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"REPORT: CLOSED DOOR ROUND TABLE DISCUSSION : INDIA – CHINA - US DYNAMICS "



Author :
12 Jul 2013


1. The National Maritime Foundation recently held a closed door round table discussion on the complex relationship between India, US and China.

2. The discussion was primarily based on the personal experiences of a few recent visitors to China. They provided insights into current Chinese orientation and related diplomatic ventures. In the process, they underscored some familiar facts and also brought out some new and unknown characteristics. The essence of all discussion was the reaffirmation that in the modern world, India and China cannot be ignored and that the US cannot be wished away. The major takeaways from the discussions are as below.

Takeaways

3. Rise of China. The rise of China is one of the most significant developments of the recent past and it has had a profound impact on the world. While China has always professed that its rise is peaceful, the experience of different nations interacting with China has made them as well as others wary of the manner in which this rise is taking place. There is opacity in the Chinese military spending with a visible lack of clarity about their intentions. China’s rise could have been considered peaceful only if their intentions and effect on the world were reasonably transparent. Growing nationalism, self-belief in its own profile and growth in military forces are collectively elevating China to hegemonic status and assertiveness as evidenced in the South China Sea and the Depsang incidents. Hence, China’s rise cannot be considered peaceful. However, the speakers also noted that even as the rise of China evoked deep concerns, it simultaneously offered some possibilities and opportunities to both India and the US.

4. Free opinion in China does not exist. This premise was reinforced in an informal conversation that one of the speakers had with a serving editor of a reputed Chinese daily in Shanghai. The Editor brought out that the Chinese government actually issues a weekly list of news items that could be reported and no deviations were tolerated. Press guidelines were clearly laid out and strictly enforced, with suppression of negative news being the most common feature. This was also demonstrated by the total blackout on Chinese new sites about the Xinjiang riots on 27 Jun 13 wherein 35 Uighur Muslims died. The incident was subsequently labeled as a terrorist attack by the Chinese government. Think tanks are also not allowed freedom of thought and all think tanks have party personnel in critical positions. The Chinese government actively stifles innovation, curbs ingenuity and does not allow debate or questioning. However, CHAHAR was the odd one out amongst the Chinese think tanks and was trying to maintain a track independent of government control. This intolerance for free opinion in China was in evidence yet again recently when Dr Shen Ding Li was demoted for opposing the government viewpoints. A known critic of the Chinese government, Dr Shen Ding Li is widely respected in the US for his frank views.

5. Disillusionment and dissent prevalent in Chinese youth. Higher education in China is still the privilege of the upper middle class youth and the chosen few. This group appears to be getting increasingly dissatisfied and disgruntled with the lies and propaganda being handed out by the Chinese government to them. They are aware of the factual positions, but prefer to keep quiet so as not to forego their own privileges. They instead see the US as an escape route and the preferred career plan for many of them is to go to the US for studies and not to return. However, this modus operandi could also be a clever feint for the select few who are sent by the Chinese government to learn western norms, skills and attitudes. This learning could then be exploited at a later stage by China in various fora on their return. Further, in spite of internet policing by the government, Chinese youth brazenly flout government controls by purchasing apps from the black market to enjoy unhindered access to the internet and western sites. The speakers also assessed that the attitude of the Chinese towards their own country appeared to be changing and that the urban middle class was emerging as a major player.

6. China’s perception of India. It was opined that, at present, China was not as obsessed with India as India was with China and that South Asia was only a secondary security consideration for Beijing. The speakers independently assessed that China was almost dismissive of India and was seeking to engage only with the US as an equal and with Asian and African client states as a provider of stability, markets and infrastructure. If the US is perceived as the biggest competitor to China, India is not even a competitor. In the Chinese view, Pakistan is considered useful as an irritant to constrain India. At present, China was more concerned with East Asia, especially Japan, US and Vietnam. These leanings can also be seen in Chinese think tank writings which concentrate more on Japan and the US. The Chinese perceive India to be a complicated democracy with an unclear economic growth agenda. They also believe that the Indian political system cannot come together in times of crises. However, there has been a perceptible positive change apropos India in the Chinese thought process since late 2012 with Japan getting a more visible negative tilt.

7. It was also averred that the new found bonhomie towards India has its genesis in China’s animosity towards Japan. China probably does not want to antagonize two powerful interlocutors at the same time. The steady economic and military rise of India is also considered a reason for the tentative amity. China foresees good investmentclimate in India and this perhaps explains a marginally more positive coverage of India by the Chinese press. There is a growing, but grudging, admiration for the Indian Armed Forces and a full scale war between the two countries is seen as unlikely. Skirmishes on the other hand, cannot be ruled out. The reach of nuclear weapons is another contributory factor towards this conclusion. While growing Chinese nationalism may not allow territorial and boundary resolution any time soon, support for a solution along the LAC definition seems to be growing.

8. Even though Chinese think tanks and scholars are talking of an India-US-China triad, they feel that India is boxing above its weight and is the weakest of the three nations. In the Chinese perception, it is a bi-polar dyad at the global level and no other power is strong enough in Asia to make the continent multi-polar. In their mind, a US-China axis is enough to manage Asia. They, however, appreciate India’s hedging skills in the triad and feel that India is in an enviable position with both world powers (US and China) wooing Delhi. But at the same time, Chinese support for India’s UNSC seat did not seem to be on its way in the near term. The belief prevalent in China is that India should avoid leaning towards the US as strategic autonomy is the stated bedrock of Indian thought and identity.

9. Variables doing the rounds in China.> The various issues being debated in China at present are as below:

(a) Would US presence in Asia increase and would the US play a more active role in Asia?

(b) The US pivot or rebalance to Asia is considered bothersome and there is a fear that India would be enticed in to contain China.

(c) Japan is still looked upon with hatred and the fear of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe taking on China is palpable. There is a perceptible acknowledgement that Japanese technology is ahead of China by decades.

(d) There is an inherent apprehension that North Korea might do something impulsive to provoke Japan and upset the regional apple cart.

10. China in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea ( SCS). China views the Indian Ocean as an important strategic arena and does not believe that the US would leave Japan and South East Asian countries bereft of her support. This would hold true especially for the South China Sea imbroglio as the US provides the affected countries a credible military crutch and leverage. The Chinese are also wary of the IAF station at Thanjavur where SU30s have been based, giving an increased ROA in the Indian Ocean. With the recent Indian acquisition of the P-8I aircraft, the Indian Navy’s surveillance capability has grown manifold. The SU30 - P8I combination is a cause of concern for China as it extends the operational reach of IAF to the Chinese Gulf oil routes and brings their Malaccan dilemma to the forefront. The importance of the Indian Ocean to China is also being actively discussed in Chinese strategic think tanks and colleges.
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