Mind the power gap

The question is not about Chinese intentions. India must track surge in China’s economic, military capacities

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:August 2, 2017 12:05 am
doklam stand-off, india-china standoff, pla, indian forces,chinese forces, People’s Liberation Army, PLA drill, P-5 drill,Tibetan plateau, dolam plateau India no longer has the luxury of contesting Chinese strategic incursions into the Subcontinent one piece at a time.

As India settles into an extended military standoff with China in the Himalayas, it can’t afford to take its eyes off Beijing’s maritime forays in the Indian Ocean. Over the weekend in Sri Lanka, Colombo, after much internal wrangling, handed over the Hambantota port, sitting astride the sea lines of communication of the Indian Ocean, to a Chinese consortium.

Similarly in Myanmar, despite many political anxieties about economic over-dependence on Beijing, the government is reportedly close to a deal with a Chinese company for the commercial development of the Kyaukpyu island on its Bay of Bengal coast. Once Yangon signs on the dotted line, the Chinese company will start building a deep seaport, special economic zone and an industrial park. The Bay of Bengal is unlikely to be the same after that.

On the face of it, comparing the two port contracts in Lanka and Myanmar with the raw struggle for land in Bhutan seems inappropriate. While contests over territory are indeed far more serious, they tend to be contained by the costs of the military conflict and the potential loss of face for the two Asian giants from even a small military setback. In contrast, the port contracts lay the foundation for China’s long-term economic influence in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

Chinese companies are promising that the two deep sea ports will integrate Lanka and Myanmar into the global trade and production networks. The 80 per cent plus stake for the Chinese companies in the two contracts and the nature of the long-term lease — 99 years for Hambantota and 50 to 75 years for Kyaukpyu are facts that speak for themselves.

That these two contracts have been won against popular protests in both countries suggests how difficult it has become for the ruling elites in our neighbourhood to fend off Chinese demands for a big slice of their economic pie on very favourable terms. China’s political influence, so visibly demonstrated in the negotiations with Colombo and Yangon, must only be expected to rise with time.

India no longer has the luxury of contesting Chinese strategic incursions into the Subcontinent one piece at a time. While India’s army is settling down for a long haul in the Doklam plateau, its diplomats in Colombo were working overtime to get Colombo to appreciate and address India’s concerns on Hambantota. While some of India’s concerns have been addressed in Colombo, Delhi has not been a part of Myanmar’s discourse on Kyaukpyu. It should have been.

After all, India is building a small port at Sittwe not far from Kyaukpyu and is aware of the island’s significance. Kyaukpyu is all set to become the energy gateway for petroleum imports into western China through a twin oil and gas pipeline system running from the Bay of Bengal. But Delhi did not have the bandwidth to compete with China on the Kyaukpyu project worth $10 billion. Nor did other international players provide an alternative to China in Kyaukpyu.

If China keeps its word in turning Kyaukpyu into a commercial hub like Singapore and Hong Kong, Indian decision-makers are likely to spend a lot of time thinking about the island in the coming years. Especially since Beijing is bound to devote considerable naval and military energies to securing its expanded commercial interests in Kyaukpyu.

China’s multiple advances tend to reinforce the popular proposition in Delhi that China is embarked upon the “strategic encirclement” of India. But the idea is misleading. The constriction of India’s strategic space is a second-order consequence resulting from China’s rise. Beijing does not have to deliberately contain India. Beijing’s exercise of its growing comprehensive national power — economic and military — will inevitably have that effect. Put simply, the question is not about Chinese intentions, but the massive surge in its capabilities.

Four other factors add to India’s problem. China, under Xi Jinping, has brought abundant political will to match the expanded national power resources. Xi thinks the era of China deferring to other nations’ sensitivities is now over. According to Xi, it is now others’ turn to adapt to Beijing’s rise as the foremost power in Asia.

Second is the widening strategic gap between China and India. Although India has done well since 1991 and has emerged as one of the largest economies in the world, the gap with China will remain enduring for the foreseeable future. China’s current GDP is five times larger than that of India and its defence spending is four times as big. Even if India grows faster than China in the coming years, the huge gap with China will remain unbridged.

Third, India had severely underestimated the implications of China’s rise for India. Facile talk of the world being large enough for China and India masked the prospect that the changing power balance in Beijing’s favour could alter the dynamic on India’s long and disputed frontier with China. India also lulled itself into the belief that it had created sufficiently strong mechanisms to limit conflict on the border. Peace and tranquility on the Sino-Indian border were the consequence of a different set of circumstances — when China was integrating itself with the world. They may not survive the assertive phase in China’s foreign policy.

Fourth, India had taken its regional primacy for granted all these decades. China had never accepted the proposition that the Subcontinent is India’s exclusive sphere of influence. It now has the will and resources to challenge that premise on a routine basis. That leaves India scrambling to restore its economic and strategic centrality in the region.

To be sure, Delhi is now far more conscious of the existential challenges that the power gap with Beijing generates. This awareness, however, is yet to be matched by a sense of urgency across the government. Consider the following: China has been transforming the southern tip of Sri Lanka and the western seaboard of Myanmar over the last few years. But Delhi can’t seem to bestir itself into doing something with its forgotten national asset in the Bay of Bengal — the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain.

The longer Delhi takes to act vigorously on its frontier region development, military modernisation and regional economic integration, the greater will be its degree of difficulty in coping with China’s rise and future Doklams, Hambantotas, and Kyaukpyus.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi, and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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    Bert Brech
    Aug 4, 2017 at 8:06 am
    So India is turning coward and trying to run away leaving Bhutan to face the aggressive Chinese. After jumping up to save little Bhutan you leave Bhutan to its fate. THIS COWARDICE WON'T HELP INDIA. CHINA WILL ONLY BECOME MORE AGGRESSIVE.
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      Ravikumar Thiruchitrambalam
      Aug 3, 2017 at 4:44 pm
      Lots of ifs buts in the analysis! Till date China has not made a commercially viable port project anywhere and the possibilities of establishing one is very bleak in South Asia (SA) without involving India even if you combine all the SA volumes without India can't make the project viable. If China wants to make it a Naval Base, China can't do this without Myanmar/ Srilanka's permission. There are too many pressure points available with India to handle Myanmar or Srilanka if we really want them to work with India. China's over reach is going to make the Chinese debt ridden. Chinese propaganda in full swing in want of face saver! After all those big mouthing strong action against India Bhutan now China footing for almost 2 months! China will never be seen as a Dragon again but a coward running away from the challenge! No one has given China the unilateral authority to develop Africa or Asia on behalf of another smaller weaker country! Everyone must be given an option its
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        Suren Singh Sahni
        Aug 3, 2017 at 4:02 am
        Economic growth is imperative for India if it aspires to confront China on military and economic spheres.Government energy and focus on disturbing the internal equilibrium will erode confidence and congenial climate for investment.Thrust of the policies must address the goals of higher growth and the potential is their if harnessed by leadership and talent.
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        1. S
          Sengupta
          Aug 3, 2017 at 3:20 am
          China is the front for the Rothschilds. That is the Jews and China are one. India surely has a military edge over China. The situation in China is bad chopping Muslim beards, shiploads of Chinese leaving legally and illegally for the West. Chinese women working for the oldest profession in the West. Young Chinese girls marry older Jews and African-Americans for a green card.
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            Murty
            Aug 3, 2017 at 3:12 am
            The Nehru dynasty is arrogant and interested in looting country only under the name of secularism and socialism.Real improvement started only after PVN has become pm.again it lost steam under uPa it tales long time for defense and infra. Even media and writers were happy with the situation Now everyone starry talking
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              krishna
              Aug 3, 2017 at 2:35 am
              India has done brilliantly to stand up to bullying of China. This has earned the attention of all her neighbours. India Japan and USA will together check the the expansionist China. These are exciting times for Asia. All neighbours of China feel suffocated by China. It is new colonising power of 21st century. It has already colonised Pakistan to check India and is using north korea to intimidate south korea japan and usa. India has great responsibility and opporunity to stay firm and emerge like a real world power.
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                Kamal Pasha
                Aug 3, 2017 at 12:08 pm
                Krishna : Even Modi is also day dreaming like you.
                Reply
              2. K
                Kamal Pasha
                Aug 3, 2017 at 1:29 am
                SAURABH /SOMA MITRA. WISH PEOPLE THINK LIKE BOTH OF YOU. THESE COMMENTATORS DO NOT REALISE THE SITUATION IN WHICH THE COUNTRY IS BEING DRAGGED. THANKS YOU FOR UNDERSTANDING MY VIEW POINTS.
                Reply
                1. S
                  Saurabh
                  Aug 3, 2017 at 4:15 pm
                  I do understand what you say! But my main problem is with stupids who don't allow divergent points to be raised foolishly name shame w/o any reason whatsoever. I hope that you also hold your views a bit open mindedly allow differences!!...:) Not much harm in debating thinking!!..Only in silencing
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                  annalyser2017
                  Aug 2, 2017 at 10:21 pm
                  Very effective eye opener article, It is on record that in 1980 India and China were in equal footing, they recognize the factual rising factor to keep the low tone and fast smoothly growth on all fields. Although very late but the same advise were also giving and adopted the neighbor Pakistan. At present the China was rised more than five times in every fields from India, The Indian economy was also rised few years fast up to 2015 but now it is also going down, From last 4 quarters it is continuously falling GDP from 9.2 to 6.1 so rising is not in smooth. Only desire for betterment can not solve the problem, The peace full extra ordinary works/ action are required to stand equal in this region. As per the rising trend of China, in next decade their economy and several other sections will be on the top of the world. It is the challenge how can be meet with it.
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