Shifting Power Dynamics In Asia

Dr. Narad Bharadwaj


The recent announcement of Indo-American strategic partnership reveals that Asia is set to occupy a prominent place in shifting schemata of global security paradigm.  It proves that Asia is fast changing into a keenly contested area for global economic and military powers eager to tap the fast growing economic potentials and strategic advantages of this region.

  Viewing from a broad perspective, one notices three major areas which are developing as major flash points in the rivalry among global superpowers. The most volatile hotspots in the Asian power dynamics are Korean Peninsula and South China Sea. With formalisation of US-Indian strategic partnership the whole stretch of the Himalayan region spanning from Jammu-Kashmir in the west to Arunachal in the east have acquired a high strategic sensitivity.  India, China, Pakistan, North Korea, Japan and Russia are likely to emerge as major players in the unfolding conflict dynamics of this region.

After a long hesitation and indecision, India has thrown herself into the embrace of the United States triggering a shift in the strategic alignment of forces.  Although a few analysts prefer to define India’s tilt to the United States as her ‘straightening for achieving strategic balance’, her thinly veiled objective of emerging as a countervailing power against China has hardly gone unnoticed.

 Today, quite a few defence experts and scholars feel that India has made a serious strategic mistake by seeking alliance with the US to obtain deterrence capability against China and Pakistan.  At a time when the gravity of strategic global power is shifting towards Asia, India’s decision to drift away to American camp may precipitate unforeseen turn of events in the unfolding Asian drama.

Commentators and analysts share the view that India would have gained a lot in both economic and strategic point of view if she had taken initiative towards collaboration with China. As the largest economies of Asia both the countries would have stood to benefit if they had chosen the path of collaboration and engagement.

By accepting  USA’s  tutelage,  India has given a clear message to China  that  she is not  inclined  to  support  China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has been unveiled  by President  Xi Jinping as  a dream project of the 21st Century  to trigger prosperity and connectivity in the vast stretches of   Asia, Africa and Europe covering more than 65 countries.

India has been trying to counter China’s belt and Road Initiative with her ill-defined and fuzzy ‘act east’ policy. However, her outreach to South East Asia leaving a community of disgruntled neighbourhood eager to collaborate with China’s BRI is not likely to give it any significant leverage in her pursuit of any new strategic alliance.

 India is fuming about China’s increasing success in winning friendship among neighbouring countries and expanding beneficial cooperation with them.  China has adopted a policy of promoting globalisation through the expansion of connectivity, building infrastructures and supporting economic growth of countries accepting partnership in BRI. India, on the other hand, has taken the policy of restricting flow of goods and services from neighbouring countries and is contriving to change them into her exclusive markets submerging them in an unfavourable balance of trade.

 India has been losing her opportunity by harbouring bitter feelings instead of showing readiness to look forward and seek new space for mutual adjustment. She appears to have been suffering from the complex of settling scores for her perceived injustice by acquiring more power instead of reconciliation through dialogue.

As India dithers, Pakistan has taken advantage of massive economic collaboration with China. The Karakoram Highway, the Gilgit-Baltistan economic corridor and port expansion project have brought unimagined economic and strategic opportunities for that country.

In the same token, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives have also endorsed China’s BRI project to free themselves from poverty and poor connectivity. 

The strategic partnership between China and India would have given a quicker shape to the fast emerging bipolar world with the two Asian giants emerging as a powerful factor determining course of world events.  This would provide both the countries a psychological motivation to review their past history and finding ways to de-escalate tension in the border and heal their past wounds.

Because of shimmering tension between the two countries the disputed border areas have not been officially demarcated ever since the two countries fought a brief but bloody war in 1962.  India’s penchant for seeking leverage from outside rather than trying to resolve issues through dialogues has landed it in an intractable situation.

The on-going standoff which India is facing with China at Nathu La pass in Sikkim is one example. The real truth behind the standoff remains to be unravelled, but it is not difficult to see that it may be the effect of India’s reluctance to endorse China’s plan of creating trans-Himalayan economic corridor through Nepal and her decision to forge strategic partnership with the United States as part of power alignment to contain China’s advance in Asia.

India’s tilt towards America is being interpreted by defence expert as her attempt to coalesce towards Europe-Japan-American axis against the growing alliance between China, Russia and Pakistan.

India’s growing engagement with Japan and America has often annoyed China.  The later has expressed its uneasiness through deeper economic and strategic engagement with India’s traditional foe Pakistan or through transmitting message to India that the border issues would remain festering to the great economic burden and psychological pressure for India unless she deals with the issue with a more proactive approach.

India has been engaging in activities which have not served any purpose except putting China’s nerves on edge. It has been regularly conducting Malabar Naval exercise with participation of Japan knowing full-well that Japan and China have strained relation with regard to old issues of the Second World War time atrocities of the Japanese soldiers against the Chinese people and their claim on Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.

India’s diplomatic initiative in mobilising South East Asian Countries to stand against China’s claim of sovereignty over South China Sea has exacerbated tension between the two countries.  India does not have any direct interest in the South China Sea. She could benefit in getting her long drawn border problems resolved by supporting China’s vital interest in areas where she does not have any defence interests of her own.

 Available facts support that China has been exercising its historical rights over South China Sea since ancient times. India could mobilisze China’s good office in resolving her dispute with Pakistan in Kashmir by supporting China’s claim over South China Seas and East China Sea.

The United States is trying hard to make India to walk into yet another strategic booby-trap known as quadrilateral security dialogue consisting of Australia, Japan, USA and India.  China considers this forum only a ploy conceived to form an alliance against China.

One does not need to have so much acumen to see that India has a lot of things to gain by forging partnership with China.  A strategic partnership with China can help India to rise as a parallel economic and military superpower together with China on a solid foundation of sovereign independence.  Improved understanding would provide her an opportunity to win China’s mediation in resolving differences with Pakistan.

This is not all. A collaborative dialogue between China and India will reinforce a feeling of empathy towards each other prompting them to take decisive steps to heal festering border problems between the two great countries. A diffusion of a collaborative spirit also carries the potential of eliminating current emotional estrangement existing between India and her South Asian neighbours.

Holding America in a ‘bear hug’, however, risks India putting at the fore front of conflict which is likely to escalate in this region if the present level of tension goes on unabated.  China and India are both rising from the ashes of the imperialist devastation of the past centuries. They should not commit another folly to link their fate with moribund empires. 

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