The Indo-Pacific challenge

China’s efforts to dominate the region have met with resistance from US, allies

The Indo-Pacific challenge

Realpolitik: Chinese threat has made India reassess its security policies. Reuters

G Parthasarthy

Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Even as the coronavirus pandemic dominated national and international attention, there were two significant developments this year, reflecting changes in India’s foreign and national security policies. The first was India’s active participation in activities of the “Quad”, a significantly security-oriented grouping. This was obviously, in response to the threats China poses on its borders with India, and indeed, across the Indian and Pacific oceans. China, meanwhile, moved troops into the Depsang region in Ladakh, commencing in early April. This would enable China’s forces to threaten India’s strategic air base in Daulat Beg Oldie, and thereafter, to go beyond the Karakoram Pass, crossing the LoC, in J-K. Secondly, India, responded aggressively, in the Pangong Lake region of Ladakh, deploying its forces on strategic heights, which were hitherto unoccupied.

Indian troops backed by armoured personnel carriers, tanks and artillery, mounted pre-emptive operations, seizing control of strategic heights in Ladakh, overlooking deployments of China’s PLA. These operations were across a large tract of land, astride the Pangong Lake. New Delhi would be ill-advised to withdraw from the strategic mountain tops, it now controls in Ladakh. Accompanying these was a visit by S Jaishankar to Tokyo on October 6. This visit, undertaken amidst a pandemic, was to attend an important meeting in Japan, of the foreign ministers of the Quad — comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia.

Jaishankar stressed that the Quad is committed to a rules-based international order, respecting principles like freedom of navigation in the seas, respect for territorial integrity, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, in the Indo-Pacific region. Amidst continuing tensions on India’s borders, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper arrived, for meetings with their counterparts, and a call on PM Modi. India signed a significant military agreement with the US, for the sharing of “sensitive satellite data,” as the two sides held a top-level security dialogue, aimed at countering China’s growing power in the region. India will now have “real-time access” to intelligence information on developments across its borders with China.

The US perceptions of China’s policies and the threats it poses in the Indo-Pacific Region, have now been spelt out in a 48-page report, titled: “The elements of the China challenge”, published by the office of the Secretary of State. The State Department report contains details of how China has ensured that developing countries across Asia and Africa are drawn into a “debt trap”, because of the terms of Chinese “assistance”. These countries have been compelled to mortgage their lands, ports and development projects, to China. This methodology commenced with “aid” for the Hambantota port, built in a constituency of the Rajapaksa family. Hardly any ship berthed in the port, which Sri Lanka was compelled to hand over to China, This port could, in course of time, berth vessels carrying Chinese supplies across Indian Ocean.

A similar effort is being made in Myanmar, through financing the construction of the Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukphyu. China is also pressurising Myanmar to permit the construction of infrastructure and industrial projects, in locations linking Kyaukphyu port, to its Yunnan province. Aung San Suu Kyi and Generals appear determined to see that the costs are affordable. In the meantime, India has built the Sittwe port in Myanmar, for transporting goods from its northeastern states through the Bay of Bengal, to Kolkata. Given the rapid growth of the electronics industry in India, New Delhi needs to be proactive in building its defence and consumer electronics industries, including start-ups, in collaboration with Taiwan. India’s present overdependence on China in this and other vital spheres has to end. Electronics giants like Huawei are really strategic instruments of the Chinese government.

China’s $60 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, will inevitably lead to Pakistan mortgaging land and project space, most notably, in and around the Gwadar port. China adopted the same strategy in Maldives, by saddling it with construction projects it could not afford. Beijing was stopped by actions jointly taken by India and the US, after the previous Maldivian government was voted out of office. The same pattern has been repeated across Africa, with Chinese “aid” creating “debt traps”, followed by attempts to take over the projects and lands. There is, however, no transfer of knowhow or technology to the recipient countries in China’s projects. “Debt trap diplomacy” has now become a Chinese specialty.

With major European powers like the UK, France and Germany now taking off their gloves in UN forums, on China’s human rights violations, much will depend on whether the Biden Administration will work jointly with its European partners in dealing with China’s efforts to dominate the Indo-Pacific region. China has territorial and maritime boundary disputes with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Beijing regularly uses force, in violation of the International Law of the Seas, to take control of maritime space of its neighbours. India’s recent naval exercises in the Arabian Sea with the US, and partners in the Quad, have displayed a readiness to work with those who share its concerns about China’s hegemonistic characteristics.

China’s ambitions in promoting its 5G Huawei communication services are now facing opposition across Europe. With the commencement of the winter, it would be difficult for China to mount major operations on snow-clad mountains. One should, however, never forget that the Chinese are masters in ‘salami slicing’ of strategic spaces. One hopes that India and China can reach an agreement on the modalities for delineating and respecting the so-called ‘Line of Actual Control’, in Ladakh and elsewhere. The ‘Line of Actual Control’ is a term, which has never been clearly defined— much to India’s disadvantage and sorrow. It is, in fact, a term misused regularly by China, to transgress into and take over, Indian territory — whether in Ladakh, Sikkim, or Arunachal Pradesh, and also lay claim to territory in Bhutan.

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