Book Review: India-Southeast Asia-China Triangular Dynamics

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Insights on a Triangular Relationship’, The Book Review, Vol. XLI, No. 12, December 2017, 12-13.

Amitav Acharya. East of India, South of China: Indian Encounters in Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Karen Stoll Farrell and Sumit Ganguly (eds) Heading East: Security, Trade, and Environment between India and Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016).

The two volumes under review are dissimilar books – dissimilar in structure, approaches and style. And yet, in their juxtaposition also emerges many interesting insights on the common theme in the two volumes namely, of the triangular relationship between India, Southeast Asia and China. Amitav Acharya’s East of India, South of China has China much more upfront as a central factor but Heading East edited by Karen Stoll Farrell and Sumit Ganguly would not stand either without China being the unspoken elephant in the volume.

This is not surprising. India’s interest in Southeast Asia today is largely commerce-driven but China has never been far from the surface as a factor. Indeed, it has been the glue holding disparate Indian interests and faltering attention together for over the nearly three decades since the Look East Policy was announced. But only just. And this is evident in the scant resources devoted to the study of Southeast Asia and China in Indian academic institutions or to desk specializations within the government. And this despite a change in nomenclature to an ‘Act East’ policy, frequent claims of Indian civilizational contributions to and geopolitical interest in the two regions and despite China being India’s largest neighbour.

While India has a famed (infamous, according to some sections) group of China-wallahs within its foreign ministry, it is slim pickings almost in every other area of India’s foreign policy and segment its government or non-governmental sector. Read more

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What does India think of China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative?

Jabin T. Jacob, ‘What does India think of China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative?’, ICS Occasional Paper, No. 19, December 2017.  

Abstract

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious regional and global project that it has attempted to sell as a global public good. One country where the Chinese project has met clear, consistent and widespread opposition at both the official level and among strategic analysts, is India. As important a factor that a sometimes reflexive Indian opposition to things Chinese is, there are also big contradictions and wide loopholes in Chinese arguments and justifications for the BRI that deserve to be highlighted. This paper examines Chinese arguments in so far as they relate to India but the weaknesses of these arguments are also germane to other countries that have joined or are seeking to join the BRI.

The Many Ironies of India-China Economic Relations

Pickpockets are not uncommon in crowded places in India. Victims are generally realists and tend to resign themselves to their misfortune quickly often not even bothering to go to the police. Not so, however, actor-turned-politician Manoj Tiwari, head of the Delhi unit of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. When he lost his iPhone Seven Plus at a demonstration, he promptly complained at the local police station. Politicians in India are often able to get the police to expend extra effort on their behalf, so Tiwari’s response was not really surprising.

What was surprising was the fact that the politician had lost his phone at a protest against Chinese-made goods organized by an affiliate of the BJP’s parent organization, the right-wing hyper-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. And as American as Steve Jobs might have been, the iPhone is the quintessential made-in-China product.

Such ironies are a dime a dozen in the India-China relationship. Read more

A Strongman in China: Implications for Asian Regional Politics

At the end of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 19th Congress, Xi Jinping was elected to a second five-year term as General Secretary. As expected, he was able to pack China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC (PBSC) with his allies but contrary to expectations did not choose potential leaders-in-waiting from the so-called ‘sixth generation’ of China’s leaders (those born in the 1960s). The grooming of potential successors has been a Party norm since the demise of Mao Zedong, adopted to ensure that greater political stability and institutionalization within the CPC. Read more

China’s 19th CPC Congress: Redefining Economic Growth

There are several aspects of the recently concluded 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that are noteworthy for India.

First, CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping has attempted to redefine what acceptable economic growth is in China. The expression ‘contradiction’ is an important one in the Chinese communist lexicon and until the 19th Party Congress, the ‘principal contradiction’ was the one between ‘the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and backward social production’ or, in other words, China’s inability to provide for the basic material needs of its people. Following nearly 40 years of economic reforms, this challenge has now been met with China eradicating poverty at the most massive scale and at the quickest pace in human history.

This process has, however, also resulted in rising income inequalities between individuals and between regions in China, and massive environmental damage and health crises across the country. Read more

19th National Congress of the CPC: Xi Jinping Firmly in Charge

Xi Jinping is officially China’s strongest leader in decades. The Communist Party of China’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) was unveiled at the end of the 19th National Congress of the CPC in Beijing yesterday with Xi Jinping reelected General Secretary for a second term. The 7-member PBSC includes besides Xi and his Premier Li Keqiang, at least four of Xi’s close allies in key positions. Also, in a departure from Party norms it offers no choice of potential successors to take over from Xi in 2022 when again according to norms, he is supposed to step down from power.

This composition of the PBSC in favour of Xi is the culmination of a series of steps he has taken over the past five years, foremost of which was a popular and far-reaching anti-corruption campaign that netted hundreds of senior Party and military officials including a potential rival and a former PBSC member, no less. Read more

China and its Neighbourhood: Perspectives from India and Vietnam

Jabin T. Jacob and Hoang The Anh (editors), China and Its Neighbourhood: Perspectives from India and Vietnam (New Delhi: Pentagon, 2017).

Vietnamese edition: Trang Quoc voi lang Gieng: Quan Diem Viet Nam va An Do (Hanoi: Vietnam Social Sciences Press, 2017).

Summary

This volume is an attempt to develop a more nuanced understanding of China’s foreign, security and economic policies by bringing together perspectives from two of its most important neighbours, India and Vietnam. This is a unique exercise because these two countries have a long history of both contending and cooperating with the People’s Republic of China. Even as India’s boundary dispute and Vietnam’s maritime territorial disputes with China have persisted, both countries have, in recent decades, also managed to successfully develop close economic relations with their northern neighbour as well as cooperated extensively with Beijing on regional and global issues of significance and mutual interest. Yet, the growth of China’s capabilities and ambitions, and the decline of its impulse towards multilateralism present challenges for India and Vietnam in their neighbourhood. It is against this backdrop that the authors in this book examine China’s bilateral relations and its role in regional multilateral organisations as well as the balancing behaviour of other powers in the region. In the process, this work also seeks to strengthen the sinews of the comprehensive strategic partnership between India and Vietnam by building closer ties between the research communities in the two countries and giving it greater analytical heft.

In India, Vietnam has the image of an uncompromising bulwark against China and almost any discussion of India’s external options vis-à-vis China is not complete without bringing Vietnam into the picture. Hanoi, meanwhile, sees India as a big neighbour to China and that while the relationship between the two countries has had its ups and downs in history, New Delhi now seems to be both cooperating and competing with China. India’s experience of dealing with China holds lessons for Vietnam. At the same time, it is extremely essential for policymakers and strategic analysts in India to keep a close eye on the dynamics of the China-Vietnam relationship itself. How relations between the two most successful communist regimes in the world – politically and economically speaking – will develop remains to be seen. There are both lessons to be learnt and cautionary tales here. New Delhi should have a realistic assessment of the lengths to which Vietnam will go in countering China’s assertiveness in the region given that it is the smaller country. At the same time, given Vietnamese history, there is also scope for calibrated measures to support Vietnam’s national capacity.

Available on Amazon.

China in Central Asia: Myth-making and Foreign Policy

China is deepening its ties with Central Asia through the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative. Cooperation with the Central Asian Republics (CARs) that was already quite intense in the field of trade, especially in the energy sector, is broadening into infrastructure development with an eye on strengthening the region’s role as a transit hub for Chinese products moving to the more prosperous and bigger markets of Europe.

The primary objective for China is, of course, the maintenance of stability in Xinjiang, which is a key Chinese province and actor in the SREB. Despite all the troubles in Xinjiang, however, the province is today considerably better off economically than most of its eight neighbouring countries. Beginning in the 1990s China-CAR trade through Xinjiang has expanded and today, several companies from the province have a strong presence in Central Asia. For example, the Xinjiang-headquartered Chinese enterprise TBEA that has promoted connectivity in Central Asia by building power transmission lines in Kyrgyhzstan and Tajikistan. It is also noteworthy that there is a flight from Urumqi to every CAR capital and to many other cities besides. Indeed, many of these countries are connected to each other by air not directly but via the Xinjiang capital. Read more

Rethinking the China-Pakistan-India Triangle

It has been suggested that New Delhi’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was an ‘extraordinary exercise in realpolitik’, that the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘is not easily rattled by disapproving noises at home or abroad’. One analyst referring to China’s opposition put it rather colourfully that Beijing behaved ‘not as an enlightened power but as a strategic small-timer, with the petty, perfidious and short-termist mindset of a Pyongyang dictator or a Rawalpindi general’.

Not being ‘rattled’ is a good thing and as it should be. However, the ‘exercise in realpolitik’ is not all on the one side and nor indeed, the petty behaviour of a ‘strategic small timer’ with a ‘short-termist mindset’. India is just as guilty and another Indian commentator has, in fact, analysed the NSG episode as an example of India lacking in Kautilyan attributes. Read more