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India & china Competition for influence in south Asia & South East Asia

The World’s two most populous countries China and India, accounting for roughly 40% of the total population, are two fast growing major economies in the world. They are crying not just for global hegemony, but also for pan-Asia leadership. In the regions so called South-Asia and South-East Asia, both India and China are moving their paws strategically to make their presence felt worldwide.

While South Asia comprises countries which are neighbours to India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Myanmar, South-East Asia denotes countries that are South of China & East of India. Both India and China are close enough geographically to South Asia & South-East Asian countries.

Why only India and China ? As per World Bank report, in 2017 China grew at 6·8%, 0·1% more than that of India and likely in 2018 China will register 6·4% while India hovers around 7·3%. These statistics clearly depict that these two countries are growing at a good pace, when compared with developed countries like US just around 2–3%. India & China are also known to be stable while rest of countries are contracting during 2008 Economic Crisis. Most of the South Asia & South-East Asian countries look towards these two countries in several matters.

Age old ‘Look East’ policy of India was converted into ‘Act East’, engaging actively in South-East Asia. When India is making trade pacts with countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, it naturally irks China which is claiming more than 80% of South China sea. Since the issue of South China Sea remains unsettled, even at the International Court of justice, China is engaging itself more actively with India’s neighbours. In just last two years, China made several investments in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, apart from its all-weather friend Pakistan.

“Competition is always a good thing. It forces us to do our best.” —Nancy Pearcey

Competition between India and China will bring development to the region, via trade & investment. Unipolar world is a matter of past; both India and China prefer multipolar world. There is always a struggle between aspirations of new rising powers and dominance of western powers. However, tactics of China and India differ a lot. India, a democratic country, focuses more on soft power strategies while China is known for its bullying tactics as witnessed in Doklam issue. The ‘Gujral doctrine’ relies on the principle of non-reciprocity stressing that India not only has a bigger responsibility, but should give more to the smaller neighbours than she would receive. Using this, India carefully calibrated its ‘Act-East’ policy by taking up initiatives like land and maritime connecting along with Defence cooperation with Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The competition between India and China can be analysed under three objectives. First one is Regional Security and National Interest. India prefers Order-based security. India performs defence exercises with Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore. China is always a supporter of Pakistan and is involved in defence ties with it. The main bone of contention is ‘South China Sea’ issue. While India and other South-East Asian countries highlight freedom of navigation, China opposes it. More than half of India’s East trade passes through South China Sea. Increasing coordination of India’s with US, Japan, Australia (called as ‘Quad’) and in ‘Malabar exercises’ worry China. To make our moves a success, we need anchor of US & Japan. While China built Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan, India countered with Chabahar in Iran.

The second objective is Economic advantage. India has comprehensive Economic partnership Agreements with Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia. The Regional comprehensive Economic partnership which also involves ASEAN is a tangible forward movement of trade with CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) grown from $ 1·5 billion to more than $ 10 billion in 10 years. However, there exists a huge gap in terms of India-ASEAN and China–ASEAN trade and investments, in both cases China leading. China is agressively spending in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan on infrastructure, say road constructions.

The third objective is socio-cultural agenda. In this India fares better than China. India, through its Archaeological Survey of India, is helping in restoration of Angkorwat temple in Cambodia. Expanding Buddhist links as well as Hinduism scored points for India; both the religions were born in India itself. Increasing number of flight and tourism, made the region to be called as ‘Near Abroad’.

“Our relationship has been complex in recent decades. But we have a historic responsibility to turn this relationship into a source of strength for each other and a force of good for the world” —Narendra Modi

India refused to join Belt and Road Initiative of China. China proposed a strategy to resolve Refugee Crisis (Rohingya Muslims) between Bangladesh & Myanmar, which India did not for its own reasons.

In my opinion, India has to follow three-way strategy, i.e., Defensive competition, Active competition and cooperation, with regard to China. We need to defend our neighbours in South-Asia and South East Asia, make investments and trade pacts with them, increase cooperation in every aspect, including say Maritime Security. We need to check China by making allies with its neighbours, say Russia, Mangolia, Japan, Korea, South East Asia, Iran (neighbours of Pakistan). Then comes cooperation, say in terms of development, technology, climate change initiatives etc, China’s initiatives like Solar Highway should be reflected, so that it brings positive changes. Healthy competition and cooperation can bring good development in the region as well as the World.

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