The Qinghai-Tibet Railway and Nathu La

Originally published: January 2007

Abstract: July 2006 saw China make two major statements of intent in its huge western region. The first of these was the opening of the 1,142km section from Golmud to Lhasa completing the Qinghai-Tibet railway (QTR). The other, was the reopening of the 4,545m high Nathu La trading route on the Tibet-Sikkim border that had been closed following the 1962 border conflict between India and China. Besides a narrow perception of these and other Chinese infrastructure developments as creating a strategic threat, they might also be looked at in terms of creating long-term opportunities for India.

India must not view Chinese moves to gain greater access to South Asia only within a narrow strategic framework but as another opportunity for New Delhi to come to terms with the problems that bedevil its relations with the northeastern states of the country, to take better account of local aspirations and demands before deciding what is best for the region. It needs to be remembered that Chinese ties to South Asia cannot be enduring in any way without a decisive Indian influence. For several decades now, that Indian influence has played out in a negative sense where Chinese relations with Pakistan have been concerned. On India’s eastern front, strategic concerns and a defensive mindset meant that connectivity in the northeast remained limited. Today, however, if India were to accept the challenge and approach the Chinese moves more positively, Indian influence in the larger region too can play out positively. The vision is one of tying the development of India’s northeast with that of its South Asian neighbours, of China’s west and southwest and of the countries of Indochina. The closer the ties, the lesser incentive any player has to play spoilsport. This can be a situation where everyone is a winner.

 

Original Article: “The Qinghai-Tibet Railway and Nathu La – Challenge and Opportunity for India,” China Report (New Delhi), Vol. 43, No. 1, January 2007, pp. 83-87.

European Integration and Lessons for China

Originally published: December 2006

Abstract: The European Union and the People’s Republic of China can be compared by viewing them primarily as conglomerates of smaller constituents, each with their own political and economic significance in relations with their respective political centres. While this is a perspective that is more easily applied to the EU given that each of its members enjoys sovereignty and also the Union’s rather short history, Chinese area studies have only recently begun viewing China as a sum of its parts. The present study while conscious of the huge differences in the historical development and present realities of both the EU and China, posits that the similarities in the centre-constituent as well inter-constituent relationships developing in both the EU and China allow for important lessons to be drawn. A key focus is the differentiated set of relationships developing between Brussels and the latest entrants to the EU and between the older and newer members of the EU. In China, too, the nature of relationships between the central government and the better-developed coastal provinces is different from those that Beijing has with the central or western provinces, with implications also for the relationships among these different sets of provinces themselves. The tensions and charges of unfair treatment seen in the accessions of the Central and Eastern European nations to the EU, have an echo in the similar complaints that have been coming from the interior provinces of China since the beginning of economic reforms in that country, and perhaps, provide pointers to the future direction of the development of centre-province and inter-provincial relationships in China.

Original Article: “European Integration and Lessons for China,” Asia Europe Journal (Heidelberg), Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 511-21.

From ‘Look East’ to ‘Think East’

Originally published: 3 February 2005

Alexander the Great met his “Final Frontier” in the Indian subcontinent; it was, however, the start of several incursions from the West leading to the spread of Islam, the rise of the Mughals, arrival of the Portuguese, and takeover by the British. The subcontinent’s political worldview has, therefore, for much of its history, inevitably been shaped by the West. The influence of the East has been more muted.

As the political entities of the subcontinent carry on their fractious relationships, the question needs to be asked, at least by India whether it is not time to move on. There are great and tumultuous changes occurring in its eastern neighbourhood that demand greater engagement. A beginning was made with India’s “Look East” policy in the early 1990s. But with a Westernized intellectual and political elite undertaking its conceptualization and operationalization, the policy still does not “look” sufficiently East. The more India and the subcontinent can learn to be Janus-faced, the less contradictions there will be in coping with the challenges of globalization and development. Incidentally, Pakistan was the first to realize the benefits of such an approach in the security domain.

But there is more to it than security. Even as historical, ethnic, political and military questions roil the region, East Asia is able to maintain the momentum of its economic interactions which has lessons for South Asia. Unlike the European Union experiment, the emphasis in Asia is – or should be – on the disaggregation of centres and doing away with centripetal forces. India, in particular, needs to show greater creativity and initiative in fostering closer economic ties with its neighbours. It needs to promote open borders and economic linkages between its border states and neighbouring countries. This would involve a substantial reordering of the concepts of federalism and sovereignty in India – a process already underway in China, though not always with government control.

In its engagement with East Asia, India is already on the way with BIMSTEC, Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) talks with China and Singapore and plans for FTAs with South Korea are examples. India’s FTA negotiations with ASEAN are notable since the latter will enter similar negotiations with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in 2005.

Geopolitically, India’s engagement with the military junta in Myanmar and interest in the Indochina region indicates pragmatism. Its membership of the ARF and the joint military exercises it now holds with several countries of the region, allows India to keep abreast with even if it cannot influence them. However, like Japan, India too, often conveys the impression that it only acts in reaction to Chinese moves. The remedy lies in imaginative thinking. ASEAN for example, has responded with initiatives such as ASEAN + 3 and the determination to be at the centre of a planned East Asia Community after the financial crisis of 1997. ASEAN may not be able to occupy the driver’s seat in the face of China’s rise but that should not invite deference from India. The fact that “East Asia” is the focus does not automatically exclude India from a leading role but that role can only come about if New Delhi progresses from “Look East” to “Move East” in its foreign policy orientation.

India should seize this opportunity with both hands. India’s northeast could serve as the land bridge and India’s eastern coast could provide the synergy across the seas. In the first case, a long neglected region would also acquire a position in the Indian polity that it has been long denied. In the second case, it would provide crumbling ports of Kolkatta and Chennai with the opportunities to revitalize themselves and their hinterlands.

An integral part of this process of realizing both domestic and global ambitions is to begin to “Think East” as well and this is where the Government of India has been lacking in wisdom or vision. In keeping diplomacy divested of academic input and academia being deprived of all access to the East Asian region whether in terms of language skills or access to resources for travel and study, New Delhi continues to drive its enterprise on the wrong fuel. Unless, India builds up dedicated and large academic resources to the study of more than the usual military buildups, economic indicators or foreign policy doublespeak, India is going nowhere East anytime soon.

Original Article: “From ‘Look East’ to ‘Think East’,” IPCS Article No. 1631, 3 February 2005.