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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Should China worry about India-US rapprochement?


Mohammad Atique Rahman

THE historic visit to India by United States President Barack Obama has opened up a new vista of diplomatic relations and cooperation between India and the US. The signing of the “India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation” agreement no doubt symbolises the new level of mutual trust and confidence between the two largest democracies in the world. President Obama's executive power to roll back the condition that US authorities be allowed to monitor use of nuclear material purchased by India even from third countries is a sign of such high level of mutual confidence.
President Obama extended his hand of cooperation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to foster economic prosperity and security cooperation not only for themselves but also for the region. There were lots of aspirations and expectations in the air with regard to his visit. In spite of this enthusiasm, the reaction of another powerhouse in Asia -- China -- is quite uneasy, particularly after the India-US joint statement regarding the adoption of new vision in Asia and Pacific. In the joint statement, India and US declared that they affirm “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Now the question is, why should China worry about US-India rapprochement in Asia and Pacific? Does such an alliance overlap China's expectations over the South China Sea?
To answer these questions, let us explore Chinese interests in the South China Sea and how they may overlap with the joint interests of India and the US. First of all, given the current Chinese economic and military interests in the region, it is difficult to bypass China while discussing economic and security cooperation in Asia and Pacific. In 2009, George Friedman in his book The Next 100 Years wrote: “Any discussion of the future has to begin with a discussion of China as future global power.” Ted C. Fishman, in his book China Inc. wrote: “China is everywhere these days, powered by the world's most rapidly changing large economy which influences consumers, employers and citizens in the region and around the world.”
It is the world's second largest economy, maintaining 10% of GDP or more over the last 30 years, and has become the largest manufacturing country of the world. Geo-politically, however, China is an island country. Most interestingly it is not surrounded by water but by impassable terrain and wastelands -- Siberia and the Mongolian grassland in the North; the impassable Himalayas in the Southwest; and mountain and jungles along the Southern borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. China's only viable access is the South China Sea. This sea route is critically important for China in its trade with other nations. The majority of the people of China live within one thousand miles of the coast located in the major port cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.
China, over the last two decades, has become a gold mine for low cost manufacturing of products. The label “Made in China” has become universal. But nowadays, China is experiencing sharp increase in labour cost, which increased by 10% in 2014 compared to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Therefore, China and the world's MNCs are now adopting 'China Plus' policy to relocate their production plants in East, South and South East Asian countries which are also located in the South China Sea region.
The current government in China therefore adopted the historic 'Maritime Silk Road' policy in the region to develop an effective, secure, reliable and navigable international sea route for trading and connecting future manufacturing zones of Chinese companies and MNCs in the East, South and South Asian countries. China is desperately trying to enhance maritime trade security among the East, South and South East Asian countries, developing an effective framework of economic cooperation including Free Trade Zone, and supporting infrastructure projects like building roads and railways in the region to materialise the idea of Maritime Silk Road. China has also developed effective relations with Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean to allow Chinese submarines to dock at their ports. China's relations with its maritime neighbours are both friendly and tense. As for example, China is engaged in territorial disputes over Spratly Islands with Vietnam and over Senkaku Islands with Japan.
Today, the sea is the most cost-effective and reliable trading route, and no doubt India and the US have vital strategic and economic interests in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea across the Asia-Pacific as US allies Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam are located in this region. The US has also entered into a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. On the other hand, India has aspirations to achieve blue water capabilities and explore huge amounts of natural resources and establish viable trading route in the Indian Ocean.
The rise of China and India is a reality in Asia. Both the nations are increasing the size and capabilities of their naval powers in the vast deep oceans. C. Raja Mohan, in his book Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific published in 2013, argued that rising China and emerging India are becoming major maritime powers. Beijing and Delhi are building powerful blue water navies to secure their vital interests far beyond their immediate shores. As the naval footprints of China and India overlap, their maritime competition has begun to roil the waters of the Indo-Pacific, the vast littoral stretching from Africa to Australasia. While China has quantitative advantage, India has been gaining qualitative and strategic advantage over China in the oceans. Therefore, the joint statement of strategic cooperation between India and US in Asia-Pacific reveals their mutual interests in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea regions. In future, their joint effort could help them gain balance with the growing strategic presence of China in the greater Indian Ocean. So the question remains, why should China not worry about their rapprochement?

The writer is Assistant Professor, Dept. of International Relations, University of Dhaka.
E-mail: atique@du.ac.bd

The Daily Star, 31 January 2015