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How 'Act East' Can Be India's Key To Managing China

26/05/2015 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, is welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to their meeting in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Modi is visiting China this week to build friendship between the two Asian giants despite a long history of disputes and rivalries, along with some areas of cooperation, especially in the economic sphere. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent visit to China was high on specifics and low on rhetoric.

With a slew of 21 business agreements worth more than $22 billion signed, Modi seems to have taken the advice of foreign policy experts to base Sino-India bilateral relation on a more pragmatic standing.

Rather than resorting to syrupy Hindi-Chini bhai bhai sentiments, Modi has made it clear that China should be treated more as a "partner" in India's long road to development especially in infrastructure.

No wonder then the visit saw significant government-to-government pacts in railways, mining and minerals, establishing sister city relations etc. Modi even announced an electronic visa on arrival for Chinese visitors.

However, the visit still remains short of being a "watershed" of any kind in Indo-China relations because no significant step was taken regarding the boundary issues between the two countries.

Although there were talks of setting up a hotline between the military headquarters of the two countries, the Chinese side remained largely silent on Modi's suggestion that China "reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership".

Nor was there any response to the Indian PM's proposal for clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or on the stapled visa policy to people from Arunachal Pradesh (which China refers to as South Tibet).

These are important issues and India needs to find a way to get the Chinese to engage in a resolution.

"[The] Act East policy... is drawing India closer to not only Japan and Australia in the Pacific but also to smaller Southeast Asian nations most of who have contending territorial claims with China (like Vietnam)."

For now India doesn't have the economic or military might to counter China. However what it has is its geopolitical importance in Asia, which both the US and China are trying to leverage. India should use this to straighten its relationship with China.

As Beijing further reasserts its military might and activities in the South and East China Sea, the US is helping its allies and partners to realign themselves militarily. There is a fast growing defence network in the region comprising China's adversaries whose strategy seems to be isolating Beijing.

Japan which reinterpreted its Pacifist constitution last year is now all set to assert its right to "collective self-defence". This means Japan could provide military aid to its allies like the US in a war-like situation.

A significant step forward is the revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation. The revision incorporates cooperation including defence against ballistic missiles and maritime security. For Japan it underscores Washington's reassurances that it will stand by Tokyo in case of a military confrontation with China.

Tokyo has gone a step further by enhancing its strategic cooperation with Australia. Japan will now operationally aid Australia especially in case of any attack on Australian vessels while operating for US military in South China Sea.

According to reports, the US might expand its current training exercises in Southeast Asia which will include multilateral military exercises in the region. For instance, bilateral naval exercises conducted by the US Navy such as the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) will now involve multiple countries in Southeast and South Asia including Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Timor-Leste.

Now this coincides with India's reinvigorated focus on its "Act East" policy. It is drawing India closer to not only Japan and Australia in the Pacific but also to smaller Southeast Asian nations most of who have contending territorial claims with China (like Vietnam).

"Beijing will find a convergence in India's need for investment to accentuate its growth with its own interest to have greater influence in New Delhi (or steer India away from any anti China brigade) by extending economic aid."

Last year India and Vietnam vowed to strengthen their defence cooperation. At an address during the Third Roundtable on ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh stated, "...future development and integration of ASEAN and India largely lies in East Sea (the South China Sea) and the Indian Ocean."

India additionally stated that while it is not a direct claimant in the South China Sea dispute, it has an interest in ensuring free right of navigation in the region.

This statement came much to the discomfort of China which apprehends that on the pretext of freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, India might get drawn to the brigade against China led by the US and its allies -- Japan and Australia.

Affirming this fear is the enthusiasm of the US in "welcoming" India to the Asia-Pacific region.

The US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who will be visiting India in June, has also been emphasising the need for re-posturing of US rebalancing to Asia from "existing partnerships in Northeast Asia" to "new bilateral and multilateral collaboration in Southeast Asia and elsewhere."

That India could be a potential element in this collaboration is hinted at a recent statement of the defence official. He said there is a greater "convergence" in US-India interests particularly in rebalance to Asia and India's Act East policy. He further added India and the US now have a "very robust architecture" for East Asia.

China is obviously suspicious of this. An apprehension further corroborated by the number of joint statements India has been releasing on Asia-Pacific with the US.

"India should hold on to its Act East policy to deepen ties with countries in China's periphery. This will be the first step towards getting Beijing to be watchful of its own activities in India's neighbourhood."

The usual strategy of China to counter contending influences is to use its economic weight to turn the tide in its favour. That's exactly the purpose its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) served as it lined up staunch US allies like Australia and South Korea towards espousing the AIIB.

In response to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership it has also come up with competing free trade agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that includes ASEAN members apart from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. President Xi Jinping's pet project -- the Silk Road Economic Belt -- serves the same motive of getting countries into the Chinese economic fold.

Beijing will find a convergence in India's need for investment to accentuate its growth with its own interest to have greater influence in New Delhi (or steer India away from any anti China brigade) by extending economic aid.

Beijing has already expressed its desire to get India on board its "belt and road" initiative. Beijing will further look at India playing a greater role in its AIIB.

President Xi even proposed that areas of common interest could be found in India's "Act East" policy and the belt and road initiative. He stated that the two countries could deepen involvement on the belt and road, within the framework of AIIB.

Chinese opinion even suggest collaborating in infrastructure and joint ventures by the two countries in Africa, Latin America and the West Asia.

Quite evidently Beijing's insistence about common points of convergence between the two countries is to spare China of any friction with India in its Act East policy. This is perhaps a point India should leverage. China is working with Pakistan to construct a Sino-Pakistan Economic Corridor across the Karakoram ranges into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and connecting with the Arabian Sea at Gwadar.

New Delhi -- while being mindful of not looking too close to America's rebalance strategy -- should use its partnership forged as a result of Act East policy to get Beijing to commit that none of its relationships in India's neighbourhood will have an adverse affect on the country. This is exactly what China would expect from India while it operates in Southeast Asia.

Additionally the hope is that with Chinese companies investing in India, there might be business pressure on Beijing to be more mindful of infrastructure projects in territories sensitive to India, such as Arunachal Pradesh.

While it will take a while for the two countries to resolve their decades old boundary issues, India should hold on to its Act East policy to deepen ties with countries in China's periphery. This will be the first step towards getting Beijing to be watchful of its own activities in India's neighbourhood.

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