Written by Sana Hashmi.
Thanks to the continuing stand-off between Donald Trump and North Korea, the travails of Brexit, migration and terrorism facing the European Union, and the continuing effects of the Saudi-Iran Cold War in the Middle East, 2017 will be remembered as the year China sought to seize the global order, for the benefit of its own ascendancy.
The China-anchored Belt and Road Forum, a part of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, on which Beijing had put hefty economic and diplomatic stakes, was attended by 29 heads of states including prominent leaders such as Vladimir Putin. Presented against the American flip-flop on climate change, China assumed the role of a responsible stakeholder and demonstrated a sincere commitment to fighting climate change. This represents a clear shift with the United States and Chinese positions facing opposite directions.
At a juncture when the United States’ predominance is receding, China has begun to showcase itself as a dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region, which has been accompanied by its assertive postures on territorial disputes.
China’s efforts to bring countries on-board for a range of inter-regional, regional, and sub-regional connectivity projects with countries under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative intensified through the year, and is likely to increase in speed in 2018.
After assuming the charge as the President of the United States in January 2017, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In a somewhat conspicuous way, his ‘America First’ policy has turned out to be an inward looking, protectionist policy, which is likely to deter the United States from strengthening engagement with countries across the world.
The United States’ undermining of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has created suspicions beyond the Atlantic about the future of regional trade blocks involving the United States. These developments have led to swirling debates on America’s diminishing dominance, and somewhat reluctance in engaging the Asia-Pacific region. At a juncture when the United States’ predominance is receding, China has begun to showcase itself as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region, accompanied by its assertive postures on territorial disputes. Chinese incursion in the Bhutanese territory, the India-China stand-off at Doklam and China’s continued militarisation in the South China Sea clearly show the way China has been behaving with its neighbours – big and small. It also demonstrates China’s approach and likely behaviour in future conflict situations.
The year 2017, by several standards, has proved to be one of the best years for China, this was not the case for ties between Asia’s giants: India and China. The stand-off at Doklam, the harsh statements produced by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media such as the Global Times led to fierce rebuttals by the Indian leadership. The year has ended however with some positive developments and the beginnings of a more constructive dialogue.
That India and China can manage their differences by engaging in multifaceted forms of diplomacy is not an overstatement. To cite examples, troops at Doklam were disengaged by mutual consultation. This led to the successful completion of the BRICS summit in Xiamen in September 2017 and a RIC (Russia, India, China) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in New Delhi in December 2017. In December 2017, India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval and China’s State Councillor, Yang Jiechi concluded the 20th round of Special Representative Talks on the India-China Boundary Question. Already the scope of the boundary talks has been expanded, which can be noticed from the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s statement. She stated, “This mechanism is not only a high-level channel of dialogue on the border affairs between the two sides but also an important platform for strategic communication between China and India…The two sides agreed that pending the final resolution of the boundary question, it is necessary to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas”.
That said, the relationship between the two giants in 2018 is unlikely to be devoid of challenges and deadlocks. For one, India’s apprehensions and concerns on the OBOR initiative are not likely to subside anytime soon, despite China’s efforts to keep the doors open for India. While the debate on the security implications of OBOR for India is still unfolding, it has been established that India will not be a part of OBOR unless its concerns on China’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are duly addressed. At the core of India’s opposition to China-Pakistan cooperation is the question of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor running through what India terms Pakistani-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
China’s increasing foothold in India’s immediate neighbourhood under the framework of OBOR is another concern for New Dehli. India’s twin opposition to OBOR and CPEC should also be seen in the global context, where the major powers are unable to address China’s assertive postures, especially in the South and Southeast Asian regions.
Second, keeping China in view, Japan, United States, India and Australia formed the Quadrilateral Dialogue in 2017, following the 2007 version – which fell far short of expectations thanks to the Chinese demarche to the four Quad member countries and Australia’s reluctance to put relations with China at risk. In all probability, the quad members will make more systematic progress on their long-term concerted efforts in meeting their common strategic and diplomatic goals. The United States’ recently released National Security Strategy calls for greater ‘Quadrilateral’ cooperation and labelled China as a rival. China has also been uneasy about India’s close ties with the United States, which might lead to another point of friction between India and China.
Third, what is not to be forgotten is the Indian Ocean region is of prime importance to India, a body of water that in 2017 attracted the presence of major naval powers: the United States, United Kingdom, France and China. The latter’s efforts to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean is particularly noticeable. China’s bases in the Djibouti, Hambantota and Gwadar are likely to help it to maintain a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean. To compete with the global presence of the United States and to be a superpower, it needs complete control of the Indian Ocean region.
The next twelve months are unlikely to show any deviation from the ‘normals’ in the India-China context. These normals include competition and mutual suspicion. What is going to increase though is the quantum of competition and mutual distrust between these two Asian giants. Under such conditions, it is imperative for India to hike up its defence spending especially in building naval capabilities. Simultaneously, New Delhi needs to ensure the upgrade of its border infrastructure and fast-tracking of connectivity initiatives with its neighbours. Intensive cooperation with countries such as Japan in this regard will bear fruits.
Sana Hashmi is a PhD scholar at Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research focuses on China’s foreign policy and security issues. She is the author of China’s Approach towards Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects. (Knowledge World, 2016). She tweets @sanahashmi1. Image Credit: CC by Modi-Xi/Wikimedia Commons