Modi, Xi meeting amid simmering rivalry

G Parthasarathy | Updated on October 11, 2019

China’s growing security ties with Pakistan are a cause for concern for India (file photo)

With China looking to dominate the Bay of Bengal neighbourhood, India should strengthen its influence in the region

News about Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Houston and New York dominated media coverage last month. It was an interesting period, as US President Donald Trump joined Prime Minister Modi in an unprecedented public reception, organised in Houston and attended by 50,000 cheering members of the three million strong Indian diaspora.

Petronet signed a $7.5 billion deal for the import of of natural gas by India, during Modi’s visit to Houston. The visit to New York included meetings with American business leaders and President Trump. The UN General Assembly session was marked by yet another attempt by Pakistan, seeking UN intervention in the Kashmir. It predictably failed and resulted in an enraged Imran Khan sacking his high profile Ambassador to the UN.

Public attention in India is now on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the historic seaside resort of Mahabalipuram, now renamed as Mamallapuram. New rivalries and tensions are, however, emerging in India’s eastern neighbourhood, across the Bay of Bengal. An assertive China is seeking to become the dominant power in the region. No country has been more affected by growing Chinese power than Myanmar, which also shares a land border of 1,640 km with India. The India-Myanmar border has been peaceful, marked by growing cooperation between the two governments and militaries.

Thanks to decades of short-sighted Western sanctions, Myanmar is now heavily dependent on China. Unlike India, China has a cosy relationship with Myanmar’s armed separatist groups, like the 20,000 strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

These groups are making common cause, to insist on a constitutional set-up in Myanmar, which is tailor-made for promoting separatism. Myanmar and its ASEAN neighbours like Indonesia and Thailand also had little choice, but to agree to joint exercises with China’s Navy, in the Bay of Bengal.

The US Navy also recently held joint military exercises across the coastline of Vietnam, with the navies of ASEAN countries, including Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam, to balance Chinese power and influence. With China set to expand its maritime strength, with new aircraft carriers and submarines, India is also strengthening maritime cooperation with eastern neighbours, while working closely the US, Japan and ASEAN members like Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore.

New Delhi had remained uncertain for years about how to balance growing Chinese power and assertiveness across the Indian Ocean and Eastern Pacific (Indo-Pacific). While it was ready for naval exercises on the shores of the Indo-Pacific region with the US and Japan, it repeatedly fought shy of joining any institutionalised regional maritime grouping.

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar however, met his colleagues from the US, Japan and Australia in New York last month, to formally establish the “QUAD” partnership, focussing on maritime security cooperation. China now appears less concerned than in the past on Indo-US military ties. Interestingly, the Chinese Government mouthpiece Global Times noted just after Modi’s recent meetings with President Putin that: “The advance of India-Russia relations will push the multi-polarisation of international relations and reinforce India’s role in Asia”. The Chinese appear to be slowly realising, given its national pride and ethos of seeking “strategic autonomy,” India will not be a pawn of any major power.

Combat capabilities

Enhancing its capabilities for manufacturing nuclear submarines and warships is crucial for India to strengthen its influence in the Indian Ocean region. With an expanding naval fleet, China would seek to flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean, as it is presently doing in the South China Sea. Beijing is also enhancing its maritime cooperation with Pakistan, with the supply of submarines and frigates — a move designed to develop Pakistan’s capability to disrupt India’s oil supplies.

This is happening at a time when the US is self-sufficient in its energy needs, with its domestic production of (shale) oil and gas set to rapidly increase. The US interest in maintaining a strong naval presence in Bahrain, as at present, could, therefore, be reduced, with the passage of time. India will have to bear this in mind in planning its security policies across its western shores.

During his visit, China’s President Xi Jinping will take forward measures to promote cooperation and maintain peace and tranquillity along the Sino-Indian border. His visit comes in the wake of China’s unprecedented support for Pakistan in the UN on the Jammu and Kashmir issue. This has been accompanied by Chinese moves to enhance its military presence across the Indian Ocean.

Modi’s remarkably successful visit to Eastern Russia with President Putin took place at a time when Russia was set on improving economic and military ties with India and Vietnam. Both these countries have differences and periodic tensions with China, on issues pertaining to their land and maritime boundaries. President Trump has meanwhile imposed heavy duties on imports from China and threatened Beijing with further punitive measures. Chinese President Xi Jinping will get a picturesque view of the ancient temples of India when Prime Minister Modi hosts him at the 7th century seaside resort of Mamallapuram. The two leaders will focus on their current relations, marked by increasing Indian concerns over growingly aggressive Chinese policies, across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood. Chinese policies on the Kashmir issue have been almost adversarial in recent months, with a marked change from past policies of neutrality. Arrangements worked out after the Modi-Xi Summit last year have, however, enabled the two countries to avoid tensions along their land borders.

Economic agenda

The Summit agenda in Mamallapuram will have substantive economic dimensions. India will have to persuade China to show pragmatism and flexibility on Sino-Indian trade relations, to enable New Delhi to work out pragmatic arrangements, for joining the proposed Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP will link New Delhi with New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China and members of ASEAN, in an Asia-Pacific Free Trade grouping. Chinese flexibility on this agreement will certainly be a welcome development.

The main item on President Xi’s economic agenda would be to persuade India to accept Huawei’s 5G Internet networks, which are getting increasing acceptance in many Asian and African countries. Huawei’s offers have, however, been rejected by the Americans and some of their allies, because of suspicions of Chinese espionage, through Huawei. India has yet to decide on its response to China’s proposal, which has security implications, especially given Beijing’s growing security ties with Pakistan.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan


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Published on October 10, 2019
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