The China Model

Rise India, avoid regional pitfalls

26 Nov, 2014    ·   4759

D Suba Chandran analyses India's current geopolitical position in the context of the ongoing SAARC Summit

Is India today in a situation where China was fifteen years ago, in terms of well poised for a global take off? Are there lessons that India could learn from how China pursued its political and economic growth widely referred as a “peaceful rise” but escalating numerous regional conflicts with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea and the East China Sea? How can an emerging India avoid similar regional pitfalls in South Asia?

Despite critics within India and elsewhere repeatedly trying to find reasons to project otherwise, the rise of India is a reality at economic and political levels. From the US to Australia, there is an expectation and urge that India should take a positive lead both at Asia and global levels. The rise of maritime Asia and the Indian Ocean has further raised the position of India as a pivotal State and a security provider.

There was a similar expectation on India during the last decade as well; but the previous Indian government squandered a great opportunity by failing to rise. Many initiatives though were taken, the Congress government failed to follow them through. One step forward and two steps backwards remained the primary approach of Manmohan Singh; especially during the second term, his performance as the prime minister, his cabinet in general and the foreign minister in particular was a great disappointment.

The above should be the first major lesson for the new Indian government. As it exists today for Narendra Modi, there was a similar opportunity and a takeoff environment during the initial years of Manmohan Singh’s tenure. But India did not take off, despite multiple agreements, strategic partnerships and international visits. New Delhi did not move sufficiently forward and be the part of Asian Century, when it widely expected to be that of China and India together. While China did arise, peacefully or otherwise, India stagnated.

This perhaps should be the first big experience that the new government could learn; when the opportunity presents, it has to be grabbed and made use of. The second big experience that India has to take from China, is also how not to rise. China’s rise, though projected as “peaceful” by Beijing and pro-Chinese scholars, some of the immediate neighbours did/do not see in the same light. Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines faced and are facing a hostile China, trying to re-reformulate the terms of engagement and existing regional order in East Asia. Also at the international level, the US in particular has been advocating alternative strategies such as the Rebalancing in Asia-Pacific, Pivot and the Indo-Pacific, mainly aimed at containing China.

Both the above perceptions about China hold valuable lessons for India’s rise. It has to be seen as a peaceful rise by both the immediate region and the rest of international community. As of today, the international community sees India’s rise in a positive framework and want to engage with New Delhi. The same cannot be said about India’s neighbourhood. Despite New Delhi’s repeated efforts, the hard reality is, the neighbours except for Bhutan do not view India in a positive frame. Though Narendra Modi’s previous visit to Nepal has succeeded in substantially altering the local sentiments about India, it has to be built further. Same is the case with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The previous government not only failed to the neighbourhood along, in fact worsened the situation.

The hard reality for Narendra Modi today is, these anti-Indian groups in India’s neighbourhood are widespread and prevalent in multiple professions – from the military to media, covering a substantial segment. It may not be easier for Modi to change these groups and the perceptions they generate, but still he has to work in the neighbourhood. Here again, the Chinese model will help, in terms how it has integrated its own economy with its immediate and extended Southeast Asian neighbours – Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Today, China has invested substantially in Southeast Asia, and remains the largest trading partner. China has built and building ports, roads and related infrastructural projects.

Rising India will have to network similarly with its own neighbourhood. Ideas of energy and electricity corridors for the region have been floated in the recent months. Given the resources in Nepal and Bangladesh in terms of hydel power and gas respectively in these two countries, electricity and gas corridors will greatly help them to integrate with and through India. If the much focussed and debated Golden Quadrilateral road project get extended and include Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, India then will become the center of/for regional prosperity.

Ideally, the ongoing SAARC meeting should have seen the new Indian Prime Minister making his maiden appearance in the SAARC conclave projecting these ideas as India’s contribution and investments to regional growth.

To achieve the above, the next major lesson that India will have to learn from China is to use its sub-regions as agents of change and also bridge between the mainland and the neighbours. Sichuan and Yunnan in China have become the lead agents of China’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Southeast Asia; and the change one could witness in reality and in bilateral trade between the two would present an undisputable fact. Narendra Modi will have to devise innovative strategies to make use of India’s sub-regions as engines of growth. Unless the border regions become the bridges with the neighbourhood and agents of economic engagement, India will not be able to successfully integrate itself with the rest of South Asia. Ongoing elections in J&K for example, provide an excellent opportunity to re-engage its sub-regions.

Finally, the new government will have to address its Pakistan dilemma. It has almost become like Sino-Japan relations – highly antagonistic. Despite economic engagement, Sino-Japan rivalry has the potential to politically undermine China’s rise; if there is an actual war, or a war-like situation between the two, both countries will suffer. Beijing is aware of the problem and has been unable to address the problem so far vis-a-vis Japan.

In the Indo-Pak context, New Delhi’s options are restricted by internal political equations within the multiple institutions. The predominant position of military in Pakistan, strength of democratic institutions and the nature of existing bilateral economic engagements limit India’s policy options and increase the challenges. However, New Delhi will have to address its Pakistan dilemma; it has to explore few big ticket items, which will commit Pakistan to work with India, for example the proposed gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and Iran. Not having a policy, or making terrorism as the only factor are undoubtedly political options for India; but that will have to help New Delhi see the larger picture – its global rise.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir