The Age of the Lilliputians

There has been a flurry of visits over the past few months by leaders of the smaller South and East Asian nations to either or both of the Big Two of Asia, namely China and India.

In the space of a few weeks, the presidents of Vietnam and Myanmar and the Prime Minister of Nepal have come visiting India. Pakistan’s top ruling elite have increased the frequency of their visits to China in recent years while in August, the Sri Lankan President made his second trip to Beijing in less than a year.

What is interesting about these visits as well as return visits by Chinese and Indian leaders is that the old paradigm of the smaller countries being the supplicants is changing. Despite their many limitations these countries are today in a position to play off the larger countries against each other to their advantage.

While domestic political instability limits Nepal’s options in its engagement with its giant neighbours, both China and India remain wary of leaning too heavily on Kathmandu for fear of affecting their economic and political interests in that country. China for example, depends heavily on Kathmandu to continue its crackdown against the activities of Tibetan refugees on Nepalese soil while India has large economic interests to protect in Nepal.

It is Sri Lanka however, that plays the game best. When domestic political sensitivities in India constrain New Delhi from giving all out support for Colombo’s actions, it is immediately able to turn to Beijing – for example, for support against international pressure following a United Nations report accusing Colombo of war crimes.  During Mahinda Rajapakse’s latest visit to China, Beijing not only committed itself to minimizing its trade imbalance with Sri Lanka and to more infrastructure projects but also to safeguarding the island nation’s territorial integrity.  This visit actually came in between two key events involving India. In July, India and Sri Lanka signed a MoU to rebuild a port in the northern peninsula and in September, held their largest ever joint-naval exercises.  Thus, not only does Sri Lanka benefit from investments from both countries, it also has security assurances from both.

Meanwhile, like Sri Lanka and Nepal vis-à-vis India, Vietnam and Myanmar are seen as being located largely within China’s sphere of influence and hence any Indian action is seen as having an anti-China implication. This is especially so, in the case of Vietnam with its long history of enmity with China. The recent flap about the INS Airavat and the ONGC’s operating in the waters off Vietnam are seen as moves in a Sino-Indian rivalry where Vietnam has been talked of by some Indian strategists as serving the same function that Pakistan does for China. This is nonsense, of course; Vietnam is no Pakistan. And as much as the Vietnamese distrust the Chinese, they realize there is no escaping the shadow of their biggest neighbour. Thus, even as the Vietnamese President was visiting India, the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party was visiting China. What is clear though is that Hanoi is keen to build the bases for a sustainable and multi-dimensional partnership with India in order to balance China’s predominance in Southeast Asia.

The Myanmar President, meanwhile, chose the run-up to his India visit to make some interesting moves, freeing political prisoners, allowing the return of political exiles, and suspending the construction of a controversial Chinese-funded dam in his country. As dependent as Naypyidaw is on Chinese support in the UN Security Council, it is obvious that Myanmar does not wish to see its actions constrained by Beijing, and like Vietnam, is eager to develop both political and economic ties with India.

China and India today find themselves without the military heft of the US and in an age of economic interdependence where bullying their smaller neighbours is not an option. It would appear that a new paradigm of regional relations is being shaped by the smaller nations of the Asian continent. For example, in the Sri Lankan case above, the economic benefits are not Sri Lanka’s alone but accrue to China and India, too. In times of political stalemate, such involvement in their smaller neighbours could in fact, give China and India additional opportunities to work on their bilateral political ties.

One must ask therefore, if the Asian century will not be so much about China and India as their neighbours who get these giants to behave themselves.

The article was originally published: Jabin T. Jacob, Asian Gullivers are at the mercy of Lilliputians,” DNA (Mumbai), 1 November 2011.

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