by Sandhya Jain
Continuing tensions over Ukraine notwithstanding, including a US-led boycott of the Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has retrieved much of its eminence as a great power and even managed a handsome recovery of its sanction-hit rouble. By tweaking its West-centric gaze towards Siberia and the Arctic (which Putin likely visited during a mysterious absence some weeks ago); towards Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa, Moscow straddles a multipolar world and a multipolar Asia. Given that the bulk of its vast territories embrace the Asian landmass, it would be a mistake not to think of Russia as an Asian power.
The reality that it is already a multipolar Asia would not have escaped Beijing, which in recent years is expanding its global footprint while seeking a commanding presence in its Asian neighbourhood. Given its deep economic and strategic ties with Moscow, Beijing obviously recognises that Russia will pursue its interests in Central Asia, Europe, Iran and the Islamic world, with India, and elsewhere.
The People’s Republic will have to accept that there is no escape from sharing eminence with rising powers like India and Iran, which, like Russia and China, share strategic and economic interests in the same regions. Nor will it be possible to exclude countries like Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, to name a few, from pursuing their interests in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese leadership will therefore have to come to terms with the fact that Beijing is unlikely to enjoy the ‘sole superpower’ status that the United States briefly enjoyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Currently, Beijing resents India’s assertiveness in Asia and even more in the Indian Ocean where India has a commanding presence by virtue of its geographical location. More importantly, many countries feel less threatened by the rise of India and favour New Delhi assuming greater responsibilities in protecting the sea-lanes from the African coast to the Indonesian islands. India is accordingly prioritising modernisation of its navy and air force. By scaling down the strength of the new mountain strike force from a proposed 90,000 to around 30,000 troops, the Modi government has defanged the hardliners who were upping the ante on the border dispute with China, both before and during his visit to that country.
The Indo-China border dispute, a legacy of the British Raj, has been made intractable by China’s annexation of Tibet and acquisition of Indian territory (Aksai Chin, to consolidate its hold on Tibet) from Pakistan, which the latter has illegally occupied in contravention of UN Resolutions. This unresolved dispute has been aggravated by Beijing nibbling at Indian territory in Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir) in recent years.
In April 2015, Beijing announced an ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor from its Xinjiang province to the Gwadar port in Baluchistan (Pakistan), via Gilgit-Baltistan which legally belongs to India, being part of the erstwhile princely State of Jammu & Kashmir. The plan is to link its New Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road (‘One Belt, One Road’) initiatives with Central Asia and later the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. While professional Cassandras loudly declaimed that China was challenging India in her maritime backyard (Arabian Sea), they omitted to mention that New Delhi is investing $100 million to develop the Chabahar Port in Iran, which will grant it access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. China’s proposed corridor has, however, sparked deep resentment in Gilgit-Baltistan and may not be easy to implement. New Delhi summoned the Chinese envoy to protest against this project. However, the earthquake that that struck Nepal on April 26, with strong aftershocks hitting the region even after three weeks, could affect the viability of projects in this mountainous region.
There is also real danger from jihadist outfits that Pakistan has nurtured in pursuit of its strategic objectives in Afghanistan and India. Central Asia is the new frontier of radical Islam; Chechnya, Fergana, and Xinjiang are the new recruiting ground for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which recently established a base in the Afghanistan badlands. Hence, Russia, China, Iran, and India will have to cooperate in fighting the jihadi menace.
Chinese claims on the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh – first articulated in 2006 when it was called South Tibet – are a baseless tactic to pressurise India. The claims were rebutted by the 14th Dalai Lama, who asserted that Arunachal Pradesh was historically never a part of Tibet. The claim seems to be a ruse to avert a situation in which Tibetans claim that the next incarnation of the aged Dalai Lama is born in territory outside Chinese control (the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born near the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh). As an aside, one may mention that India’s Kushan empire included Kashgar (Kashi), Khotan and Yarkant in the Tarim Basin, and Kushan control over the road from China to Gandhara (Afghanistan) facilitated trade and travel across the Khunjerab Pass and enabled the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.
While Beijing’s hostility to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in February this year was unwarranted, it suggested that there would be no forward movement on the border issue, notwithstanding the high optics accompanying Modi’s visit (May 14-16), which began with a trip to President Xi Jinping’s hometown of Xi’an, from where Xuanzang set off for a pilgrimage of important Buddhist sites in India in the seventh century, and even arrived at a monastery in Modi’s hometown, Vadnagar, Gujarat. But Xi’an is also the new axis of power in China, with three of the seven top leaders of the politburo standing committee, eight of 25 politburo members and four out of 11 members of the central military commission belonging to the ‘Shaanxi group’.
Shrewd and pragmatic, Modi refused to allow establishment hawks to dictate the terms of engagement and accorded priority to civilisational, commercial, and civilian ties. At the Tsinghua University on the last day of his tour, he articulated the Indian position on all issues firmly while moving to improve bilateral trade and investment opportunities. India, he said, currently enjoys a growth rate of 7.5 per cent and is working to create next generation infrastructure – roads, ports, railways, airports, telecom, digital networks and clean energy. Yet, he said, it is imperative to bridge the doubts and distrust in the relationship, to settle the boundary quickly, and to first settle the ambiguity regarding the Line of Actual Control.
Modi specifically mentioned the tensions over trans-border rivers (from the Himalayas) and unilaterally extended electronic tourist visas to Chinese citizens, even as critics bemoaned the stapled visas for Indians from Jammu & Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. He refused to let Pakistan’s growing strategic relationship with Beijing derail his engagement with China and remained focused on his larger perspectives: he inked fresh deals worth $22 billion (in addition to previously pledged investments of $20 billion), and sought China’s support for India’s permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
A signature theme of India’s security establishment for over a decade has been China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy to encircle India, a reference to China’s growing ties with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The decibels rose sharply when China began building the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka (a project declined by India) and again when, in 2014, then President Rajapaksa twice permitted a Chinese nuclear submarine to dock at the island nation. Modi intervened, quietly but decisively, and after Maithripala Sirisena came to power, the Colombo port project with China was deferred and the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, opened in 2013 with a Chinese investment of $200 million, rendered defunct.
Actually, an undue pessimism pervades India’s security establishment because it continues to harbour a Nehruvian worldview, and has not been able to overcome the trauma of defeat in 1962. Yet, when the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China in June 2003, he secured Chinese recognition of Indian sovereignty over Sikkim (which it once disputed), and for the first time since 1960, both sides appointed special representatives (SR) to negotiate the boundary dispute. In 2013 and 2014, China agreed to pull back its soldiers from eastern Ladakh.
In recent times, India’s engagement with Russia has appeared rather muted. But the day before the Prime Minister left for China, President Putin telephoned him and Modi confirmed his participation in the forthcoming BRICS summit and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, both in Ufa, in July. New Delhi’s quest for full membership of the SCO may be approved at this meeting. The two leaders also discussed a range of issues concerning expansion of the Russia-India privileged strategic partnership.
Indeed, Russia, China and India and even Iran have converging interests in stabilising Afghanistan and curbing its multi-billion dollar drug trade, as well as containing terrorism in Central Asia and the neighbourhood. India does not endorse the Western line on Iran, Syria or Ukraine; at Fortaleza, Brazil (August 2014), Modi reportedly assured Putin that he would not support the US/EU (not UN) sanctions against Russia.
Fortaleza was Modi’s first global engagement after coming to power, and it was here that the members decided to launch the New Development Bank with a $100 billion fund and currency reserve pool of $100 billion, to help third world countries access loans without ‘unfair’ conditions imposed by West-dominated multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank. India has appointed KV Kamath as the first chief of the Shanghai-based bank. China’s ambitious Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), mooted in 2013 to support infrastructural projects in the region, has acquired over 40 members, including America’s western allies who are keen for Chinese investments and trade.
Modi was quick to understand that the coming era belongs to the non-West and is keen to receive the fruits of the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping. Russia is reportedly keen on an India-China rapprochement, so that the RIC can emerge as an economic and strategic axis that can challenge the dominant West, especially the United States. To be stable and viable, such an alliance needs Iran (RICI), which is a force to be reckoned with in the Gulf region. The interests of all four nations converge in many areas.
In fact, China’s One Belt One Road, India’s Cotton Route and Project Mausam, and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), are all complementary projects based on the old land and sea-based trade routes of the ancient world. Even in the centuries BC, the land and sea commerce between India, Persia, Egypt, up to the African coast, was protected by different dynasties; China joined this trade only under the Han dynasty, but expanded it exponentially.
Currently, the Sino-Russian alliance is the fastest growing. Trade between the two countries stands at $100 billion annually, and some long-term energy deals – driven by Moscow’s need to counter a Western attempt to throttle its pipelines – have cemented the relationship. In May 2014, the two signed a 30-year $400 billion gas deal and another $325 billion gas deal in November 2014, sharply reducing Russian reliance on Europe. In fact, cash-strapped Russia has agreed to sell its most advanced air defence system, the S-400 missile, and 100 Sukhoi Superjet airplanes, to China. Beijing will invest $5.8 billion to extend the Moscow-Kazan high speed railway into China. In all, the two nations have signed 32 infrastructure related agreements during President Xi’s visit to Moscow in May.
Russia is also moving ahead with Turkish Stream, a trans-Black Sea pipeline that will deliver natural gas to Turkey by December 2016; Putin has offered Greece to fund an extension of the pipeline to the heart of Europe. So far, Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary and Greece have expressed a desire to be part of the project. The Turkish Stream is a Russian counter-offensive to the West’s attempt to checkmate its South Stream pipeline at Bulgaria.
President Xi was the principal guest of honour at Moscow’s Victory Day celebrations (an estimated 25 million Russians sacrificed their lives during the War), but leaders of around 30 nations attended despite Washington’s boycott call. Nations who participated in the parade at Red Square included India, China, Mongolia, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Beijing is now planning its own end-of-World War II military parade in September to highlight its contribution to the War (in which an estimated 15 lakh Chinese soldiers died) and challenge the West-centric narrative that has hitherto dominated the history books. This is yet another symbol of the rise of Asia.
Sandhya Jain is a writer of political and contemporary affairs and writes a fortnightly column for The Pioneer, New Delhi. She edits an opinions forum, www.vijayvaani.com, and contributes to a web portal, www.Niticentral.com. Jain is a post graduate in Political Science from Delhi University, Delhi, and has had two decades of experience as a professional journalist in leading newspapers such as The Hindustan Times, The Telegraph, and Sunday Mail (weekly). She briefly worked with the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi. Jain is a student of the myriad facets of Indian civilisation. Her published works include
- Adi Deo Arya Devata. A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface, Rupa, 2004.
- Contributed a chapter on Hindu view on population control in Sacred Rights, ed. Dan Maguire, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003.
- Evangelical Intrusions. Tripura: A Case Study, Rupa, 2009.
- Contributed a chapter on Jain Dharma in “Why I am a Believer: Personal Reflections on Nine World Religions,” ed. Arvind Sharma, Penguin India, 2009.
- Edited a compilation of outsider accounts on India titled, The India They Saw. Foreign Accounts: 5th century BC – 7th century AD (Ocean Books Pvt Ltd, 2011).