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Testing Times For India – OpEd

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History seems to repeat itself, as we see China doing exactly what the British centuries ago when it first established trade links with various countries and then established its colonial rule across the globe. China is doing likewise through its trade policy, Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and aggressive diplomacy.

Beijing contends that the BRI aims to achieve development for all the countries that are connected through BRI and also aid them to realize and release their growth potential by creating additional opportunities for all. However, this otherwise seemingly noble mission hides an economic agenda primarily aimed to fuel and maintain the dragon’s economic growth. Despite China’s constant denial of its involvement in the geo-political game, the countries under its influence and heavy debt are now cautious of its malicious intent as China is exploiting minerals, agricultural products, raw materials and fossil fuel from these countries to feed its perpetually hungry industries.

China has gnawed its way deep into 39 countries through its BRI project and has succeeded in doing so with a tantalizing bait of heavy investments and loans which are readily accepted by cash starved countries. Africa is the worst hit as it is brazenly being exploited by China in guise of development, mutual cooperation and progress, China like the British in the past, is extracting resources from these nations and selling cheap locally made finished goods back to them. These countries are hence taking an economic beating twice- once when they are rapidly losing their natural resources and two, by becoming captive markets for cheap Chinese goods that ruins indigenous production. Thus, the world is getting entrapped by “modern colonialism” with a Chinese face.

Both India & China are ancient civilizations and share a history of over 2000 years with bilateral trade relations associated with the famous ‘Silk route’. Contemporary relations between the two countries are characterized by border disputes that resulted in the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. Whereas there has been no major military escalation thereafter, but the relations haven’t been tension-free either. The Chola incident of 1967 in Sikkim, the 1986-87 Sumdorong Chu Valley military standoff in Arunachal Pradesh and 2017 Doklam Plateau faceoff are some of acrimonious manifestations of unresolved border alignment issues and the ongoing crisis in Ladakh is a clear indication that relations between India and China are far from normal.

Whereas Beijing has always been Islamabad’s ally, but it maintained that Kashmir was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan which both countries had to resolve amongst themselves. However, of late it has openly started supporting Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and this is a matter of serious concern as it suggests the likelihood of a collusive military threat to India by China and Pakistan. This situation becomes even more challenging as India has to deal with China on the economic, political and military fronts. India has a strong defense and is focused on gearing up its powers through strategic deployment and upgrading border infrastructure. However, it has wisely decided upon moving closer to Washington and its allies so as to checkmate the challenges of Chinese dominance.

India is mix-matching its tools of military power, diplomacy and national sentiment backed by 138 crore Indians to keep China in its place. The standoff on the borders is bound to effect economic/ trade relations between the two countries. Many Indian states have already scrapped big Chinese projects and banned Chinese investment and the telecom ministry has issued orders to curtail the use of Chinese equipment in Indian networks. Though the balance of trade is still majorly in favour of China, yet curbs imposed by New Delhi will certainly add to China’s discomfort.

Many defense analysts believe that China is intentionally heightening military tensions with India and other countries in order to divert public attention from domestic issues like the Hong Kong protests, as well as its isolation in the international arena. It is facing international backlash after the spread of Coronavirus as the world accuses China of hiding facts and delaying information relating to the spread of the virus. Though it is simply impossible to isolate China and curtail trade, there will certainly be a decline in its economy as the world has lost trust in China. The widespread call for replacement of Chinese goods by those ‘Made in India’ (swadeshi) is reminiscent of ‘British goods boycott’ during India’s freedom struggle and this trend has spawned the new slogan of “Hindi-Chini bye bye” (Indians bid goodbye to the Chinese) as an apt replacement of the old “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) slogan of the Nehruvian era.

Beijing has never been and nor will ever be a genuine benefactor of any nation and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one another means of exploiting the socio-economic weakness of Pakistan to its advantage. CPEC entails a wide range of infrastructural projects that have been under construction throughout Pakistan since 2013. The vast network of modern roads is aimed at linking seaports at Gwadar and Karachi with Xinjiang region of China. CPEC allows China to circumvent disputed areas in the South China Sea and provides an alternate and cheaper sea route access to booming western markets.

New Delhi has been extremely voluble in expressing its opposition to CPEC for good reasons. This project passes through Gilgit and Baltistan, which being part of J&K under illegal occupation of Pakistan is still very much a part of Indian territory. India will in no condition succumb to the pressure China has been trying to impose and has on multiple occasions at international and national forums declared that these regions have always been integral parts of the Indian territory and will always continue to be. India has also made it clear that it’s ready to forego the economic benefit that supposedly comes from being a participant of BRI as it seems to be too small a price to pay for its territorial sovereignty.

India has also adopted a proactive defense strategy in Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI) in order to ensure a commanding strategic position in the Bay of Bengal and to establish a better connect with South and South-East Asia. It all started in 2017 when the Government of India constituted the Island Development Agency (IDA) to identify the scope for sustainable development in four identified islands. It also recommends opening up A.N.I. to the navies of the U.S, Japan, Australia and France with a view to promote naval cooperation.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands are at the intersection of Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The 60 and 100 channels in the Andaman Sea leading to Malacca Straits are extremely important to trade in Asia, Africa and Pacific. Effective domination of this region would give India a distinct advantage.

A very stern answer to Chinese maritime hegemony is QUAD-an alliance of Australia, Japan, USA and India which aims to counter Beijing’s economic and military expansions and aggressive encroachments in the South China Sea region. Its leaders are committed to keep the Indo- Pacific region accessible, dynamic and governed by international laws. Since China is hell bent on dominating this region by flexing its muscles with creation of artificial islands, cartographic intrusions and utter defiance of the UNCLOS, QUAD assumes critical importance in this scenario seems to be a step in the right direction, however the efficacy of such alliance will only emerge with time.

Regional Maritime Forces have increased their cooperation with India’s Navy, in recent years as it is important to check China’s domination of littoral Asia and South China Sea and its trade routes. In recent years China has made its naval presence in the Indian Ocean very obvious. Being a master of guise, China is suspected of collecting important information regarding underwater operating environment in the subcontinental littorals through its anti-piracy missions.

India has also set up an information fusion center (IFC) at Gurugram which aims to collect and share information to improve awareness about the Indian Ocean region and Kukri class warships have been positioned at Andaman and Nicobar Islands to raise effectiveness of security. There is also a plan to build a trans-shipment terminal at Campbell Bay (largest of the Nicobar Islands). This is aimed to give strength to the regional connectivity scheme (UDAN) to boost regional connectivity. Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is India’s only operational Tri-Service Command that marks its strategic presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean- 1947 marked our Independence and the year 2021will redefine the nuances of genuine self-reliance.

India is amidst a perfect storm where we are being tested on every aspect- the economy is slowing down, our braves in uniform are fighting proxies in order to restore peace, and our people are cheerfully enduring hardships to maintain and sustain themselves and others. Such close coordination will undoubtedly help in restoring confidence and bring about economic stability.

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Farooq Wani

Farooq Wani is a Kashmir senior journalist, columnist and political commentator.

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