India Must Be Watchful as ‘Act East’ Policy Irks China

As China flexes its muscles globally to build ‘parity’ with the US, even as it co-opts a growingly isolated and economically weakened Russia, it has adopted a policy of assuming the role as the sole superpower in Asia. President Xi Jinping did not hesitate to publicly behave insultingly when Japanese PM Shinzo Abe called on him in Beijing. This has been combined with the use of military force to enforce maritime boundary claims on countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. India is treated by China as a power that can be encircled by its South Asian neighbours under a policy of ‘strategic containment’. China has made it clear that while it reserves the right to send its fleet into the Indian Ocean, it regards India as an interloper on issues of security in the South China Sea, through which over 40 per cent of India’s trade is channelled.

In recent articles, China’s Foreign Policy mouthpiece, Global Times, has expressed concern about PM Modi’s ‘Act East’ policies and his Make in India initiatives. Global Times claims these policies are designed to engineer robust growth of industry in India and enable it to export sophisticated industrial products, including weaponry, to China’s regional rivals, like Vietnam and the Philippines. While Global Times patronisingly proclaims that given its history, India’s defence collaboration with Mauritius may be understandable, China cannot remain unconcerned if India supplies warships and other defence equipment to Vietnam and the Philippines. The publication also expresses outrage: “It (India) not only engages in more proactive military cooperation with the US, Japan and Vietnam, but also interferes with the South China Sea dispute in a high profile way”. And warns: “China should stay alert to India’s moves in the South China Sea” as India can convert “arms trade into strategic action aimed at China”.

The Global Times articles manifest a degree of chauvinistic “Great Han” arrogance that one can only be described as astonishing. China has, over the past four decades, provided Pakistan with conventional weapons ranging from fighter aircraft to warships and tanks. More dangerously, China has provided Pakistan with designs of nuclear weapons, together with facilities for developing fissile plutonium and enriched uranium. Ballistic and cruise missile capabilities have also been transferred to Pakistan by China, to enable Pakistan to target Indian towns and cities, with nuclear weapons.

China’s ‘strategic containment’ of India has now been expanded to encircle India across its land borders by a so-called ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, including roads through PoK to the Chinese-built Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. On our eastern borders, China is building roads and rail lines not only across Nepal but also to its borders with India in Arunachal Pradesh. This encirclement by land is to be combined with maritime encirclement through a ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’. This has involved the quest for ‘facilities’ to dock submarines and potentially aircraft carriers, across the Indian Ocean, including in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Seychelles. China has been more than generous in extending liberal credits for building port facilities across the Indian Ocean, in strategic locations like Gwadar, Hambantota and Colombo.

Chinese diplomacy to contain and corner India has become more active in recent months, especially during and after the Kathmandu SAARC Summit. Evidently, encouraged by Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Nepal appeared to be supportive of China’s admission as a full member of SAARC, during the summit. China is now constructing a high-altitude railway line from Lhasa to the second largest city of Shigatse in Tibet, located close to the China-Nepal border. A road link from Lhasa to Kathmandu is also under construction. More importantly, China appears to be encouraging South Asian states to develop new security architecture in the region, with Beijing as a key player. New Delhi will have to respond imaginatively and proactively to these challenges. [email protected]

The writer is a former diplomat

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