Balancing China

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As India, Australia and the US band together, foreign policy experts debate the challenges facing the new ‘peace partners’

New Delhi

The rise of China and its newly aggressive diplomacy has created security threats that are pushing India, Australia and the US together like never before. But while their concerns may be mutual, is this really a match made in heaven?

Government officials and foreign policy experts debated the challenges facing these growing partners at the India-US 2015: Partnering for Peace and Prosperity conference at Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) in New Delhi on March 16.

Almost all agreed China was a real and growing risk, pointing out its recent belligerence in maritime diplomacy; laying claims over sea lanes and becoming embroiled in maritime disputes with neighbours like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. China’s “nine dash claim line in the South China Sea would mean effective control of large parts of the sea affecting freedom of navigation, this is unacceptable to all countries in the region and beyond,” said Kanwal Sibal, dean of the Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy at VIF.

 

India as a balancing power

This has made India hugely popular in foreign policy circles. Its “demographic, geographic, economic and military size is considered an important balancing factor,” to counter China in Asia, Sibal explained. The trendy new concept of “indo pacific” being banded about was designed to link the security of the Indian Ocean with that of the Pacific, creating the basis for involving India in ASEAN and other Western Pacific security arrangements, he said.

And Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows it. Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh sees his exhaustive foreign policy efforts since coming to power last May – visiting Japan, the US, Australia and numerous neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka, which hadn’t seen a visiting Indian Prime Minister in decades – as a bold move, propelling India to “the centre of the partnership with the US in the Indo-Pacific”. “The fact that he has chosen to come out upfront and say ‘We want to be counted as one of the leaders that will decide on the future of that region,’ I think that is a very bold move,” Mansingh said.

Modi completed a whirlwind tour of the Indian Ocean in March, strengthening security cooperation with Mauritius and the Seychelles, rebuilding ties with Sri Lanka – and overall furthering his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s ambition for India to assume, “responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region” and “become a net provider of security”.

 

The challenge: building India’s strength

Foreign policy experts have doubts about whether India is doing enough to become the net security provider it wishes to be, and the balance to China so many are seeking. They’re questioning whether India and the US can really help each other if there is a confrontation with China? Should India reject China’s $40 billion Maritime Silk Route and create an alternative order in the region? Or go ahead with it, with or without American collaboration? And is it in India’s interests to get deeper into the US embrace to hedge China’s strength?

But Ashley Trellis, senior associate of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Program, said the key challenge was whether the US can move fast enough: “To build up Indian power in ways that enable it to satisfy the objective of creating constraints on China’s ability to misuse its own power”. Leaders have to now translate all the talk about India’s potential as a counterbalance to China into tangible policies.

This strategy doesn’t come without bugbears. Trellis pointed out that an India strong enough, “to balance China will of necessity probably threaten the Pakistanis”.

 

A different take: is China so threatening after all?

Meanwhile, Australia’s presence at the conference came in the form of Peter Rowe, former acting deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), who argued that the threat from China may not be as great as many fear. “China has developed a relationship with Australia after having told us that we could not have a security guarantor in the US and a strong economic relations with China,” Rowe pointed out. “In fact our relations have never been better with both countries.”

Rowe argued that political and economic circumstances in China had created a strategic window of opportunity for Australia, India and the wider world, to engage with Beijing and keep it bound to the international rules and systems currently in place. “I don’t think [China’s President] Xi Jinping overestimates China’s economic or military power… he has a greater appreciation of what China needs to go through before it is that power that can take over the security guarantee of the region.

“That gives us space, it gives us time to demonstrate and to ensure that the rules based international system that we’re all committed to, and has worked so well for all of us, and for China as well, is still the way to go – I think that will be done by cooperation amongst democracies – India, the US, Australia, Japan – those counties with those open rules based values.”

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