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Can India be the Leader of South Asia?

Paper No. 6673                      Dated 31-Aug-2020
By Kazi Anwarul Masud (Former Secretary & Ambassador of Bangladesh.)
 
Several trends of thought are circulating in India today, prominent
among those are, whether India should be the leader of South Asia or
look inwards towards more development –both economically, culturally,
and militarily to face the growing threat of Chinese soft and hard
power in the region. The pressure is increasing due to tussle with
Nepal, China’s hands of friendship extended towards Bangladesh through
donation of coronavirus equipment and emphasis on infra-structural
projects.  
 
Long considered  as a kind of “hinterland” by India
Chinese “intrusion” into South Asia and ASEAN countries are troubling
Indian policy planners. A critic (India’s New Opportunity to Lead
South Asia THE DIPLOMAT    The Modi government should look at China’s
‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative from a broader perspective.      By
Sourabh Gupta      July 10, 2015In February 2014, at the 17th round of
Special Representative talks in New Delhi)), Beijing formally invited
India to join its ambitious Maritime Silk Road (MSR) project. The
Narendra Modi government should aim to make China’s activities in
South Asia complementary to its own neighborhood policy. It should
draw up an integrated view of how the various proposals under the
rubric of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative—the MSR, the
Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, and rail, road and
port development in Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar—can be
harmonized to serve both India’s peaceful rise within its extended
Asian neighborhood and Asia’s peaceful rise to the forefront of world
affairs.          
 
At a time when New Delhi lacks the funds—and perhaps
the intent—to underwrite the modernization programs of its common
neighborhood, it must not be seen to undermine an initiative that it
does not at any rate possess the wherewithal to subvert. ‘One Belt,
One Road’ is the centerpiece of the Xi Jinping administration’s “new
type of international relations” concept—an imposing win–win scheme
that aspires to embed the China Dream within a neighborhood community
of common destiny. Co-opting ‘One Belt, One Road’ in South Asia will
liberate New Delhi from its penchant to oscillate between viewing the
subcontinent as its exclusive sphere of influence and longing to vault
over the neighborhood to pursue flashier adventures abroad.
 
Asia’s seas were a genuine free sea. China’s outward foot forward is
not bounded by Asia but also extends towards Africa and Latin America.
Chinese attempts appear to challenge the hegemony of the US enjoyed
since the end of the Second World War. US launch of Marshall Plan and
reconstruction of Europe (not the present European Union) and the
creation of rule based international financial institutions, NATO and
the appeal of democracy to the members of the club appear to be
threatened.  “Unfortunately” considering the present situation Trump
administration’s anti-China policies implementation of “America First”
declared on the day of taking oath as President is one of the results
of that policy.  
 
Singaporean Prime Minister voiced concern    over
the US-China rivalry (The endangered Asian Century          America,
China, and the Perils of Confrontation  By Lee Hsien Loong
July/August 2020).    He wrote “Asia has prospered because Pax
Americana, which has held since the end of World War II, provided a
favorable strategic context. But now, the troubled U.S.-Chinese
relationship raises profound questions about Asia’s future and the
shape of the emerging international order. Southeast Asian countries,
including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the
intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid
being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.    
 
The status quo in Asia must change. But will the new configuration enable
further success or bring dangerous instability? That depends on the
choices that the United States and China make, separately and
together. The two powers must work out a modus vivendi that will be
competitive in some areas without allowing rivalry to poison
cooperation in others”.    Unsurprisingly Singaporean Prime Minister
sees as  the  United States as a resident power. At the same time,
China is a reality on the doorstep. Asian countries do not want to be
forced to choose between the two. And if either attempts to force such
a choice—if Washington tries to contain China’s rise or Beijing seeks
to build an exclusive sphere of influence in Asia—they will begin a
course of confrontation which could land the  Asian century in
jeopardy Lee credits the US for  Asia’s stability and prosperity and
credited the  United States for championing  an open, integrated, and
rules-based global order and providing  a security umbrella under
which regional countries could cooperate and peacefully compete.
 
 As Washington promoted free trade and opened U.S. markets to the world,
Asian trade with the United States grew. Lee considers    two pivotal
events in the 1970s shifted Pax Americana in Asia into a new phase:
the secret visit to China in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, then the U.S.
national security adviser, which laid the basis for U.S.-Chinese
rapprochement after decades of hostility, and the launch, in 1978, of
Deng’s program of “reform and opening up,” which allowed China’s
economy to take off. By the end of the decade, economic barriers were
coming down, and international trade was growing rapidly. After the
Vietnam War and the war in Cambodia ended, Vietnam and the other
countries of Indochina were able to focus their energies and resources
on economic development, and they started catching up with the rest of
Asia”.  Lee Hsien Loog as an important member of ASEAN adds as
expected he pointed the importance of ASEAN and of the US and of China
in the prosperity of the region. As China’s stake in the region has
grown, Lee Tsien Loong pointed out China’s launch of  its own
initiatives, including the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank. These have helped deepen China’s
engagement with its neighbors and, of course, increased its influence.
 
 But because the regional architecture is open, China’s influence
is not exclusive. The United States remains an important participant,
underpinning regional security and stability and enhancing its
economic engagement.  ASEAN believes that such a network of
connections creates a more robust framework for cooperation and more
space to advance its members’ collective interests internationally”.
  Warning bells have also been sounded in the US against decoupling of
US-China cultural relationship. Minxin Pei an eminent political
commentator is of the view that in the long run cutting cultural,
educational and journalistic ties would harm the US more that than
China because American soft and hard power which had attracted US-Euro
and newly freed colonized countries had an attraction that MAO-Xi Ping
model, with the exception of Deng Xiao-Ping “go slow” policy, could
not have been chosen by the freed people after the ignominy suffered
at the hands of the colonizers.  In recent time US Vice President
Michael Pence had publicly upbraided  China for laying “debt Trap” in
financing Belt and Road schemes. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port and
Laotian Railways improvement projects are proven examples. An August
19th report by a group of American reporters revealed that officials
in Beijing were kept in the dark for weeks about the potential
devastation of the virus by local officials in central China.      
 
The report concluded that officials in the city of Wuhan and in Hubei
Province, where the outbreak began late last year, tried to hide
information from China’s central leadership. This perhaps prompted
President Trump to say on July 4th speech at the White House that
“China’s secrecy, deceptions and cover-up” enabled the pandemic.
Secretary of State Mike Pompe insisted the administration was “telling
the truth every day” about “the Communist cover-up of that virus.”
 
The truth of the matter, whether China deliberately the lid on the
escape of the disease, voluntarily or through confusion depends on the
teller. It is also not certain whether WHO’s connivance in keeping the
oncoming pandemic was deliberate or due to pressure from China. Trump
administration is convinced is the complicity of WHO in not letting
the world know when it should have been. Suspension of money from WHO,
withdrawal of membership, and other punitive actions are indicative of
the US conviction of WHO’s complicity. The reason of hiding the truth
from the Central Committee is obvious. In an article published by some
US reporters on Aug. 19, 2020 it was revealed that “    Officials in
Beijing were kept in the dark for weeks about the potential
devastation of the virus by local officials in central China,
according to American officials familiar with a new internal report by
U.S. intelligence agencies.    The report concluded that officials in
the city of Wuhan and in Hubei Province, where the outbreak began late
last year, tried to hide information from China’s central leadership”.
In China the rule of law is more imperial than a court process where
the judge and the jury decide on the fate of the accused. More likely
the accused is shot to death before a charge sheet has been framed.
China is a populous country (not to be equated with Indian justice system). 
 
 Former Foreign Secretary Shayam Saran in an interview
expressed the view that one of China’s motives for the intrusions in
Ladakh could be tactical i.e. to alter the alignment of the Line of
Actual Control, another was undoubtedly to show the world that China
is the big power in Asia and, simultaneously, cut India to size and
put it in its place.    Whereas Deng Xiaoping told Rajiv Gandhi in
1988 that the 21st century would be India and China’s century, the
Chinese leadership of today believes that it is  China’s century alone
and there is limited or perhaps no room for India alongside the
expanding growth of China.    Saran said that one option which India
could have exercised earlier on was a quick and focused counter by
intruding into Chinese territory at a point along the LAC where India
has a military advantage. That would have given India bargaining space
and provided a quid pro quo to facilitate a Chinese withdrawal.  He
added that although the present intrusions are limited to Ladakh,
Saran said it’s possible there could be other intrusions along the
rest of the 3,488 km border in Arunachal or in the central sector. He
also accepted that if India were to accept the Chinese intrusions in
Ladakh as a fait accompli there is no guarantee China won’t attempt to
repeat them a little while later. In other words, the present
intrusions cannot be seen as a one-off. They could be part of a
recurring pattern.    Saran also held that just because military
level talks have not produced satisfactory results up till now is not
a reason for discontinuing them and seeking to negotiate at the
ministerial level. This was the point at which he counseled patience.
 
 Questioned about the Chief of Defence Staff’s comment on Monday
that “a military option … is on the table”, Saran said it was possible
that this is intended as a message to the Chinese to encourage Beijing
to be accommodating in forthcoming talks. However, he pointed out that
exercising a military option could easily lead to conflict which is
likely to include the deaths of soldiers.          On Pakistan’s
reaction to a possible India-China conflict Saran said that Pakistan
would look to exploit the situation to its advantage. At one point he
also talked about how Ladakh is a part of India where the country
faces a two-front threat.    He made it clear that whilst India has
America’s verbal support it is extremely unlikely that America will
fight our battles for us. If it came to conflict we could receive
American equipment but he did not think there was any further support
that India  could expect.        At a time when New Delhi lacks the
funds—and perhaps the intent—to underwrite the modernization programs
of its common neighborhood, it must not be seen to undermine an
initiative that it does not at any rate possess the wherewithal to
subvert. ‘One Belt, One Road’ is the centerpiece of the Xi Jinping
administration’s ‘new type of international relations  concept.
 
Co-opting ‘One Belt, One Road’ in South Asia will afford some freedom
to  New Delhi from oscillating  between viewing the subcontinent as
its exclusive sphere of influence and longing to vault over the
neighborhood to pursue flashier adventures abroad.    A 21st century
infrastructure project geared to connect the Asian heartland to its
hinterland and beyond might yet revive a set of loose integrative
norms, which can foster principles of order and self-restraint in East
Asia and South Asia.  Narendra      Modi, unrestricted by the blinkers
of his elitist predecessors, should exercise his abundant leadership
qualities to walk India and South Asia confidently down the  path of
prosperity and equal sovereignty.
 
 
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