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India sleeps as Chinese dragon encroaches

While Delhi remains obsessed with Pakistan, China is rapidly expanding its influence in the region and beyond by showering the neighbours with cash and other inducements.
A Chinese soldier at the Nathu La Pass, a major trade route between the Indian state of Sikkim and China, which reopened in 2006 after 44 years' closure.
A Chinese soldier at the Nathu La Pass, a major trade route between the Indian state of Sikkim and China, which reopened in 2006 after 44 years' closure.

NEW DELHI // The long-running rivalry with Pakistan is blinding India to a new Chinese charm offensive in its own backyard, and is unwittingly helping to obscure China's emergence as the newly dominant external power in South Asia, experts said last week.

"There is no evidence that Indian diplomacy is geared for what lies ahead as China makes its presence felt as the ... region's key partner," warned the Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar in the Asia Times. According to Mr Bhadrakumar, the situation is reminiscent of Russia's position a few years ago when China began actively courting Central Asia's resource rich leaders. Russia suddenly confronted "the appearance of a red star over the slice of firmament they somehow regarded as their own sphere of influence, where they claimed to have uncontestable special interests in determining the shape of the constellation", he wrote.

Regional diplomats blame Delhi's obsession with Pakistan, a relatively minor regional power, for its failure to notice expansionist China's inroads on the subcontinent - even though China is now by far the largest trading partner for all South Asian countries, including India. Sino-Indian trade has been growing at 30 per cent each year and is expected to reach $60 billion (Dh220.3bn) this year - although India is running a $16bn deficit with China.

China is now extending its influence beyond trade and economics and into the political sphere, analysts say. It is showering politicians from India's neighbours with cash, gifts and travel junkets, exploiting India's neglectful treatment of them and, in the process, undermining Indian influence across the subcontinent. "All across Asia, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy is spilling over its borders into the adjacent regions," C Raja Mohan, an Indian scholar, wrote recently in the Indian Express newspaper. "Amidst the deepening integration between China and its Asian neighbours, Beijing's political influence has been irresistible."

Last month, Beijing requested full membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc), saying that it wanted to "elevate friendly ties". It has handed over large cheques to fund co-operative projects and invited the leaders of all eight Saarc member states - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan - to Beijing for talks. Analysts said some of these smaller Saarc states might welcome a generous new benefactor as a member, but India is the dominant member and adamantly opposed. India has used Saarc to consolidate its presence on its north-east border, where Bangladesh virtually separates India's seven north-east states from the mainland, increasing the difficulty of managing fractious tribal uprisings along the Myanmar border.

India has also used Saarc to promote a free-trade zone in the area, which would buttress it against a border dispute with China in the north Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh. India has also declined invitations to join the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a quasi-security grouping of China, Russia and major Central Asian states. The organisation was established by Beijing to counter the US-sponsored expansion of Nato. So far, Delhi has aligned its interests with those of the United States but has failed to move beyond observer status in Nato.

Now, however, Delhi confronts the realisation that even the United States is working with China directly on South Asian affairs - an implicit acknowledgement that China is now the subcontinent's most significant external power, the analysts say. Mr Mohan warned last week that building a wall against China's growing influence on the subcontinent is futile, adding that Delhi's failure to deepen economic co-operation with its neighbours and resolve outstanding regional disputes created an obvious opening for Beijing.

He said a new Indian strategy is necessary: "From a practical perspective, it is reasonable to ask: if China can't be kept out, why not try and define the terms of its engagement? Delhi will indeed find this a bitter pill to swallow." Recent comments by India's national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, a close ally of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, but not necessarily representative of the Indian foreign policy position, adopted a pragmatic tone.

Delhi has already agreed to discuss a bilateral free trade zone, and Mr Menon told the Indian Council on World Affairs last month that "nativist" voices should be rejected in favour of partnership with China: "When the world is changing so rapidly, and when uncertainty in the international system is at unprecedented levels, neither India nor China can afford misperceptions or distortions of policy caused by a lack of understanding of each other's compulsions and policy processes."

Some say India cannot be accused of being asleep at the switch. China's inexorable global influence is expanding rapidly, and in new ways. For the first time in 200 years, China is "consolidating its land borders and starting to turn outward", said Robert Kaplan in the Foreign Affairs magazine. Its laserlike focus upon natural resource acquisition has expanded Chinese influence "not in a nineteenth-century imperialistic sense but in a more subtle manner better suited to the era of globalisation".

Simply by securing its economic needs, China is shifting the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere, Kaplan said. But he offered India no advice on how to manage the fallout inside its backyard.

Published: May 10, 2010 04:00 AM


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