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India should tie up with China beyond BRI

India, unwilling to alarm China, has rejected the militarisation of Quad. It is another matter that the US wants India to go beyond being a net security provider against non-traditional threats in the Indian Ocean. The US objective was joint combat naval patrols with the Indian Navy. But not naming China publicly will make Quad a mere talking shop.

NOV 06, 2019

IndiaChinaUSSecurity ProviderQuadIndian OceanTalking ShopIndian NavyPatrolsCombat


Pravin Sawhney
Strategic affairs expert

As part of the ninth Beijing Xiangshan Forum held recently in China, I participated in a round table on how to promote peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. The discussion was about two competing security architectures: the Asia-Pacific architecture, which is China-inspired, and the US-led Indo-Pacific architecture. India, unfortunately, has not positioned itself well with either narrative. 

The roadmap and means to accomplish the Chinese architecture are enshrined in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which offers prosperity to the nations joining it. China has offered to build roads, ports, highways by funding from the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) where China has the maximum stakes. Moreover, as part of the Digital Silk Road which was incorporated in the BRI in 2015, China would propel developing nations to the digital age. Given this, China has, in south Asian nations, started laying submarine cables, fibre optics cables, internet infrastructure for Huawei 5G, with the promise of sharing its satellite navigation system Beidou by 2020. This is not all. Since China is competing with the US in the fourth industrial revolution of artificial intelligence (AI), its gains on the commercial side too would be made available to these nations.

What does China get in return? Two things. One, China will get to expand its information space by accumulating lots of data from digitisation of these nations for e-commerce. In AI-backed commerce, data advantage would minimise outside competition for Chinese industries for better trade with these nations. 

And two, since prosperity and security of a nation are indivisible, China has offered cooperative security to these nations. So, there would be more military-to-military cooperation between the PLA and these nations' militaries. It is not difficult to extrapolate things a decade hence. The two militaries would likely have exercised together; with Chinese arms sales to them, there would be interoperability (ability to fight together) to secure joint assets on land and exclusive economic zones of these nations. This would lead to the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy assets with consent of nations concerned coming to that country’s ports and harbours.

All this is real. With India (and Bhutan) not having joined the BRI, it would not be an encirclement of India by China. It would instead be India's strategic irrelevance in its own neighbourhood. Worse, military threats to India would increase exponentially. 

Let's consider the US led Indo-Pacific narrative. This, unfortunately, is still a concept without roadmap and means to fulfil it. It came late in the day, on May 30, 2018, when the US announced the change of name of its Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific command. This was done after the Trump administration suddenly withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on which the Obama administration had worked for six years. The TPP had two clearly defined components — military (called rebalancing) and development. Japan, a US ally and member of the TPP, was unhappy with the Trump administration's hasty move. 

When President Trump visited Japan in May 2017, he had two disagreements with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Indo-Pacific concept. Japan wanted the Indo-Pacific concept to include Eurasia and Africa. The Americans were unwilling to go beyond the Indian Ocean. 

The second problem was that Abe was not very enthused with the concept of Quad — the short form for quadrilateral interaction between four democracies: India, US, Japan and Australia. He felt that Quad could over time become the militarised nucleus of Indo-Pacific since the US idea of defence is based upon deterrence: own military power with support from allies and strategic partners (including India) in the region. Unwilling to displease China, Abe wanted focus on development and infrastructure building to compete with the BRI. 

India, too, unwilling to alarm China, has rejected the militarisation of Quad. It is another matter that the US wants India to go beyond being a net security provider against non-traditional threats in the Indian Ocean region. In August 2015, the then US Pacific Command chief, Admiral Harry Harris, had told me that the US objective was to do joint combat naval patrols with the Indian Navy. However, with all partners unwilling to publicly state the enemy — China — Quad would remain a political talking shop without fangs. 

Meanwhile, China, by its carrot and stick policy with ASEAN, had won the South China Sea by 2017 from the US without firing a shot. The plan was set to move beyond the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean region. China was now looking at the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, with India’s Andaman and Nicobar command appearing vulnerable. On the western side were the Pacific nations which in any case, with their Look North policy were quite happy to join the Belt and Road in some way with the Chinese.

In 2017, China set up its first military base, calling it logistics support base, in Djibouti. By this time, in 10 years 2008-18, the Chinese had already tested the endurance of the long vessels across the entire Indian Ocean region; and their crews were conversant with the sea lanes of communication. Interestingly, China's 21st maritime Silk Road is part of the BRI and it runs along the sides of the traditional sea lanes of communications. 

Against this backdrop, Abe visited China in October 2018 and met with its top leadership. Short of signing the BRI, Abe agreed to work with China on development projects in third countries. Case in point being the development of smart city in Thailand. Abe realised that the BRI had progressed much in comparison with the Indo-Pacific narrative. Moreover, Russia was backing the BRI wholeheartedly. Despite its military alliance with the US, Japan wanted to be on the winning side of the security architecture which would impact heavily on the geopolitics, geo-economic and geo-strategy of the entire Asia-Pacific rim. 

India, with higher geopolitical and security stakes than Japan, should consider Abe’s model of partnership with China. A possibility outside the BRI exists in the China-India-Plus mechanism. A key outcome of the Wuhan summit, President Xi Jinping reportedly mentioned this at the recent Chennai Connect. Instead of competing with China which gives the Modi government more domestic acceptability, the need is for realpolitik by cooperation with China.


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