Chinas MSR: A strategic view from India
Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out the ambitious Silk Road plan in late 2013. The project which aims to connect Southeast Asia with Europe through the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean is being founded on economic benefits for the entire region. There is no doubt that such a plan would strengthen the regions connectivity and bolster Asias economic integration. However, the road map to realizing this plan has serious underlying strategic implications for India, which cannot be ignored.
The Strategic Lens
Looking at the MSR against the backdrop it was launched, it becomes difficult to ignore security and strategic undertones of the project. President Xi announced the initiative during his visit to Indonesia in 2013, at a time when Chinas neighbours were beginning to voice their concerns over the developments in the South China Sea. The Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012 had garnered international attention to the disputes and with the change in Chinese leadership in 2013 there was a new sense of nationalism in defending what China considered its own. If Deng Xiaoping advocated hide your strength and bide your time, the current leadership is advocating a stronger foreign policy to achieve the great Chinese dream. To achieve this dream, China will have to emerge as a strong leader, be a responsible security provider and influence the security and economic environment globally. Establishing a favorable status quo in the South China Sea was only a natural choice.
Chinese assertiveness in fortifying its claims in the South China Sea flows naturally from Beijings maritime outlook linked to its path to be a great power. It caused tensions in Southeast Asia with the Philippines and Vietnam defending their claims with equal vigor and protesting Chinese actions on the matter. Soon, Chinas immediate neighbors were alleging Beijing of intimidation and bullying leading to souring of ties between Beijing and some of its Southeast Asian countries. The South China Sea also put ASEAN to test as a regional institution and brought forward its weaknesses and challenges. As Chinas relationship with ASEAN members entered troubled grounds, other disputing nations turned to extra regional powers for support and to stabilize the situation. China opposed international engagement on the issue and continues to warn US and other nations to not aggravate the situation.
However, one cannot aim to be a great power with poor relations with its own neighbours. In September and October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang ventured on a charm offensive visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, and Vietnam as well as attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in an effort to mend ties and foster better relations. Chinas charm offensive incidentally coincided with Washingtons government shutdown at home, leading to an American absence at regional platforms during the time. As the international community began to debate a weakening American influence in the region- due to Washingtons commitments in other parts of the world- China took the opportunity to present itself as a regional leader both in the economic and security space. At APEC and EAS, China emphasised on regional connectivity and cooperation presenting itself as a credible alternative to lead and manage the issues in Asia, to begin with. It was also at this point that China took the mantra of Asia for Asians which is essentially to imply that there is now a time to create a structure and security framework which can be conceived, run and sustained by Asia and perhaps led by Beijing. China adopted the policy of win-win cooperation where it will help its regional partners develop, as it marches down the path of growth and development itself.
Xi Jinping announced the launch of the MSR during his trip to Indonesia capitalizing on the need for better regional connectivity and infrastructure development. Whether viewed from the economic lens or security, there was no denying Asias need for connectivity corridors and the market available for it. The rise of China and its ambitions to realize the great Chinese dream too, relies heavily on better connectivity within the region and beyond.
If China was being assertive in the South China Sea, it was also being a leader in presenting alternatives addressing economic needs of the region. Whether it is Vietnam or the Philippines in Southeast Asia or India on the west of Malacca, Chinese economic opportunities are as difficult to ignore as its underlying strategic implications.
Sino-Indian Competition/Great Power Rivalry
China and India are both rising powers and considered to be two giants of Asia. However, Indias lack of a leadership directive for the region has placed China ahead of the game in some sections. Beijings growing economic weight and its domestic reforms has allowed China to project its influence in regions far from its shores. Chinas slow and steady increasing presence in the Indian Ocean has forced India to re-evaluate its own maritime policies. The MSR connects the Western Pacific to Europe through the Indian Ocean, an area of primary interest to India and the Indian navy. It is in fact a theatre of geo-politics where India considers itself an eminent power. In the Indian Ocean, it gives China leverage in regional politics in an area which is otherwise considered as Indias sphere of strategic influence. It presents Beijing as a credible regional leader, willing to address challenges through cooperation; which India is struggling to articulate at this point in time. More so, it brings China to proximity of Indian interests challenging New Delhis way of engagement with its neighborhood.
However, for Chinas dreams to materialize, it will have to increase its presence in other parts of the world. If China is no match for the world super power militarily, U.S. is no match to Chinas economic initiatives supported by a credible investment framework. Chinas connectivity map for the world could place Beijing at the great powers table, increasing its influence and stake in world politics.
It is important to note at this point, that great power rivalry of the 21st century appear to be different than what history suggests. China is not looking to overthrow American dominance in the world, at least not yet. It has benefitted immensely from the current security order and is only looking to present itself as a parallel leader. Instead of a bipolar world, China is looking to create a multipolar worldwhere it can be a strong leader with great power abilities. Establishments such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are an example of Chinese leadership without breaking down existing mechanisms. Much to Washingtons disappointment, the AIIB presents China as a credible actor in addressing Asias economic concerns. The example of AIIB is also suggestive of what China can accomplish through economic initiatives. Despite strong opposition from US, traditional American allies such as the UK and Australia signed up for the initiative. It is also indicative of a changing geo-political trend toward a multipolar world and more so, a shift from the post Cold War order as far as security and strategic initiatives go.
For the smaller island nations of IOR, Chinese investments mean an alternative to a space traditionally dominated by one player- India. Where India lacked a vision, China rolled out a structured framework in achieving its foreign policy goals. New Delhi had little choice but to join the AIIB, given its economic benefits and Indias own need for capital to boost its infrastructure gap. However, Indias decision to join the MSR has not been that easy, even though it compliments New Delhis own connectivity and infrastructure development plans. Whether the MSR was an intentional strategic initiative or not does not rule out the fact that it is yielding benefits toward Chinese ambitions of becoming a global power.
The security concerns in the maritime space at large can be summed up in the words of Admiral Scott H. Swift, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet. Addressing a conference on maritime security in Canberra, Admiral Swift noted On one side is a potential return of might makes right after more than seventy years of stability. On the other is a continuum of the international rules based system that has served us all so well, which one do we choose? Arguably the region is involuntarily turning toward adopting new security architecture as an effect of current geo-political shifts. As new powers continue to rise and claim a stake in security frameworks, established rules and norms are bound to be challenged. It is this change which is so uncertain, is creating concerns and strategic suspicion regarding new developments in the region.
India and China has interacted with each other since ancient times. However, the two Asian giants are only starting to communicate in the maritime space now, unfortunately in a hostile environment. How the rising powers of the region manage this new relationship with overlapping strategic interests will shape the new security order in the region. The issue is not about rising powers, it is an accepted custom that every developing nation with great power ambitions, will question and contest established norms. The issue is the rules and norms that follow this rise and how the global community accepts it. The issue for India is how the new norms affect New Delhis strategic and economic interests? China, at this point has more economic and strategic clout than India at the global stage. India is no match to Chinese ambitious connectivity plans and is forced to open its own projects to Chinese investments. While opening up to Chinese investments can be credited to the new government with a pragmatic China policy, New Delhi has to balance between infrastructure needs and strategic interests. A serious security concern with Chinas connectivity plan is the growing relationship between Beijing and Islamabad. Gwadar is not a stop on the MSR map and Beijing has a bilateral economic corridor with Pakistan- China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), rather than as part of the Road initiative. Regardless of Pakistans absence from the MSR map, Chinese engagements with Pakistan would ultimately merge with the MSR, creating a serious security concern for India.
The current government is conscious of Indias dire need to improve connectivity at home and beyond esp. in the border areas. If Modis government is pragmatic enough to identify the economic benefits of Chinas infrastructure initiatives, it is also conscious of undermining New Delhis strategic outreach. Speaking at a conference on Asian Connectivity, Indias Foreign Secretary warned against the reality that others may see connectivity as an exercise in hard wiring that influences choices. The other issue with Chinas connectivity projects, in particular the MSR is the lack of clarity in the structure and roadmap in realizing the initiative. Where there has been a clear mandate on how the project will be achieved and what are the stakes involved, India has responded positively regardless of strategic concerns. A case in point is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), where India is the second highest stakeholder in a Chinese initiative competing with established mechanisms to fund and address regional economic needs. New Delhi does not see the clarity of the AIIB structure while considering the MSR. Chinas MSR is much rather a work in progress, where Beijing is gauging reactions before it unveils a fully developed plan, if there is one. For a nation which always defines a clear plan, method and process to its economic initiatives, the MSR is rather weak in its structural layout. It took Beijing almost 18 months to issue an official document on the MSRs road map.
When compared with active Chinese engagement in the Indian Ocean region, the MSR unfortunately leans heavy on strategic implications. Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is no longer a possibility, but a reality. Although at this point, it is not easy for China to project power militarily in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR); investments in the island nations of the IOR through the MSR or at a bilateral level would give Beijing a legitimate foothold into the affairs of the IOR. A significant economic investment would invariably increase Chinas stakes in the region laying the foundation for its military which naturally follows economic interests. Chinas growing engagement with Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, the docking of submarines in Sri Lanka, the Gwadar port and the China-Pakistan Economic corridor only add to Indias suspicions regarding the MSR. Beijing is making headway in port development in the region providing an insight into Chinese ownership of these ports in others territory. While the debate about turning these ports into bases could be regarded as hawkish, the possibility of an increase in Beijings military facilities in the region is not far from reality. It is true that a military base does not serve the same purpose as a military facility esp. during times of war; these facilities can serve immense strategic leverage in a world where nations are looking to project influence while avoiding armed conflicts. It would be naive to consider Beijing did not calculate the strategic leverage the MSR would provide, if materialized. It would be more so, to think China is wrong in iits ambitions; every rising power has the right to expand its presence and India would do it too, if it could. It is Indias own great power ambitions, which make it necessary to weigh Chinese strategic imperatives of the MSR.
The Road Ahead
As this essay has laid out above, there are serious security concerns regarding Chinas MSR. These concerns mostly surround Indias own strategic influence in the region, rather than worrying about China dominating the connectivity game or getting ahead of India. What is the best way to respond to MSR that would address Indias infrastructure needs without compromising New Delhis strategic interests? Unfortunately, there is no one answer to that question. India will have to pick and choose invitations to different initiatives based on its interests weighing its advantages and loses, if any. Where India sees opportunity, it supports corridors which are a part of the larger One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative such as the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) corridor.
The point to remember- China is not the only option India has to bridge its infrastructure needs, although it may have the most capital to invest. Japan and U.S. are quickly emerging as good alternatives for India and Tokyo is competing with Beijing in its infrastructure diplomacy. While India continues to weigh the strategic pros and cons of joining the MSR, it can expand collaborations with Japan to boost its connectivity corridors. New Delhi is already opening its doors to Japan in areas which has traditionally been closed to foreign investments. The Modi government has welcomed Japanese investments in Indias Northeast region and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands areas with incredible geo-political advantage.
Indo-Japanese relationship enjoys more trust than the Sino-Indian relationship. If the new geo-political shift in Asia is deepening competition and rivalry, it is also opening up avenues for cooperation between nations of the region. If China is being vague in laying out its MSR policy, then New Delhi should take advantage of the current space to collaborate with other nations of the region. Japan is enthusiastic with its launch of Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI) which coincides with Indias now Act East policy. Tokyos PQI appear modest in its scale and scope but it compliments Indias situation. Chinas rise and its consequent affect on regional security have put India on a pedestal at the regional level opening up areas of cooperation. This of course could not have been achieved without New Delhis shift in its policies to step away from its isolationist mode and engage better with friends and partners, old and new. Indias initiatives such as Make in India which has a certain focus on port development, is being supported by Japan. Tokyo in 2015 committed $12 billion to Indias Make in India program and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced an increase in loans to Indias initiatives. The positive outcome is India has choices to take forward its ideas and India is willing to take a decision on these choices. The political will to take a new look at the region, re-evaluating Indias international engagement policies, considering the ongoing geo-political shifts is a trademark of the current government. It is time India took a realistic approach to issues surrounding its interests. Indias policy on economic and security collaborations may have served New Delhis interests in the Cold War and its immediate era, but the current security environment demands a fresh outlook, if India wants to remain relevant in the geo-political environment. While the pace of this shift may be slow compared to regional expectations, it is a significant development and needs to be recognized.
As far as China is concerned, India is engaging with Beijing in building a more robust economic corridor through BCIM and is participating in AIIB, shaping the discourse on connectivity corridors. If the MSR does not address Indias security concerns, India should turn to its next best alternative to achieve its development goals.
If the MSR truly comes to life, it can only benefit India while giving New Delhi the time to scope out its strategy to deal with the security concerns. China is looking to be a responsible leader breaking free from the notion of a free loader riding on the current order. In laying out a vision to integrate Asia economically, Beijing is displaying its leadership qualities. It is unlikely that China will restrict Indias use of the ports and corridors built through the MSR, simply because India was not a member of the initiative. There may be limitations on concessions and privileges for not being a member, but Beijing has failed to formulate a clear plan on the structure of membership, its rights, stakes and responsibilities. As of now, the MSR appears to be more at a bilateral level, which can later be connected to present as a bigger project.
Any development that has been made in port infrastructure in the IOR is the result of bilateral agreement between nations rather than the outcome of a grand strategic plan to integrate the region. India has laid out its own plan to boost its port facilities and increase its maritime trade capacities.
India in April 2016 launched the inaugural Maritime India Summita global platform for investors to explore potential business opportunities in the Indian Maritime Sector. There is recognition within Indias new leadership that New Delhi has long ignored its maritime frontier and the economic opportunities from a strong maritime industry. Mod
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