China’s engagement with world largely driven by commercial, strategic interests: Prof Swaran Singh

"India on the other hand has enduring civilisational relations with the world. This has seen India's leadership emphasising on diaspora and cultural links to great advantage with substantial success."
For representational purpose only
For representational purpose only

Prof Swaran Singh, Visiting Professor, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada and Professor for Diplomacy and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in an exclusive interview talks about India's relationship with China and its rising activities in India's neighbourhood. Excerpts

Q. What is your analysis about India’s neghbourhood from the perspective of geostrategy and geopolitics?

A: India, being increasingly recognised as an emerging economy and middle power, has transformed its imagination in its neighbourhood. Today, India is an active player not only in its immediate periphery in South Asia where sub regional cooperation like the BIMSTEC have received added attention but also increased engagement in its extended neighbourhood both in East and West. India is an influential voice today in both the Quads in the Indo-Pacific in the East and I1U2 Framework in West Asia. Surely, this has brought forward India’s worldview both in geostrategy and geopolitics for increasing debates both for its theories as also praxis. This provides opportunities to both India’s policy analysts as also policy practitioners to contribute to this transformation and empower India’s ambitious leadership that seeks to harness this historic moment in India’s rise to global power stature.

Q. In recent years China has been pursuing a pro-active/aggressive approach in building its relations with countries in our neighbourhood. What is your observation on it?

A: Surely, the unprecedented rise of China’s economic leverages in the last forty years has made it increasingly visible in all parts of the world including in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. Given India’s complicated equations with China, this no doubt presents a major challenge but India has its own advantages that must be recognised. China’s engagement with the world has been largely driven by commercial and strategic interests resulting in rapid rise in its one-sided trade and investments. These have increasingly begun to cost recipient nations revealing the ‘debt-trap’ part of China’s economic engagement. India on the other hand has had enduring civilisational, cultural, historical, linguistic, social, religious and a whole range of inter-societal relations that are completely different. This has seen India’s leadership emphasising on diaspora and cultural links to great advantage with substantial success.

Q: Indian Army Chief Gen Manoj Pande is on a visit to Bhutan at the time there are reports of China carrying out construction in Bhutan’s territory towards Dokalam. What do you have to say on this?

A: India-Bhutan relations are unique and Indian military had successfully withstood an eye-ball to eye-ball in Doklam sector in 2017. Second, China’s incremental two-steps forward one-step backward attempts with the rest of the neighbourhood have proven ineffective so far making China change its strategy to sustained heavy deployments and modernisation of its frontier areas. India’s strategy, therefore, needs to be redefined accordingly which, in this case, would require stronger military engagement of Bhutan. Gen Pande’s visit is a reflection of Indian leadership taking steps to implement such efforts at building stronger synergies with Bhutan. The fact that world powers today see China as their shared challenge and are more than willing to cultivate India as their friends provides an added advantage to India when dealing with its China challenge. Bhutan no doubt has seen a very piecemeal increase in its engagement with China yet fundamentals of its policy remain clearly aligned to India. Finally, the fact that China has lately disclosed some of new territorial claims in eastern Bhutan are sure to make Thimpu increasingly skeptical of China and therefore equally inclined to synergise its China engagement with India.

Q: Asia has become a centre of tense border situations, be it Russia-Ukraine, China-India and even that of South China Sea. Share your insights on possible Chinese moves keeping the situation in Mind.

A: Ever since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia — that created the system of territorial nation-states — territorial disputes have been the main cause of inter-state tensions. Europe over centuries, and partly thanks to its colonisation and colonial wars making them fight each other out of Europe, have stabilised their nation-building while newly independent states around Asia or in case of post-Soviet republics are still stabilising their sense of secure borders. But China, which has had a large number of border disputes with its neighbours should surely learn lessons from the Ukraine crisis where smaller nations have earned the support of much of the western world and withstood Russian power. This is especially true of China’s cross-strait relations which are often suspect of becoming a flashpoint. The recent example of Beijing’s commentaries in response to reports on Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of US House of Representatives, planning a visit to Taiwan is a lesson that China remains at the centerstage of global attention.

Q: What role does the Western nations have in influencing the India-China relations?

A: Western nations that see China as their shared challenges have always been keen to cultivate India's friends to support their countervailing of China. Repeatedly, not just western leaders but also Russia has offered to mediate between India and China. New Delhi of course has always been clear about its being more than capable to redress its China challenge and not willing to allow any third party intervention. India’s approach to China has been nuanced in not treating it as either friend or foe but developing its China policy as a spectrum of responses that include multiple shades of cooperation, coordination, contestation and standing up to China when required. Compared to relatively monolith China, India has the advantage of being home to diverse languages, ethnicities, regions and religions and therefore perfectly at home in balancing such a complex spectrum of responses.

Q: Where are India-China relations heading to?

A: Given that both China and India are world’s largest population nations — next largest the United States being one-fourth in size — and are ordained to become by 2050 world’s largest and second largest economies, both have to tread carefully to avoid derailing their unprecedented development and historic mandate to lead the world together. But it is also true that as they manage to redress and resolve their historic and bilateral irritants, there will always be newer unforeseen challenges that will flow from their rise in stature as also form their expanding mutual economic and social engagements. Their leadership has so far managed this roller coaster so far with minimum costs and hopefully will continue to manage their challenges to fulfil their historic mandate of reemerging as world’s leading civilisational nations.

Q: How can India and China overcome their limitations and work together for the overall good?

A: This sure remains an uphill task, especially when leaders on any side become too engaged with their myopic staying in power impulses. Lately, President Xi has been preoccupied with the 95th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army and coming 20th Party Congress at home and with China’s continuing trade and technology wars with the United States abroad. These become distracting especially when President Xi seeks to break all conventions to stay in power beyond two terms in office. Without doubt such distractions have their impact on China’s relations with India. In the long run however both China and India fully understand each other’s import for their historic rise and therefore in spite of occasional rhetoric against each other or even in face of increasing frequency of border tensions both have continued to engage each other and hopefully continue to manage their enduring and emerging challenges to rise to their historic mandate of reemerging as leading nations with opportunity to lead the world to becoming a more peaceful place for all.

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