In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

India plays catch-up in the great game

Posted by seumasach on July 21, 2009

M.K.Bhadrakumar

Asia Times

18th July, 2009

The Central Asian question is no more the same as it was in the 1990s. No one speculates anymore that it was inevitable that the region would descend into anarchy. However, the problems endemic to a critical period of state formation linger. The transition economies were just about switching gear when the global economic crisis struck. Growth slackened. Foreign investment dwindled. Commodity prices crashed.

Regional cooperation has far from gained traction. There is widespread poverty and deprivation. The glass is half full. On the positive side can be noted an appreciable consolidation of national independence and sovereignty. The region’s integration into the international system is already advanced. On the contrary, terrorism and religious terrorism continue to pose a threat to regional stability, which explains the raison d’etre of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Equally, the SCO provides a forum of collective security that categorically rejects the ideology of “color revolution”. The international community may have begun to grasp that political reality. (The SCO comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)

The turning point came with the abortive “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan and the bloody uprising in Andizhan in Ferghana Valley in successive months in 2005 when the SCO moved into the driving seat to dispel the specter of “regime change”. The result is there for all to see.

The Central Asian states have created much strategic space around them so that they can maneuver to their best advantage. They have made it obligatory for outside powers to negotiate with them – be it regarding military bases on lease, the price of natural gas, access routes to Afghanistan or partnerships with collective security bodies – rather than assume that the terms of engagement can be dictated from a position of strength.

Clearly, Central Asian states have an important strategic significance in contemporary world politics.

The region has figured in the geostrategies of major powers in one way or another. Many players reached out to the region, even as the newly independent states groped for a way forward in an extremely complicated process of transition. Among them were pretenders who sought a leadership role on account of their so-called Turkic or Islamic identity and also big powers.

Of the three major players active today, one is an “external” party – the United States – insofar as it has no shared borders with the region while the two others – Russia and China – are neighboring countries. Russian influence has been historical and remains preponderant. The United States has had its ups and downs in the more recent past, but remains tenacious about expanding its presence. China, on the other hand, has had an extraordinary run in making its way to the top rungs of the big league operating in the region, circumnavigating with great adroitness the massive backlog of the region’s Soviet history in such a short period of time.

After consolidating its presence in Afghanistan, the United States’ policy toward Central Asia has shifted gear. Through different, flexible modes of cooperation in the fields of security, transportation and energy as well as through continued efforts to bring about “regime change” in the region, the US hopes to remodel the region. Meanwhile, the continuous expansion of US influence in South Asia has come in handy, as Afghanistan is a vital link that can connect Central Asia with South Asia.

China: A game-changer
The regional challenge that the US encounters in Central Asia is twofold: One, Russia’s resurgence, and two, China’s rise as a world power. The US has been so far focusing on Russia, while carefully watching the implications of the lengthening shadows of China.

In the US understanding up until recently, a strategic alliance between Russia and China in Central Asia within the framework of the SCO was a long way from materializing and there was scope to work on the differing priorities of Russia and China within the SCO. Unsurprisingly, the US strategy has been pursuing a differentiated approach toward China aimed at creating a wedge between Russia and China, which would prove the nemesis of the SCO.

Washington’s comfort level with China was attributable to several factors. In the short term at least, the US pursued a careful policy to engage China in the region and assuring that China’s emergence didn’t clash with US interests. This indeed helped Washington to focus on the immediate task in hand, namely, to roll back Russia’s traditional stature in the region, which was standing right in the way of the expansion of US influence there.

However, this state of play may be about to change – or the process may already have begun – even as China’s rapid expansion of influence in the region and its deep access to the region’s energy resources in particular are beginning to hurt Western interests.

A historic watershed is indeed approaching in the region’s transition by the end of this year when the 7,000-kilometer natural gas pipeline leading all the way from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and leading to China’s Xinjiang becomes operational. China has also taken an early lead in gaining access to Turkmenistan’s Yolotan-Osman gas fields, apart from its strident gains in energy cooperation with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

To be sure, the West is rattled as its own prospects of gaining access to the Caspian energy come under threat. Turkmenistan, in particular, is viewed as a major source of gas for the European Union’s proposed Trans-Caspian projects, which the US has been promoting as a means to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. But the West has no effective answer to the growing Chinese influence in Central Asia. Certainly, the US is hard-pressed to find “counterweights” to challenge China’s profile as an all-round stakeholder in the region. Potential “counterweights” such as Turkey and Japan do not look convincing either.

The challenge the US faces in the region in countering China’s new clout is comparable to what it faces in Africa. Clearly, the US today has less leverage to advance its interests than in the 1990s. The US continues to enjoy enormous “soft power” in Central Asia, which probably no country other than Russia can match. But China’s presence is cutting into its leverage in advancing US interests in the form of increasing American business involvement or promoting democracy.

Like Africa, Central Asia has options. Central Asian elites’ perceptions have changed. They no longer see the US in the “uniploar moment” right after the Cold War. In contrast with America with its financial crisis, they see China as a rising power with capital surplus and financial muscle and a properly defined strategy towards the region and its problems.

Thus, China is buying up the region’s resources and breaking into Soviet-era industries that have been in a state of serious disrepair. China complicates Western aid efforts by undertaking projects across the board. US companies do not build railways or pipelines or highways and dams. They do not do energy infrastructure, but they focus on the extractive sectors – oil, gas, minerals – and the Central Asians take note of the West’s exploitative instinct.

Beyond oil, US companies are shirking opportunities in the region. Except for oil, where investment money goes in no matter what, there hasn’t been much Western investment in recent years. To sum up, the core difference is that to most Americans, Central Asia is still a region of crisis, whereas to China it is a region of opportunity with which the fortunes of China’s “Go West” policy is closely intertwined in political, strategic and economic terms.

To the West’s dismay, belying the prognosis of most Western analysts and regional experts, China and Russia have also been harmonizing their regional policy in Central Asia and no serious contradictions have surfaced. Of course, Moscow remained vigilant about US ploys to create a wedge between Russia and China. What emerges is that Russia has been pragmatic enough to come to terms with the impressive growth of China’s influence in the Central Asian region, while China on its part has taken care not to tread on Russian sensitivities or to challenge Russia’s legitimate interests.

All this may be leading to a rethink in Washington about the Chinese presence in Central Asia. Indeed, there are potential seeds of discord in China’s relations with the region. Much will depend on how the unrest in Xinjiang plays out. That external forces have muddied the waters of disaffection in Xinjiang is beyond doubt. Interestingly, Central Asian countries and Russia have shown a high degree of understanding towards the Chinese authorities’ handling of the unrest in Xinjiang.

‘Reset’ in the US’s Russia ties
On the other hand, Russian-American relations have plunged to their lowest point in a quarter of a century. Under then-president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia strengthened its statehood, began modernizing its economy and addressing extensive social tasks, and, most important, ensuring its security more effectively. Also, for the first time in its history perhaps, Russia today has the capacity and resolve to cope with all these tasks simultaneously. Russia has also concurrently strengthened its positions in the global economy and in global finances. In short, Putin has created a solid foundation for formulating Russia’s foreign policy strategy.

Russia’s post-Soviet transformation hasn’t gone the way that Washington scripted. Moscow no longer feels it has to behave in deference to the US. Russians are now ready to say whatever they want and are bent on rebuilding their traditional empirical power.

Therefore, the fundamental objective of the US regional strategy in Central Asia during the recent years has been to weaken Russian influence in a region which constitutes Russia’s “soft underbelly”, no matter Russia’s legitimate interests there. From this perspective, the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will be of profound consequence for the geopolitics of the Central Asian region. The expansion essentially reflects the American strategy. Its forays into new areas of activity, such as energy security or cyber crime, go hand-in-hand with the US’s global strategy. The US’s determination to transform NATO as a global organization is never in doubt.

NATO’s continued expansion squeezes Russia’s strategic space and impacts on its national-security concerns. On its part, NATO has spared no efforts in recent years to advance its relations with the countries of the Central Asian region. The alliance runs into obstacles in its effort to get a firm foothold in the region, but the US’s determination to press ahead remains unshaken.

Despite repeated urgings by Russia through the past three years for a cooperative relationship between NATO on the one hand and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the SCO on the other, the US has balked. The US prefers that NATO deals with Central Asian capitals on a bilateral basis which will not concede any regional leadership role for Russia or legitimize the aspirations of the CSTO and the SCO as organizations integral to regional stability and security.

On balance, NATO failed to gatecrash into a region where Russia’s traditional influence is overwhelming and where Russia is determined to keep things that way no matter what it takes. But the alliance has made incremental gains. Over the past two-year period, Moscow has rapidly built up the CSTO as a bulwark against NATO in Central Asia. Some Russian commentators have forecast that the CSTO is destined to become Warsaw Pact II.

A “reset” in US-Russia ties, which the Barack Obama administration promised, can work as a potential game-changer in the great game in Central Asia. But a profound “reset” is a long haul. The US is still opting for a selective engagement of Russia specific to areas that are of pressing relevance to current US interests, such as the nuclear non-proliferation agenda and terrorism and the situation around Iran. Russia, on the other hand, is seeking an all-round engagement with the US on the basis of an equal partnership and mutuality of interests and concerns. There is no evidence, however, that the US is in a mood to grant such an elevated status to Russia as an equal partner on the global stage.

All signs are that the Obama administration will not concede Russia’s special interests in its so-called “near abroad” in the post-Soviet space. On the contrary, the US is accelerating the contestation for influence in the Caucasus, the Caspian and in Central Asia.

Of late, the great game, which has been keenly pursued in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, has spilled over into Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The change of leadership in Ashgabat in 2007 has provided an opportunity for the US to modulate that country’s policy of “positive neutrality” in favor of greater engagement with the West.

The prospects for sourcing Turkmen gas for the Trans-Caspian projects have significantly improved. Turkmenistan also offers transit facilities for the US to ferry supplies to Afghanistan. Ashgabat is steadily moving out of the Russian orbit and edging close to the US. The Turkmen efforts to directly access the world energy market without the Russian middleman can have a domino effect on other energy producing countries in the region. In turn, it holds the potential to erode Russia’s overall standing in Central Asia and to render ineffectual the Moscow-led regional integration processes.

But what is unfolding over Tajikistan is vintage great game from the 19th century. Tajikistan’s importance has increased as a gateway to Central Asia for the US influence entrenched in Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s strategic importance can’t be understated:

  • It is a corridor leading to the turbulent Ferghana Valley.
  • It borders Xinjiang.
  • It is a hotbed of militant Islam.
  • It is an oasis of Iranian (Persian) culture.
  • It controls the region’s watersheds.
  • It is a principal route for drug traffickers.
  • It is Russia’s furthest military outpost on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
  • Over and above, of course, Tajikistan is integral to the stabilization of Afghan polity, while Tajik nationalism can be a potent weapon in the hands of Uzbekistan’s adversaries.

    Thus, for any number of good reasons, prising Tajikistan away from the orbit of traditional Russian influence has become a key objective of US diplomacy. The thrust of the US’s so-called “Great Central Asia” strategy aims at pulling Tajikistan toward Afghanistan so that a new dynamic will generate, which would incrementally draw the Central Asian region away from Russian and Chinese influence and toward South Asian countries, with Afghanistan acting as a hub or a revolving door. The US has brought in international financial institutions to explore the possibility of funding trans-regional projects that strengthen the infrastructure and communication links between the countries of the Central Asian region and the South Asian region.

    The huge expansion of US influence in South Asia has come in handy in this effort, as Afghanistan is a vital link that can connect Central Asia with South Asia. The US’s so-called “Great Central Asia” strategy under the George W Bush administration aimed at drawing the Central Asian states away from the SCO toward a regional cooperation arrangement with the South Asian region.

    However, trans-border infrastructure projects of the sort envisaged in the US’s “Great Central Asia” strategy can be advanced only if intra-regional relations between the countries of South Asia and their equations with the US pan out. The standoff between the US and Iran remains a negative factor seriously impeding regional cooperation.

    Regional cooperation can advance and India’s involvement in the Central Asian region can gain in substance only if it can address the vexed issue of a viable access route to the region. As things stand, the South Asian region as a whole lacks a basic regional identity, let alone an awareness of the imperatives of regional cooperation with the neighboring Central Asian region.

    India and Pakistan are far from dispelling the mutual mistrust in their relationship. There is opposition within India to resolving even “doable” issues, pending the settlement of intractable problems. India also has turned its back on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, which could have been a potential stabilizer in the regional equations.

    A Sino-Russian concord
    Be that as it may, China appreciates that the contradictions and struggles between Russia and the Western powers in the post-Cold War years are at a defining moment. In comparison, the Sino-Russian relationship, with its difficult history, reached an almost unparalleled level of mutual understanding. That indeed helped the SCO gain flesh and blood. On the face of it, the SCO is everything that former US president Richard Nixon and national security advisor Henry Kissinger – who sought to keep Russia and China apart – tried to prevent.

    In respect of the geopolitics of Central Asia, China has shared concerns with Russia, especially on two aspects. First, like Russia, China also harbors misgivings about NATO’s designs toward Central Asia and appreciates the Russian efforts to keep the Western alliance out of the region. Second, Russia and China have been thinking hard about the concept of Central Asia. The point is, it is unrealistic for Russia and China (and for the SCO) to deal with the processes which are going on in the Central Asian region without taking into consideration the developments in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

    The SCO encounters the reality that even though Central Asia and South Asia used to belong to different geopolitical templates until quite recently, this is no longer so, especially after 9/11 provided the opportunity to the US to establish a long-term presence in Afghanistan.

    There are definite signs that extremist elements based in Afghanistan, which, unsurprisingly, come under the covert influence of various external players, will continue to test the resolve of Russia and China (and the SCO) as guarantors of regional security and stability. In short, the unrest in Andizhan in the Ferghana Valley in May 2005 was not a mere flash in the pan.

    This is an added reason why the Xinjiang developments assume importance. What muddies the waters is that the forces of militant Islam have had a controversial history of lending themselves as geopolitical tools during the Cold war era. Then, there are serious question marks about the exact credentials of movements such as Hizb ul-Tahrir, which is based in London, though ostensibly given to virulent anti-Zionist rhetoric, and is very active in Pakistan and the Central Asian countries.

    Given the convergence of Chinese-Russian interests with regard to Central Asia’s security and stability, the question has often arisen as to the SCO’s prospects of evolving into a NATO-like military alliance. The core issue is the extent to which Russia and China will work together to safeguard their common concerns and shared interests. If at all the SCO develops into a “NATO of the East”, that can only happen in the distant future. Neither Russia nor China is looking for a military alliance between them. But, in the meanwhile, security cooperation within the SCO is assuming new dimensions and may intensify, especially if the Afghan situation continues to deteriorate.

    China tacitly concurs with the Russian idea of a tandem arrangement involving the CSTO and the SCO. There is a lot of overlap in the membership of the two organizations. Five of the seven CSTO member states are in the SCO, while five of the six SCO member states are in the CSTO. (CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.)

    Similarly, there are overlaps in the spheres of responsibility of the two organizations. What may well happen is that the SCO may focus on the range of so-called “new threats” rather than on the conventional form of military threats, while the CSTO (which is, incidentally, developing a rapid-reaction force similar to NATO’s), maintains a common air-defense system, training of military personnel, arms procurement, and so forth.

    How does the West tackle the SCO’s “challenge”? Arguably, the West doesn’t necessarily have to see the SCO as an antagonist. The stability and security of Central Asia, which is the core mission of the SCO, is as much in the West’s interests as Russia’s or China’s. The modern-day “foreign devils on the Silk Road” – drug traffickers, Islamic warriors or plain terrorists – are as much of concern to the West’s security as to the SCO member countries.

    But we live in a real world. US efforts to weaken the SCO will continue. The efforts may even be stepped up. By current indications, Washington is moving on the basis of the assessment that the SCO is still some way from becoming a strategic alliance and there is still time to weaken it. Equally, the US counter-strategy toward any SCO role in Afghanistan will be by way of binding Pakistan even closer to NATO. Washington is under compulsion to accommodate Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan. The AfPak strategy serves this purpose.

    The rationale of the SCO having to move south from the Central Asian region is obvious. Both Russia and China view with growing concern the deepening crisis in Afghanistan. They adopt a two-track approach. First, they work closely on a bilateral track with the government headed by President Hamid Karzai. At the same time, they look for ways to involve the SCO. Russia and China are greatly worried about the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, though Russian statements have been more forthright.

    The so-called “hidden agenda” in the US’s Afghan strategy has always intrigued capitals in the region. The fact is that the eight-year “war on terror” in Afghanistan has not only led to the establishment of a military presence in Central Asia and the first “out-of-area” operations for NATO, which in itself holds immense significance for international security, but has also substantially reduced or even eliminated the threat of international terrorism staged from the Hindu Kush for Western countries. Unfortunately, this much cannot be said for the region itself. On the contrary, the Afghan war has:

  • Seriously destabilized Pakistan.
  • Led to the cross-border insurgency directed against Iran.
  • Promoted drug-trafficking.
  • Spurred activities by Islamist-driven insurgent elements based in Afghanistan in Central Asia, Xinjiang and North Caucasus.
  • Made India a victim of terrorism originating from Pakistani soil.
  • Indeed, there is a degree of ambivalence on the part of the US with regard to engaging the hardline Taliban. There are reports that the Pakistani military has openly acknowledged its continuing contacts with the hardcore Taliban leadership of Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani and has offered to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, provided the US curbs India’s involvement in Afghanistan.

    This is a blatant admission that the Taliban enjoy safe haven in Pakistan and still continue to be an instrument of regional policy for the Pakistani establishment. The Taliban’s political rehabilitation at this juncture is certain to cause disquiet among regional powers. Conceivably, Iran and India’s resistance to the Taliban would seem to be fundamental. They have consistently seen a connection between Islamic extremism in the region and the Taliban. They would worry that once the radical movement is allowed entry into mainstream political life, Afghanistan could easily get “Talibanized” almost overnight. The ground reality is that the Taliban are today by far the best-organized force in Afghanistan. It can easily eclipse other groups and establish its dominance.

    India’s China syndrome
    Curiously, among the key players in the Central Asian region – Russia, the US, China, Iran and the European Union – India’s commonality of interests is at its maximum with China.

    India, too, shares China’s aversion to a bloc mentality or any extravagant indulgence in the great game as such. India’s priorities in fighting terrorism, religious extremism and separatism are no less than China’s. As with China, these are contemporaneous issues that are “felt in the blood” and directly impact on India’s national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Like China, India follows a policy of scrupulously steering clear of any interference in the internal affairs of the Central Asian states.

    Ideally, therefore, China provides a fine example for India to emulate. Through a sophisticated matrix of interlocking and mutually reinforcing regional and bilateral formats, China has effectively advanced the pursuit of its national interests in the region. Such an approach enabled China to leap over the large morass of hostility and suspicion regarding Chinese intentions, which was a backlog of the region’s Soviet history. It also enabled China to harmonize with Russia and avoid treading on Russian sensitivities regarding a region that forms part of Russia’s historical consciousness.

    But just as China’s is a story of diplomatic and political success, India’s has been a chronicle of dismal failure. The Central Asian region is a glaring example of the lop-sided priorities in India’s foreign policy. No serious power can ignore the regions neighboring to it or its “near abroad”. History testifies to the importance of geography in foreign policy. Yet, India’s relations with the Central Asian region are virtually in a state of neglect. (India’s robust effort lately to source nuclear fuel from Kazakhstan is a noble exception.) India’s regional policy in Central Asia can only be summed up as one of “masterly inactivity”.

    India started off brilliantly in the early 1990s, when the countries of Central Asia appeared as independent sovereign entities. Thanks to Soviet propaganda, which unfailingly preached the idealism of Indo-Soviet friendship, India was a role model for the Central Asian states. Their leaderships, schooled in the Kremlin’s worldview, instinctively warmed to India. They solicited deep and seamless involvement by India in their formative years of state formation.

    Despite the big changes in the character of Delhi’s ties with Moscow during the period since 1991, Russia is still viewed as a traditional ally by India and Russian influence in the Central Asian region as a positive factor for regional stability and security. At the very minimum, India has no real clash of interests with Russia in Central Asia.

    But by the middle of the 1990s, it began to dawn on the Central Asian capitals already that India wasn’t focused enough on the region and that its priorities lay elsewhere – in the faraway West. India was niggardly in making investments in Central Asia; India neglected its trade with the region and failed to assist the region to resuscitate its Soviet-era high-tech industry or even to commercially tap its mineral resources; and India did nothing to develop its communication links with the region.

    Why is the SCO so important for India?

  • First and foremost, it is a security organization that focuses on regional security and stability. Fighting terrorism, religious extremism and political separatism forms the core of the SCO’s agenda. In this sphere, India has shared concerns.
  • The SCO is a comfortably large enough umbrella for a country of India’s size to take its due place. There is so single overbearing presence in the tent. All decisions taken by the SCO are on the basis of consensus. The SCO is adamant that it will not preach or prescribe any particular way of life to the world community.
  • The SCO stands for a democratized world order based on multilateralism and respect of international law. It gives primacy to the United Nations in world affairs. It makes no distinction between countries, big and small. It believes that security is indivisible. It respects national sovereignty in the conduct of international relations. India should completely feel at home with the SCO charter.
  • The SCO can creatively supplement India’s “Look East” policy of engaging the countries of the Southeast Asian and the Asia Pacific regions.
  • The SCO offers vast scope for economic cooperation. The organization may undertake regional projects in infrastructure development, energy and communications. It may develop in future common banking facilities and a common market.
  • Indian diplomacy can aspire to utilize the SCO forum for tempering India’s relations with the organization’s member countries – and observers.

    However, there are troubling questions about the orientation of Indian policy toward the SCO. India has largely adopted a lukewarm attitude towards it. Most certainly, India has been wary of making any moves in the SCO’s direction that might be construed by the US as a “strategic defiance” of its regional policy in Central Asia. The unsubstantiated Indian claim is that China has been “blocking” India’s membership of the SCO.

    But the actuality seems to lie somewhere between. Washington has been eyeing New Delhi as a partner in the pursuit of its “Great Central Asia” strategy. This was most pronounced during the eight years of the George W Bush presidency when the so-called US-India strategic partnership rapidly began getting “militarized”. Indian analysts began harboring a notion that India was poised to play the role of a “balancer” in the international system and as a “counterweight” to China in the US’s Asian strategies.

    Fortunately, given the “disconnect” between Indian strategic analysts and policymakers in the establishment, official thinking mostly remained impervious to these strange ideas. But a bizarre idea gained ground in the Indian establishment that with kindred “Asian democracies” like Australia, Singapore and Japan, Delhi could checkmate China’s march in the region – a sort of Wilsonian pipedream that belied ground realities.

    At any rate, the illusions inculcated in the Indian mind during the Bush era seem to be fast dissipating, thanks to a variety of factors that have compelled a rethink about the US’s role in the contemporary world, especially the shadows cast by the global economic crisis. Fortuitously, India has also put behind it the ill-conceived idea of a quadripartite alliance of “Asian democracies”, with the US, Japan and Australia as its partners.

    In retrospect, Indian analysts

  • Failed to fathom the volatility in the international system.
  • Underestimated the growing tendencies of multilateralism.
  • Overlooked Russia’s resurgence.
  • Failed to comprehend the centrality of Pakistan in the US’s regional strategies in South Asia, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.
  • Refused to take cognizance of the extent of interdependence developed in the US-China relationship through the past decade, which made redundant for the US any need of India as a “counterweight” to China.

    Germane to all this was India’s inability to come to terms with China’s rise and a lack of comprehension of the profound changes that swept over “communist” China.

    On balance, India’s “China syndrome” seems to have come in the way of rational long-term thinking towards the Central Asian region. The Indian strategic community remained dogmatically wedded to the thesis regarding a pattern of Chinese “encirclement” of India. Indian analysts lapped up the so-called “string of pearls” thesis, propounded by a junior ex-Pentagon analyst. What they overlook is that China’s neighborhood policy is not necessarily and/or invariably India-centric; that Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar also happen to be critically important neighboring countries for China in intrinsic terms; and that it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to subject its relations with its neighbors to a state of benign neglect as a gesture of friendliness toward India.

    Unlike India, China accords the highest priority in its foreign policy to relations with its neighbors. The stability and friendliness of Nepal has a direct bearing on Tibet’s security. The communication links via Pakistan or Myanmar by far shorten China’s long-winded routes existing today via the Malacca Strait. The Gulf region accounts for almost 90% of China’s oil imports. China is keenly seeking the export of its products to the booming Gulf markets and in the newly developed African markets.

    Second, what prevents India from pursuing a dynamic policy towards its neighboring countries? Sri Lanka first offered the Hambantota port development project to India, and China figured only as a second option. Besides, it is not as if China disrupts India’s efforts to develop its relations with its neighbors like Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

    Again, the animated discourses in India about Sino-Pakistani military ties fail to factor in that Pakistan, too, is entitled to keep up its defense preparedness just as New Delhi has been justifiably vigilant about the Indian military capability to handle threat perceptions vis-a-vis China or Pakistan. India has very substantially jacked up its defense budget in recent years. This scale of massive expenditure on military buildup finds acceptability in Indian public opinion. Besides, China is not the only country that supplies weapons to Pakistan. China’s access to sophisticated military technology is actually far more limited than that of France or the US or Russia or Israel. Pakistan today is one of the biggest recipients of military assistance from the US, next only to Israel.

    Ultimately, therefore, a mutual understanding with China becomes the imperative need if Indian policies are to be anywhere near optimal in tackling the challenges of regional security and stability.

    Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


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