BOOK REVIEW: 'Sino-India and Sino-South Korean Relations'

India-South Korea: Non-Partners in Countering China

17 Dec, 2014    ·   4782

Ambassador Skand Tayal reviews 'Sino-India and Sino-South Korean Relations'

The steady rise of China is a reality.  Its growing economic, military and consequent strategic strengths are subjects of research, analysis and debate and also of concern, particularly for China’s neighbours.

There is already a considerable body of work analysing different aspects of India-China relations.  The new book, ‘Sino-India and Sino-South Korean Relations’, is a very timely addition as it ‘compares and contrasts’ the compulsions of bilateral relations of two major democracies – India and Republic of Korea (ROK) – with their giant neighbour, China. For a fair assessment, the bilateral relations of a country need to be examined in a comparative framework also and the authors have conducted extensive research on how India and the ROK have been engaging with China over the years.

It is noteworthy that both India’s and the ROK’s relations with China have undergone phases of hostility, indifference and engagement. China has the dubious distinction of unquestionably supporting rogue states hostile to India and the ROK – North Korea on the ROK’s Northern border and Pakistan at India’s North-West. By its acts of omission and commission, China has also assisted in the clandestine nuclearisation of Pakistan and North Korea. With the passage of time in recent years, both India and the ROK have developed strong economic relations with China, despite an uneasy strategic relationship.  The ROK has always depended on the US for its security.  India also appears to be gravitating towards the US to bolster its own capacity for defence.

The book very lucidly analyses China’s rise, attempting to answer the question as to how real and sustainable the trajectory of China’s rise would be. In chapter three, the authors examine the available evidence to seek an answer to the million dollar question whether China’s rise would be peaceful. The authors have sketched out three different scenarios (Page 58) that are ominous in varying degrees. The first is akin to the rise of aggressive Germany in Europe, i.e. ‘Europe’s past becomes Asia’s future’.   The second is China’s domination over East Asia, similar to the US’s domination over the Americas.  The third is China’s developing into a ‘benign hegemon’.  The authors rightly observe on page 59 that ‘bilateral and multilateral security arrangements could …… moderate extreme behavior by China’.  The authors have examined India-ROK relations in this context.

The authors have devoted considerable attention to the uneasy Sino-Indian relations in Chapters 5 and 6.  They have traced the bitter history of the 1962 border conflict. Quoting former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to President John F. Kennedy in the aftermath of 1962 debacle asking for US air support is notable. (Pages 91-98). China watchers may, however, not fully agree with the observation on page 104 that “…….. Chinese decision making is not reactive, but seeks to retain the initiative at all times.”  Chinese policies are, when required, reactive also to deal with any action of their perceived adversary. China has reacted aggressively in many situations; e.g. India’s ‘Forward policy’ in 1962 and the Japanese assumption of sovereignty over Senkaku Islands in 2012.

From the Koreans, one learns that they have always treated China with respect. The authors have rightly emphasised that India and China should communicate better to avoid misconceptions.  Fortunately, this is the current policy on both sides, evident in the frequent high level and Summit level meetings and the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India.

On page 152, the authors have analysed the logic of China’s interest in South Asia, which would be useful for readers from the region. This interest is backed with a concrete offer of $ 30 billion for roads in the region made at the recent Kathmandu SAARC Summit by Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin.

On page 200, the authors claim that ‘South Korea has become assertive in its foreign policy doctrine’.  However, it has been substantiated in the text only vis-à-vis Japan. Evidence suggests that mindful of its economic interests, the ROK avoids taking a stand on any bilateral or multi-lateral issue not of its direct concerns. For instance, the ROK did not name Pakistan for sending terrorists to Mumbai for the dastardly attack on 26 November, 2008, even though the ROK Consul General was among those trapped that night on the rooftop restaurant of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

The authors have commented in detail on South Korea’s journey from hostility towards PRC following the Korean War to ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ (Page 206) of the 1990s and the current trend towards balancing relations between the US and China. (Pages 197, 203).  Both India and the ROK face a similar dilemma – their economic dependence on trade with China is growing while on security related matters, including status quo in maritime traffic in the South China Sea, both the countries are wary of China.

However, it is difficult to agree with the authors that “…… ROK is improving relations with other major powers including India to counter the rise of Chine.” (Page 221).   The ROK studiously avoids talking about China in its official dealings with India.  Additionally, the core of the India-ROK relationship continues to be economic.

India’s ‘strategic partnership’ with the ROK would have strong elements of defence cooperation, supply of defense platforms and systems, civil nuclear and space related co-operation, maritime security and safety of sea lines; but any element of a common position against China on any subject is unlikely to be an integral component of this partnership.

The thoroughly researched volume reflects the deep understanding of the authors of the strategic, diplomatic, security and economic issues involved in the two crucial bilateral relationships in East Asia.  It is a very succinct presentation of complex and interlinked issues. The volume would be both informative and thought-provoking for all those interested in studying the rise of China and how its neighbors are dealing with this new phenomenon.