to define, in a large measure, his political future post-2021.

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East Asia

Nepal-China Boundary Treaty: An example of peaceful Himalayan frontiers

Birat Anupam

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image source: Chinese Embassy in Nepal

Chairman Mao: How is everything with Your Excellency? Have all the problems been solved?

King Mahendra: Everything is settled.

Chairman Mao: Fair and reasonable?

King Mahendra: Yes. We all agree.

Chairman Mao: It is good that we agree. There is goodwill on both sides. We hope that will get along well, and you hope we shall get along well too. We do not want to harm you, nor do you want to harm us.

King Mahendra: We fully understand.

Chairman Mao: We are equals; we cannot say one country is superior or inferior to the other.

King Mahendra: We very much appreciate the way of speaking.

This was a snippet of the candid conversation between founding father of People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong and Nepal’s the then king Mahendra on the historic Nepal-China Border Treaty day of 5 October 1961. A book titled ‘MAO ZEDUNG ON DIPLOMACY’ has detailed this conversation. The conversation is mentioned under the topic of ”Talk with Nepal’s king Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva and the queen’ (page 366 and 367) in the book.

This famous diplomatic book of Mao was compiled by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China and the Party Literature Research Center under the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and was published by Foreign Languages Press Beijing on 1998.

This conversation, from the verbatim records, speaks volumes about the level of trust and the height of friendship between two neighbors Nepal and China.

Nepal-China boundary: An example of speedy settlement

Nepal and China boundary settlement has reached 59 years of its signing ceremony at Beijing. It is an extraordinary example of speedy settlement. Nepal and China formally established diplomatic relationship on 1 August 1955.

Few years later on 21 March 1960, Nepal and China signed Boundary Agreement. Nepal’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Bishweshwar Prashad Koirala signed it during the official China visit. The friendly diplomatic dialogue of Koirala and Mao is also included in the book ”MAO ZEDUNG ON DIPLOMACY’ under the topic of ”The Sino-Nepal Border Must be Peaceful and Friendly Forever.”  

On 5 October 1961, Nepal and China signed Boundary Treaty at Beijing during the state visit of the then king Mahendra. The 1414-kilometer-long border treaty protocol was finally inscribed on 20 January 1963.

The adjustment was made on equal footing by land-swapping with Nepal gaining more land than it gave. According to a working paper presented at ”International Cross-Border Conference on Border Regions in Transition (BRIT)-XII Fukuoka (Japan)-Busan (South Korea) 13-16 November 2012” by Nepal’s former Director General of Survey Department and the author of the book titled ‘Boundary of Nepal’, China had given 302.75 square kilometer more land to Nepal.

The paper says, ”the adjustment was made on the basis of ‘give’ and ‘take’ and the inclusion of some pasture land within Nepalese territory. With this principle, Nepal had given 1,836.25 square kilometer of land to China and Nepal had taken 2,139.00 square kilometer, as it has been added 302.75 square kilometer of Chinese territory into Nepal.”

Nepal-China border settlement is an excellent example of speedy border settlement compared to Nepal’s southern neighbor India. Since the formal diplomatic engagement of 1955, it just took around eight years to ink full-fledged technical border adjustment between Nepal and China.

Tragically, Nepal and India are at odds over the border demarked by 204-year-old Treaty of Sugauli. The recent issue of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura and new political map of Nepal unanimously approved by lower and upper houses of the federal parliament point to the long-pending friendly border settlements between Nepal and India.

Media myths on China’s encroachment of Nepal’s territory

Nepal and India has not resolved much of their border tensions since long. Lately, there are some media reports, mainly from India, about so-called Chinese ‘encroachment’ of Nepal’s territory. There was report about missed pillar number 11. However, it came out to be untrue with the finding of the pillar.  After field inspection and technical studies, Chief District Officer of Humla district, Chiranjibi Giri, made it clear that the rumored border encroachment from China was not the fact.

Similar incident was reported few weeks ago when Nepal’s leading daily Kantipur claimed China’s encroachment of Nepal’s territory citing unverified Ministry of Agriculture, the ministry that has nothing to do with border issues. However, after formal clarification from Nepal Government, the report was found to be false and the biggest daily of the nation apologized.

There is a section in Nepal that desperately wants to draw parallel between factual Nepal-India border tensions with fictitious Nepal-China border rows. However, so far, this mission has proven wrong at times.

Nepal does not have any serious border tension with China. The only concern Nepal has it about China-India agreement to ‘boost border trade at Quiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass’ as said in the 28th point of the  joint communiqué issued by visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang on 15 May 2015.

Nepal has diplomatically protested about this agreement by two countries as Lipulekh falls in Nepali territory not only based on the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 but also the Nepal-China Boundary Treaty of 5 October 1961. Given China’s generosity and friendliness towards Nepal, it is not a big issue to address. Nepalese citizens are optimistic on China’s support on Nepal’s sovereignty over Lipulekh.

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Why doesn’t China take India seriously?

Shalabh Chopra

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India needs to formulate a long-term strategy on China, lest it be lurching from one crisis to another.

Amid rising anti-China sentiment in the aftermath of the bloody border clash with China, India has announced a slew of measures to curtail Chinese presence in the Indian economy. Building on previously imposed restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, the latest round of regulations constitute banning over 200 Chinese apps and clamping down on Chinese investments in Indian startups. These measures, while drawing applause from Western governments such as the US and helping massage the nationalistic ego, have seemingly failed to irk the Chinese administration as much as India would have intended, let alone compel the PLA to pull back from the disputed areas along the long and undemarcated Indo-China border. In previous instances as well, India’s signalling to China of allying more closely with the United States in response to China’s aggressive posture on the border has failed to yield desirable results. This begs the question: why does not China take India seriously? The answer may lie in India’s China policy which can be described as reactive at best and incoherent at worst.

India’s Policy Conundrum

Although its geopolitical rise has been significant – next only to China, India still finds itself bereft of a world order concept or a guiding foreign policy framework. The lack of which, when it comes to dealing with China, has translated into a foreign policy muddle. Mohan Malik, for instance, points out that there are three schools of thought in India’s policy-making with regards to China – pragmatism, hyperrealism, and appeasement. Pragmatists maintain that India should balance China both internally (increasing its economic and military strength w.r.t. China) and externally (by forging alliances and enhancing interstate cooperation with other powers) while mitigating differences through economic and diplomatic engagement. Hyperrealists decry pragmatists’ optimism that increased trade and economic engagement can win over a territorially unsatiated China and instead argue for an unabashed encirclement strategy towards it with other China-wary powers. Appeasers posit that China is a benign and friendly power, meaning no harm to India and that it should be enthusiastically engaged. In trying to accommodate such plethora of views in dealing with China, successive Indian governments have found themselves muddling through one approach to another.

Current Government and Policy Flip-Flops

Following the Galwan clash, India appears to be hinting at a change of tack as evinced by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s repeated assertions that realism should shape India’s China policy and that peace and tranquillity on the border cannot be separated from the overall architecture of bilateral ties. India’s slashing of Chinese presence in the Indian economy suggests a move in that direction. China’s rather staid response to India’s manoeuvres stems from a general under appreciation of Indian resolve to follow through on such a policy initiative. China’s belief in Indian irresoluteness is not without basis either. The new dispensation led by Narendra Modi started off by trying to bring the “pragmatic” element more into play in India’s dealings with China. To this end, it resorted to a two-pronged strategy of bolstering strategic ties with other regional partners alarmed by China’s newfound boldness such as Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Australia among others and spurred up defense and strategic ties with the US, while simultaneously trying to improve relations with China by enhancing bilateral trade (which was already heavily-tilted in China’s favour). However, relations nosedived with the Doklam standoff in June 2017 which lasted for over three months. Cognizant of its power differential with China, and therefore not keen on antagonizing it any further, India broached the idea of organizing an informal summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and India’s PM Narendra Modi. As the two leaders met in picturesque Wuhan, India had by then made up its mind to drop the “pragmatic” yet somewhat “confrontational” approach and decided in favour of going full throttle with appeasement vis-à-vis China. Following the summit, the Indian government scaled down its contact with the Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile and refused to back Australia’s bid to participate in the annual Malabar exercise. What exactly did India hope to achieve with such tactics is anyone’s guess as China continued to brazenly oppose India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and block India’s efforts to get Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar admitted to the UN Sanctions list – eventually relenting on the latter (courtesy of US pressure) while continuing to hyphenate India’s cause with Pakistan’s in the case of former.

A Long History of Fluctuating China Policy

As a matter of fact, the blame for such a vacillating policy cannot be squarely put at Modi’s doorsteps. Historical precedents abound where previous Indian governments too have struggled to come up with a comprehensive and coherent strategy on China. Notable examples include Jawaharlal Nehru’s flip-flops on China threat which not only cost India loss of territory but also resulted in a personal loss of face for Nehru. Some twenty-five years later, Rajiv Gandhi who showed remarkable courage in standing up to the Chinese challenge in a serious military provocation along the eastern flank of the LAC let go of the chance to articulate India’s long-term strategy vis-à-vis China and instead sought a quick return to normalcy in bilateral ties following his visit to Beijing in 1988. A decade later, AB Vajpayee, after having justified India’s nuclear tests as a response to Chinese nuclear weapons, ended up describing China as a “good neighbour” in his address at the Peking University only a couple of years later. Indeed, India’s foreign policy history is riddled with complacency on the part of successive Indian governments in dealing with its largest neighbour, and a continual cause of strategic concern.

It is clear that unless India does away with policy ad-hocism and sticks with a clear, long-term China policy,it would not be able to effect a change in China’s attitude towards itself. In this regard, Jaishankar’s recoupling of economic and trade ties with the larger border question is a welcome move, but a lot would depend on how determined India is to persevere through the demanding nature of realpolitik.

Notes:

  1. Mohan Malik’s article on three schools of thought on India’s China policy: accessible at: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a591916.pdf

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