Role of China in South Asia's Future

16 Mar, 1998    ·   73

Report on the South Asia Futures Conference, New Delhi Giri Deshingkar Director

Not unexpectedly, China was a running thread in almost all the presentations made at the South Asia Futures Conference held in New Delhi (20-21st March 1998), although only the presentation by Jonathan Pollack of the Rand corporation was specifically devoted to it. Such is the importance given to China both by American and Indian scholars when discussing South Asian future scenarios.



Pollack predicated his scenario on three factors: China ’s domestic evolution in terms of political institutions and economic development; China ’s response to US strategic and economic dominance in Asia ; and China ’s capacity to shape its external environment. Despite China ’s many accomplishments, Pollack said, China still had to overcome many difficult challenges; it is at best only a "presumptive great power" at present. On the political side the Chinese leaders worry about stability and continued legitimacy of their rule. This is why they are averse to taking risks in policy making both at home and in China ’s external relations.



Contrary to what is widely believed, Pollack’s view is that China is not a revisionist state bent on challenging the existing international order. Despite its irredentist claims, it is, in fact, a status quo power. It is anxious to settle its borders amicably; it supports the prevailing arms control arrangements; it is opposed to nuclear proliferation and has signed treaties controlling nuclear and chemical weapons. Breaches of agreements in these areas are a thing of the past and export controls are now strict. Such policies, Pollack hoped, would diminish India ’s suspicions with respect to Sino-Pakistani relations. Here, it was evident that Pollack was not aware of the depth of India ’s suspicions not only in the context of Sino-Pakistani relations but also about the potential "nuclear threat" posed by China to India .



As for military modernization, Pollack thought China ’s "ample hard currency reserves" and the availability of advanced weaponry and technology from Russia would be immensely helpful to China . He is somewhat less than half right in this respect. A significant proportion of China ’s imports of military hardware is paid for, not in hard currency, but through compensatory trade. Moreover, while Russia is happy to sell the hardware, it is reluctant to part with the technology; and, in any case, China ’s defence industry is unable to absorb the technology even if when available.



Pollack also spoke of China ’s shift to a maritime-based strategy and enhancement of its air capability for shaping its regional security environment. But he pointed out that modernization in these areas was a long-term task. Unless qualified, such a view can be read as supporting the prevailing " China threat" theory. Subsequent discussions showed that Pollack did not support that theory, which the US media drums up regularly. He also conceded that Russian military hardware transfers to China were given far more weight than they deserved. China ’s efforts at military modernization are geared towards longer-term goals. Military rivalry with India is not among them.



US-China strategic rivalry is more presumed than real. The future shape of US-China relations will no doubt shape the Asian strategic system, including India ’s own links with China and the US , but for the present, no conclusions are possible. At present, both China and the US , under the label of "constructive strategic partnership" are keeping open a range of options, not in "either or" terms but as "more or less". Given the growing strong economic relationship, abrupt shifts in policy on either side are greatly inhibited. But mutual suspicions will continue.



None of the views expressed either by Indians or Americans in other presentations or in the discussions challenged Jonathan Pollack’s very sober assessment. At the same time, no one spoke about the "inevitable" clash of interests between India and China or about India-China rivalry in Asia that appear all too frequently in the Indian media. As one distinguished American participant put it, much of the success in US-China relations is due to the fact that they have agreed to disagree and still get on with their business. India should follow that course with profit.