Author: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
The Pioneer (India)
The recently concluded Asean summit witnessed Beijing at its bellicose best on the issue of the South China Sea. Some countries fell in line with the assertiveness. Most others including India have refused to succumb. Yet, it requires more than talk to counter Chinese designs
Asean, according to some accounts, came very close to rupture last month. During the summit, the Philippines and Vietnam were denied the opportunity to voice their concerns about China’s increasing military assertiveness in the South China Sea —including the seizure of a new shoal of reefs. Cambodia had earlier conveyed to both countries that it did not want the issue brought up, while those countries contended it was their right to do so and Asean had always had a tradition of supporting their own — even if only perfunctorily — against outsiders. Nobody in Asean, however, had expected Cambodia to go as far as it did — turning off Philippine Foreign Minister Albert De Rosario’s microphone the moment he touched on the subject (blamed conveniently, of course, on a ‘technical glitch’).
Leave aside the rupture and the frenzied media speculation, what happened last month was typical Chinese diplomacy at work — clunky, clumsy and crude. The one seeming flaw with China (and not just Chinese diplomats) is that they take grave offence at words. In essence, much of the Chinese diplomacy consists of being polite and assuming that being polite somehow translates into problem- solving. Contrast this with the US’s method which accepts harsh verbal criticism in public and fiery exchanges in private, aimed specifically at thrashing out issues. This is a narrative that seems common to most diplomats: the Indian, the American or any other that, when confronted with a situation — say, “You chaps transferred nuclear bomb technology to Pakistan” — the standard response is denial. And, when the denial is refuted it is treated as a sign of bad manners. Such behaviour is hard to translate culturally, but at some level combines the culture of speech restrictions in China with that age-old Asian tradition of ‘saving face’. Of course, the Chinese also tend to have completely bizarre public temper tantrums, most famously referring to former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten as a “prostitute”, and far worse adjectives for the Dalai Lama.
True, in the Asean summit China has scored a temporary victory but at what cost? First the Chinese machinations are out in the open — essentially buying Cambodia (and to some extent Laos as well) by massive investment and infrastructure projects, in a way that only China is capable of. But this has been an expensive manipulation that has cost billions of dollars in infrastructural investment to score a mere censorship victory. Contrary to the Confucian dictum, “Give a man a fish and he lives for a day, but teach a man to fish and he and his family live to a ripe old age”, the Chinese aid is fundamentally bribery. If China says it will construct a bridge, it does so — but all the raw material machinery and labour force come from China. It also does not promote any local economies or skill sets. In a sense, it was this approach to aid, as a subset of Chinese economic colonialism,s that scared Burma to such a point that the generals were willing to give up visible power to get rid of what they perceived to be a Chinese takeover by other means. In effect, China scared Burma into doing what it did more than Indian engagement and Western sanctions ever managed to achieve. Cambodia, of course, still hasn’t felt this, but it is well on its way to learning the cost of Chinese assistance.
In India, most of China’s infrastructure project proposals have been blocked on security grounds and most Chinese products sold in India could well constitute ‘dumping’ — giving China very little by way of ‘leverage’. Given this, Beijing played a seemingly innocuous card a few months back — when China National Petroleum Corporation signed what could be a far reaching agreement envisaging cooperation across the entire gamut of activities from exploration to point of sale. On the face of it, this seems to enable India to acquire Iranian hydrocarbons, while maintaining a straight face to US diplomats and deny sanctions-busting of any kind. From the Chinese point of view this is an insurance policy against their emerging naval containment — a containment in which India plays a big role. Given that the Oil and Natural Gas Commission is the weaker partner in the deal, China gains significantly from this partnership. As energy security seems to be India’s foremost priority, China will attempt to leverage ties with the US against viable energy security guarantees inherent in this deal. This gives India a fundamental interest in preventing any escalation vis-à-vis China. A lot of this has to do with India’s emerging naval game plan — in effect creating the capability to choke off the Moluccas Straits and starving China of energy shipments, while the US and allied Navies tie down China’s power projection capabilities in the South China Sea. China can attempt a continental balancing against India but the logistics of the Tibet plateau make such a proposition ruinous, though the threat can always be held out.
China, therefore, has just incentivised India to tone down. The possibly linked precursor to the deal saw India withdrawing from its allotted exploration blocks in the South China Sea — widely seen as capitulating to Chinese pressure. Several Vietnamese in private conversations admitted that they felt let down and blindsided by India, and while accepting ONGC’s feasibility assessment, hoped the MEA would have been more sensitive with the timing and tenor of the announcement.
The downside to the Chinese calculus is that the CNPC, having much deeper pockets, greater expertise and a much better portfolio, holds the swing power in the ONGC-CNPC construct. Should the containment of China gain momentum, India’s negotiating position within that construction increases significantly — benefitting from Pax Americana’s assurance of freedom of navigation, and access to markets denied to Chinese investments. This mirrors how India’s bargaining position vis-a-vis Iran improves significantly post-sanctions. India, therefore, also has an inherent interest in intensifying the naval containment of China — to balance off its weak negotiating position on the energy front.
This definitely is a very subtle and nuanced game that involves greater cooperation with China, while also encouraging others to be increasingly antagonistic towards it. Withdrawing from Vietnamese oil concessions is not the way forward. Far from it, the Philippines and Vietnam need all the help they can to stand up to and hopefully provoke ever clumsier responses from China. For that, Indian policy planners need to get rid of their almost paralytic fear of China which results in ad hoc and ill-considered tactical moves by these countries.