DURING the Cold War era, India was in the Soviet camp; and after the disintegration of Soviet Union bonhomie between the US and India started. India has been trying to convince the US and the West that it can be a countervailing force against China in the region. But there is a perception that even now China is more concerned with economic growth rather than show of military power. Its economic consideration will prevail and produce a lasting solution across the Taiwan Strait as well. With that purpose in mind, China’s efforts to resolve its disputes and normalize its relations with India reflects the policy of securing its borders with a view to placing its focus on nation building process. On the other hand, smaller nations of the South Asia region feel threatened due to India’s hegemonic designs, and bigger countries remain wary of India’s dubious demeanor.
This behavior tends to create fear and uncertainty in the region. For instance, India had refused to attend SAARC Summit 2016 and pressurized Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan to follow suit. Such a move appears to be counter-productive to India’s ambition for regional leadership since a true leader cultivates harmony, not disparity and chaos. The pretext of developing nuclear submarine by India for countervailing the Chinese prowling of the Indian Ocean as a security measure is farce, as China cannot afford any instability in the Indian Ocean due to economic interests being paramount for China. However, China is trying to counter Indian hegemonic designs by helping Nepal, Sri Lanka and others. India, therefore, is seeking to deepen bonds with its eastern neighbours in view of China’s growing influence in the region. On India’s Republic Day, India had invited leaders of south-East Asian Nations (Asean) to showcase its military strength.
The leaders of Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia were also invited by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to commemorate the 25th anniversary of India-Asean ties. With competing territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region, Narendra Modi speaking at he plenary session of India-Asean summit said India favoured a “rules-based order for the oceans and seas” and respect for International law. “India does not want an Asia that is dominated by China,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at Brookings India, a think-tank. “And a big part of where that will be determined is Southeast Asia.” The idea of an “Indo-Pacific” region with India playing a more active strategic role had also been endorsed by Japan, Australia, and US President Donald Trump, who spoke of a “new chapter for the Indo-Pacific” at a Pacific Rim summit held in Manila in November 2017.
New Delhi’s hesitant engagement with Asean over the past 25 years was visible, as bilateral trade was just $58bn in 2015, substantially less than Asean’s trade with either Hong Kong or Taiwan. In contrast, Asean is bound to China by vast networks of integrated supply chains, with bilateral trade forecast to reach $1tn in 2020. Furthermore, India hasn’t the financial depth to match China’s vast credit lines for infrastructure funding, or underwriting bonds. This is obvious from the fact that a trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand, first agreed 15 years ago remains unrealized. Yet the US wants to see Indo-Pacific strong relations. The US policy known as ‘pivot’ to Asia was unfolded in 2013 according to which 60 percent of the navy’s fleet would be deployed to the Pacific by 2020. Singapore would house four new US Littoral Combat Ships designed to fight close to shorelines.
Indonesia wanted to buy a range of American hardware and take part in joint maneuvers. The Philippines wanted to host more US troops and Australia had agreed to allow up to 2,500 Marine Corps soldiers to deploy to the northern city of Darwin. That had caused hard-liners within the Chinese establishment to view such an action as a strategy of regional containment or encirclement. After withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the US and its allies had started focusing on Asia-Pacific to counter China’s rising influence. However, the main irritant to US was Pak-China Partnership, which under the CPEC assumed much importance. Anyhow, America has been pursuing the policy of containing China, but despite its ruses and manipulations, China has excellent relations with the countries of Asia, Africa and South America. Despite some bickering and debating, the relations between the US and China had markedly improved after boost in their economic ties.
China owns an estimated $1.22 trillion in US Treasuries till the end of 2017, and is the number-one investor among foreign governments. That’s 19 percent of the $6.3 trillion in Treasury bills, notes, and bonds held by foreign countries. The rest of the $20 trillion national debt is owned by either the American people or by the U.S. government itself. In this backdrop, China is benefactor of the US; therefore, the US is not likely rock the boat because it would be the loser in the long run. However, it would continue to keep the pressure on China. As regards bilateral trade, Asean has been China’s third-largest trading partner for six years. Bilateral trade volume had increased from $7.9 billion in 1991 to $452.2 billion in 2016, an almost 60-fold increase. Vietnam and Malaysia contribute most to the expansion of the Asean-China trade, accounting for almost 40% of total trade in 2016. For Asean, Japan is the third largest trading partner after China and the US and Asean is Japan’s second largest trading partner following China.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.