China’s new Constellation in Asia-Pacific: India’s Bind
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Issue Vol. 34.2 Apr-Jun 2019 | Date : 10 Aug , 2019

“Whatever needs to be maintained through force is doomed” — Henry Miller

China’s Quest

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) identifies its primary interest with the perpetuation of the governance of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Continuation of the citizen’s acceptability is, therefore, the most salient concern for the CPC regime, which, unlike the bygone days of peasant revolutions, cannot be any easy goal to achieve in the ‘information’ world of today. This concern, inter alia, is considered by the Chinese leadership to be best addressed by the PRC securing its ‘rightful status as a global super-power’, the road to which is sought to be found through establishment of China’s global economic centrality, ‘consolidation’ of absolute control over its peripheral territories, achievement of regional political-military hegemony and affirmation of its superior status through ‘recovery’ of self-proclaimed ‘lost territories’.

A Sino-Centric Constellation

Obviously, to proceed with all such endeavours, the CPC has no option but to keep up the momentum of rapid economic development. And since that momentum cannot be sustained just by its domestic resources alone, other regional entities around must be suitably aligned and structured to serve that purpose – preferably willingly and peacefully – while themselves benefiting from the trickle-down profits coming their way. Thus shapes up the Chinese vision of a new political-economic ‘constellation’ of regional states made up of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and its string-tied satellites.

In securing that vision, the ruling regime in the PRC banks upon two ‘foundations’ and a supported ‘structure’ to deliver. Thus the Indo-Pacific oceanic waters and the Asia-Pacific terrestrial expanse are the two foundations over which the structure of its twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and One Belt One Road (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stand propped-up. It is in this context that this paper proposes to discuss the open and latent aspects of the PRC’s oceanic and terrestrial postures and its BRI undertakings.

China’s Indo-Pacific Oceanic Posture

All of the PRC’s geo-political articulations are meant to fulfill the fore-stated Party-State objectives. In the oceanic context, that mandate has driven the Chinese regime to adopt such extraordinary postures such as staking claim over the entire spread of the China Seas and by implication the bulk of its natural resources on the one hand, and extending its commercial and military reach starting from the Western Pacific and far into the Indian Ocean and African East Coast, on the other. In that matrix, the Indian Oceanic lanes of communications are the PRC’s natural access to sources of energy as well as commercial outreach to West Asian, African and European markets. These sea lanes are therefore the lifelines of China’s rise.

The BRI is China’s structural lifeline; a massive, $60-billion multi-national infrastructural construction scheme…

That dependency has rendered the PRC’s stakes over security of the Malacca Strait, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea lanes high enough for it to scout for military footprints all across the Indo-Pacific waters. To that purpose, access to naval facilities across the entire arc of the Indian Ocean littorals beginning from the Australian neighbourhood islands to Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Djibouti and Pakistan are sought to be secured through offers of economic and political enticement which are hard to refuse. Complementing the domination over the far-off Indian Ocean waters, the PRC’s objective of establishing hegemonic impositions closer home in the Western Pacific, is apparent by its universally worrisome muscular acts in the China Seas. That objective drives the PRC to declare its ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ over the East China Sea and in the South China Sea to usurp disputed islands, engineer natural rocks to build quasi-military facilities and deploy its militia of ‘boat-men’ backed up by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy to assert its so-called ‘historical claims across the nine dash line’.

In fact, given the CPC’s obsession with perpetuation of the regime’s rule and time-bound rise to global power status, it leaves itself with little scope for adoption of more accommodative and equitable course of action. The fundamental question here is as to why is the CPC intent on projecting hard naval power to ‘secure’ such international waters which in any case, have always been peaceful and free for all to navigate. What ‘threat’ does the CPC perceive in these waters? Why would any nation threaten Chinese shipping or resource mining in these waters unless these activities turn menacing to the rest?

China’s Asia-Pacific Terrestrial Posture

Not content with finding oceanic stepping stones for naval power projection, the PRC is intent on developing extensive overland transportation ‘belts’ for inflow of energy directly from the Arabian Sea-Makran Coast and outflow of commerce from its mainland to Central and West Asia, eventually reaching the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The BRI and its key projects of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) are but the constituent elements of that recourse in which the salience of overland connectivity is reflected by the PRC going full throttle in fielding its full economic and political power to push through the BRI Scheme that must tame a technically, socially, strategically and politically formidable Trans-Himalayan terra firma. Even the Scheme’s doubtful matrix of investments versus returns has not dampened that intent. Admittedly though, these are but legitimate recourses for any sovereign state to undertake.

However, in tune with its hegemonic, military power-centric ideology and complementary to its oceanic militarisation, considerable deployment of the PLA formations astride the alignment of the BRI leaves little doubt regarding the ominous possibilities of the CPC pushing through its economic and by implication, political agenda with the backing of military power.

BRI: A Sino-Centric Economic Posture

The BRI is China’s structural lifeline; a massive, $60-billion multi-national infrastructural construction scheme which has to contend with humungous functional challenges in terms of organisation, terrain, local politics, stakeholders’ aspirations, investment, expenditure management and security. Obviously, a scheme of such significant stakes is bound to generate, alongside hope, fears of uncontrollable fallouts too. Presently, CPEC is a more scrutinised project of the BRI to attract doubtful comments about its economic viability as well as its long-term negative political impact over the region, if not globally.

The scheme’s fiscal and technical structures, as designed by Chinese companies, all of them state-controlled in some manner or the other, have raised adverse concerns among the host nations…

The point is that just as a multi-national scheme of such massive resource commitments from the PRC and corresponding huge expectations of the host nations cannot be allowed to fail, neither can it be isolated from its political upshots. Therefore, to get the best out of this scheme for itself as well as the partner nations in terms of investments, marketing, returns and accommodation of contrasting interests according to the internal laws and priorities of partner nations, all in bilateral as well as multi-lateral domain, the PRC, as the prime mover, is intent on designating itself to the role of a benign helmsman, a coordinator and a principal arbitrator on matters of ubiquitous inter-state contentions – a ‘principal’ to be precise.

On the other hand, the scheme being so Sino-centric, it would be foolish to disregard the partner nations’ concerns of trade imbalances, opaque and inflated project-end costs, entrapment into debt traps and employment issues. The scheme’s partners are also worried about their future domestic capacity building as against outsourced works that are mostly reserved for Chinese firms to execute, imports of construction material, plants and machinery from the Chinese industry and deployment of Chinese manpower. Further, as commerce picks up, there are concerns of adverse trade balance caused by the host nation’s export of raw materials against import of finished goods from China. Above all, there is wariness of the PRC’s imposition of loaded conditions in terms of high rates of interest, assumption of executive control over infrastructural facilities, takeover of estates on long lease, claims for policy exemptions and rule waivers in the host countries.

The scheme’s fiscal and technical structures, as designed by Chinese companies, all of them state-controlled in some manner or the other, have raised adverse concerns among the host nations. The worrisome cases of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Myanmar and Nepal remain simmering now and then, while those of African partners, Djibouti, Pakistan, possibly the Central Asian Republics, and Afghanistan might manifest in the coming years. Then there are the security threats emanating from separatist Uyghur militants and Pakistan-based Islamist terrorists and tribal dons, with which the host countries have to deal with. Due to such concerns, nearly half of the BRI projects remain stalled.

As history tells, coalescence of a kind of inequitable, promoter-centric constellations are liable sooner or later to lose the participants’ enthusiasm. Indeed, these have ever been the source of future disquiet, even trouble. Similar multi-national economic ‘partnerships’ forged in the past by the Western Powers – the Suez Canal, Middle East oil and resourcing from Africa, for example, have taken less than a hundred years to trigger massive upheavals, rather bloody ones. It is banal, therefore, to hope for any unequal multi-national partnerships which focus at serving the principal’s interests, to remain ever profitable and happy. If the Han propensity of mistreating the neighbourhood population – ‘barbarians’ in their reckoning – is also factored in, China’s great projects in foreign lands could be a source of grave instability from which no country may be left unscathed. In this instance, PRC’s claims of enticing prospects from the BRI further sow the seeds for future consternation.

A point to note in this context is that the CPC considers a latent, and when necessary, active backing of military power as but intrinsic to all its economic and political endeavours. The implications are apparent. For its principal, the PRC, humungous investments on BRI-CPEC would offer full advantages only when the scheme’s tenuous economic profitability is reinforced with gains of political influence and military reach across the entire region – Tibet-Xinjiang, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia as well as beyond into the Arabian Sea and West Asia. To be more specific from India’s viewpoint, that reach, combined with BRI-CPEC enabled domination of the Indo-Tibet-Ladakh-Kashmir Border and its encroached areas, would allow China to ‘contain’ India’s rise, her unilaterally annotated ‘detractor’ with which, for all her greatness, she feels insecure.

Paranoiac or Hegemonic Concoction?

The kind of fore-stated endeavours might make eminent sense to a claimant power whose rise is contingent upon the economic well-being of its own people. In the normal course of events, mutual accommodation and cooperative, trustworthy understanding among the participant nations could be expected to manage most of the divergent economic and political aspirations associated with the ‘Chinese Dream’ albeit with some hiccups now and then. In this instance, however, advantageous prospects of China’s rise stand vitiated by the PRC’s arbitrary and innately assertive, military power-backed impositions against a usually peaceful and stable regional order – according to the principal’s persistent, arbitrary self-centric designs. Relentless take-over of the South China Sea and islands against all possible opposition, short of serious armed conflict from its hapless stakeholders, is a case in point.

The comity of Asian nations would disregard these trends at the cost of their future discomfiture…

The PRC’s company of dubious accomplishes further exacerbate the concerns regarding its rise. Its ‘deep-and-high friendship’ with the habitually intransigent and terrorist exporting regimes of Pakistan, an irresponsible North Korean regime and the trio’s conjoined acts of nuclear proliferation remain a matter of universal dismay. Furthermore, PRC’s rejection of established international norms and interests is starkly evident by its disregard of nuclear non-proliferation, disdain of human rights, perpetration of cyber intrusions, violation of intellectual property rights, and rejection of international adjudication. On this account too, it might not be unusual if China’s down-the-throat push of the BRI schemes cause concerns among all involved, and even those who are not.

Coming to the military angle, it is clear that the PLA’s deployment in the Xinjiang-Tibet Regions, and inter alia astride the traverse of the BRI-CPEC, is disproportionately excessive. Indeed, the disproportion is stark when viewed in light of the fact that none of its neighbouring countries can even think of instigating military provocation against the PRC, let alone attempt any aggression. Even Russia, a power to reckon with, is not in a position, neither has it any reason to do so in the foreseeable future. China’s military build-up, particularly the massive build-up of logistic infrastructure in her Western territories where any military challenge to her power supremacy is absolutely non-existent, therefore raises the question – Why?

The moot point to reiterate here is that as to what makes China so apprehensive of disruption of her lines of communications and commercial transportation over areas which actually have remained ever tranquil and open to all for legitimate approach? Does the PRC anticipate any military confrontation from its neighbourhood in reaction to what it might do or demand of them, of course – as indeed it has shown to be capable of in the China Seas? The comity of Asian nations would disregard these trends at the cost of their future discomfiture.

Contending Prospects of the Chinese Dream

Needless to state, prevalence of a favourable dispensation of peace and stability in the region would be a pre-requisite for effective realisation of the Chinese Dream. In fulfillment of that pre-requisite, the far-looking community of the PRC regime has already raised its level of its soft engagements with not just the Asian nations, but even in the Middle East and Africa. Assumption of low-key conflict moderating roles in Sudan, Iran, Syria and closer home in the Central Asian Republics (CAR), Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan, are manifestation of that effort. In that process, the PRC has tried to consolidate its status as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), a founder member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and several other such multi-lateral and multi-faceted groupings.

Conversely, when it comes to the articulation of its expansionist ideology at the cost of other nations, the same ruling community of the PRC remains unmoved from its overbearing, assertive and muscular policies. The CPC is just not prepared to consider, leave alone accommodate the ground realities as well as the targeted party’s rejection of its arbitrary territorial claims. Indeed, had it not been coming from a powerful nation, whosoever could, in right mind, view China’s outlandish assertions regarding Sinic possession of the South China Sea, Arunachal Pradesh or Tibet as anything but a pipedream? It is equally true that there could well be situations when the CPC’s ‘patience’ against the ‘intransigent’ nations runs out as its irresistible Sinic ideology fails to find the intended fruition. With its deep-rooted tradition of packaging political dictates with military backing, the PLA’s intervention, appropriately graded to the ‘necessary’ level, could therefore be expected in the long run. The PLA is already well on its way to gear up for such responsibilities.

A far-sighted policy could then rid China of its inveterate animosity towards India…

China’s India Bind

The course of the above discussion brings up the question as to how might China’s Asia-Pacific scheme influence India’s own goal of finding prosperity in a peaceful environment. The answer to this query must begin with the fact that the Chinese Dream – all aspects of it, great power status, regional leadership, domestic stability and economic rise, cannot remain independent of India’s geographic centrality in the Asia-Pacific and her growing economic status. Ignoring it would not absolve the PRC and India’s other neighbours from opportunities that would be lost on account of any kind of obduracy against that reality.

By its own right, India is an economic powerhouse and a rapidly emerging contributor to the well-being of global commerce. Obviously therefore, full potentials of the China Dream in general and the BRI Scheme, in particular, cannot be realised without India’s political and economic participation. Indeed, there is little doubt that India’s considered and calibrated participation in the BRI Scheme could have been beneficial to India, and the rest of the participants, with China benefitting the most. The Chinese know this, but there are problems un-retractable. Only the PRC, the larger power and the sole initiator and perpetrator of Sino-Indian disputes, can resolve those problems; that leverage is not in hands of the hapless Indians. The CPC’s political culture, however, prohibits that kind of accommodation, definitely so with India, even if it must beat the cost of BRI’s optimal fruition. In China’s reckoning, pinning down India seems to take priority over full-flowering of the BRI Scheme!

India’s first, well articulated problem is that by traversing across the Indian territory of Gilgit-Baltistan (Northern Areas) and Western Kashmir that are presently under illegal occupation of Pakistan, the CPEC part of the BRI violates Indian sovereignty and territorial integrity. In reiteration of the PRC’s hypocritical application of double-faced policies elsewhere, the CPEC’s traverse offers a fig leaf of legitimacy to Pakistan’s, and now China’s, presence in that part of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). More or less, it also concedes to Pakistan a practically permanent occupation over a territory that she had assumed control over through military aggression.

The second, not so well articulated but equally disconcerting problem is that consolidation of Pakistan’s occupation of the North-Western Kashmir leads to barricading, in virtual permanency, India from her age-old economic, social and political connectivity with Central and West Asian States. Adverse political and commercial implications of that artificial barricade erected by an ever hostile neighbour are beyond measure. In a hypothetical instance of China assuaging to bring around India’s participation, even if selective, in the BRI Scheme, there arises a third problem. By her own rights and capacities, India has to be a key partner as proportionate to her involvement in the Scheme, not as a servile beneficiary as most other partners are expected to be. Given her superior, condescending afflictions, China, might not be able to reconcile with such an equation with India.

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A fourth problem oozes out of Pakistan’s terrorist innards. Besides exploiting the CPEC infrastructure and the shield of Chinese presence to bolster terrorism in India, Pakistan is liable to blame India for the inevitable terror attacks against Chinese personnel and assets in Pakistan and her occupied areas. That could find China another cause for one-to-one as well as mutually coordinated confrontation with India. As the sole initiator and relentless perpetuator of revisionist claims, only China can change the situation for the better. Indeed, there are many prudent ways for China to do so, but that matter does not call for a discussion at this stage.

Congruence for Peace and Prosperity

Indeed, there could be prospects benign from the Chinese Dream should the CPC manage to control its hegemonic instincts and overcome its hallucinations of trouble-making from India, Tibet and the Indo-Pacific nations. But such benign prospects would have been better served had the Chinese regime, rather than committing to elevate itself from being the region’s helmsman and principal to the status of a hegemon and employing rogue regimes as its proxy handymen in that attempt, had adopted a farsighted stance founded upon the ideals of Panchsheel. Presently, the PRC has, rather astoundingly, turned upside down the true meaning of that ideal to ignore universal condemnation of its usurpation of the neighbours’ territories and domestic violation of human rights! Peace and prosperity calls for a sublime review of that kind of fixated unilateralism.

A far-sighted policy could then rid China of its inveterate animosity towards India, open up its options of assuaging its neighbour’s sovereign concerns and seek the latter’s cooperation in making ‘China’s Rise’ a grand success.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee

former Commandant Officers Training Academy, Chennai.

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