‘IS CHINA ENCIRCLING INDIA?’: A question worth asking
The latest book by Mohd Aminul Karim, former professor at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, concerns a subject on which he is a recognised expert. The soldier-scholar has lived and studied in China, has researched and taught in China, and has written extensively on security issues involving the country. Here, we also have India, the other Asian behemoth, and the rivalry between the two giants is not limited to their aspiration to regional dominance only. They also have an active conflict involving unresolved border disputes. In Is China Encircling India? (Nova Science Publishers, 2021), Karim analyses the recent Chinese advances in the Indian Ocean and their ramifications for India and the greater region.
A good number of maps and illustrations enrich the book as much as they help visualise the ground situation. Comparing the geopolitical and geo-economic profiles of China and India, Karim points out the growing gap in economic growth between the two countries and rightly opines that funding India's quest to match the Chinese military modernization may be problematic, since India has an economy about one-fifth the size of China.
He also recalls the Soviet disaster in trying to compete with the USA with a much smaller economic base. India's advantage lies in its youthful population compared to China's ageing one, and her possible alliances with the USA and other regional powers that are wary of the Chinese hegemony, like Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific theatre. Karim also points to the difficulties of India's federal parliamentary system vis a vis China's centralised one party rule. His hunch that India may think of a presidential system, however, seems a bit far-fetched.
The fifth chapter, "China's Historical Military Posture", has an interesting observation. The Chinese military stance has been characterised as "non-expansionist and averse to territorial conquest". While many notables share this opinion, as quoted by Karim in the book, this assumption rests on very flimsy ground. Historically China had always been an empire, not a nation state, and empires are by definition results of expansion. The results of expansion are visible even today.
If we look at the map of the great wall that was built to defend China against invaders from the north, the 'core China' is what is on the south and east of the wall. Those on the north and west, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xin Ziang are all results of imperial expansion. These entities were more often independent of China. The current dispensation in China has only tightened their stranglehold on these territories, gradually doing away with the large measure of autonomy they traditionally enjoyed even when they were not fully independent.
Kissinger's contention that the "territorial claims of the Chinese empire stopped at the water's edge" is true. But there are practical reasons why the Song Dynasty (960-1279) did not pursue a maritime empire. The economic reasons for which European powers pursued maritime colonial empires in the 16-17th centuries, did not exist in 12th century China. The 21st century empire-building has a completely different form, and the Chinese are doing that with remarkable success in most of Africa and parts of Asia.
Is China, then, encircling India? Yes, China has created the string of pearls, building Chinese maritime outposts around India. However, they do not really constitute a siege that can bring down the 'Indian fortress'. The Indian Ocean is India's home turf and she can devote her entire capacity in this theatre. For China, on the contrary, the Pacific is and will remain of pivotal importance. Besides, in a conflict situation, China may not have the freedom to use these outposts as bases of military operation except for Gwadar in Pakistan. China is investing heavily in strengthening the blue water capabilities of its navy. However, China's prime concern in the Indian Ocean will still be the safety and security of the Sea Lanes of Communication in which other powers will also have vested interest. The Chinese outposts could have utility in advancing that security.
Aminul Karim rightly believes that China's race for dominance will continue unabated. He also believes that in spite of that, a kind of Asian peace "should prevail". No one will contest this idea, but whether it will prevail depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the protagonists.
Xi Chin Ping, unlike his predecessors, seems to be a man in a hurry. He has changed the prevailing culture of the Chinese Communist Party that has existed since the time of Deng and has thereby eliminated the mechanism of regular and predictable change. He would like to confirm his place in history by bringing Taiwan back to China, by force if necessary. Any reckless move by any player could upset the delicate peace prevailing in the region.
Md. Touhid Hossain is a former Foreign Secretary.