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Jointly Building the Maritime Silk Road in the 21st Century

[Presentation by Vinod Saighal at the 7th China-ASEAN Think Tank Strategic Dialogue Forum (2014)].



Contested Maritime Spaces, Geopolitical Uncertainties & Military Escalation

Reaction from the US and Japan

India’s Position

Looking Ahead   

It should not come as a surprise to its leaders that the reaction in several neighboring countries to MSR would have been that China was trying to further strengthen its already formidable economic hold on the region. Vague suggestions of mutual benefits for everybody do not sound convincing till these are clearly spelled out. The picture that is conjured up is of Admiral Zheng He’s naval armada at the start of the 15th century when China ruled the waves, just as Britain did at the zenith of its power a few centuries later, or as the US did for a long spell till another power is moving rapidly ahead to challenge its global ascendancy. 
Notwithstanding the above, China enjoys unique historical legacy unparalleled in the annals of seafaring. Comparisons will inevitably be made with the launching of large naval fleets by European seafaring nations, ostensibly for trade. Invariably these ended up by ruthless extermination of indigenous populations and conquest of territories that lasted several hundred years in some cases. On the other hand the naval armadas launched by the Chinese Emperor into Southeast Asia and beyond were neither exploitative nor did they lead to Chinese settlements and territorial aggrandizement. If anything, their objective as stated in extant records could be described as ‘promoting larger cosmic harmony’, albeit under the benign gaze of the great Chinese Emperor who enjoyed the mandate of Heaven.     
Although the launch of the MSR takes off from the legacy of goodwill missions of yore the regional realities of the second decade of the 21st century provide ample scope for serious misgivings about the nature of the initiative sought to be promoted. Conditioned by centuries of exploitation by the colonial masters, in peoples’ minds, the dominant economies follow largely one-sided trade patterns that have become synonymous with exploitative, extractive and ecologically destructive trade practices. In practically all cases the poverty-stricken populations of the recipient countries have seldom benefited from the big investments. For the dismal record of earlier trade patterns to be overtaken by the promises of a new era of joint prosperity for all, it becomes essential that the initiative gets off to a good start, avoiding the pitfalls that have been highlighted. Facing them squarely at the start rather than glossing over them, as if these were minor irritants, could go a long way in ensuring a smooth take-off.
Inevitably China’s meteoric economic rise that could in the not too distant future overtake the U.S. as the Number One global economy was bound to lead to an enhanced military capability. Throughout history economic powers have mobilized matching military power, not always for territorial expansion, but for safeguarding the economic prosperity of the country and keeping those eyeing covetous neighbors at bay. Of course, the route that China takes with its formidable military acquisitions will play a significant role in whether the MSR can see the light of day or whether it remains a chimera in the imagination of China’s leadership. The paper while examining the Contested Maritime Spaces and the Geopolitical Uncertainties that obtain along the proposed maritime silk route, goes on to suggest pathways that could go a long way in ensuring the success of the venture that may well last the course of the 21st Century.

Introductory Remarks

According to a report appearing in the Indian press (datelined Xian (China) August 10, 2014), China has invited India to join President Xi Jinping’s pet project that would revive the ancient trade routes and benefit the region. It goes on to state “From historical point of view India is the converging Maritime Silk Route (MSR) and the ancient Silk Road on land. For more than 2,000 years India had very good exchanges with China through the passage of the South Silk Road.” Gao Zhenting, councilor, department of international economic affairs told PTI (The Asian Age, Monday August 11, 2014).
It is very much on the cards that this initial feeler will be taken up by President Xi Jinping when he meets his counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the coming months. It was in 2013 that leaders of China announced their initiative to launch a new Maritime Silk Route for the 21st Century. President Xi Jinping in Indonesia in October 2013 and Premier Li Keqiang  at the ASEAN+China summit in Brunei. The benefits for China would include: Revive ancient silk routes by connecting inland regions with neighboring countries; consolidate sea lanes for import of raw material so important for China’s continuous prosperity; Gain new export markets and consolidate existing markets; Counter the influence of USA and Russia that might be feeling concerned with the inroads being made by China in their traditional spheres of influence and trade.
Evidently economic factors would have been the primary reason for proposing the MSR; the Chinese government being alive to the geopolitical advantages that would come their way in the process of further economic consolidation. Going a step further, the government would have realized that the export-driven model of growth that took the economy to spectacular heights through double digit growth cannot be sustained in the coming years, highlighting the need for new avenues of growth. Sustained economic growth, although not at the earlier levels, remains essential for the Chinese leadership on account of the disparity that exists between the coastal regions that have benefited enormously from the economic boom of the last two decades and the poverty that still obtains for very large numbers in the hinterland. The social tensions that exist would get exacerbated unless further growth is assured. All the more reason that the situation obtaining in the South China Sea (SCS), where tensions have been growing are not allowed to escalate; or continue in a state of tension with resolution nowhere in sight. Anybody reviewing the objectives that have been spelled out so far would find them laudable. However these represent desirable outcomes for interactions between nations in any part of the world. By themselves they are unexceptionable platitudes – call them guidelines - that have seldom been put into practice; and certainly not in regions where tensions prevail, as is the case in the SCS. China would certainly like to establish strategic relations with neighbors through economic cooperation that includes preferential trade agreements, cheap loans and investment in joint infrastructure projects (rail-roads-ports). China’s maritime cooperation is already working in South Asia around India in Gwadar, Pakistan, Hambantota, Sri Lanka and Chittagong, Bangladesh, much to India’s discomfiture. Analysts also see the MSR as China’s counter to USA’s Pivot towards the Asia-Pacific.
The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was designed to counter China’s economic dominance of the regional economies; if not dominance, the US would like the mutually beneficial economic cooperation between China and its neighbors to remain within thresholds acceptable to the US and its partners. The US hopes that its support for democratic transition in Myanmar will promote greater economic linkages between Myanmar, US, Japan, Germany, France and other entrants. This challenges China’s primacy in Myanmar that has held for several decades during the boycott of the military regime by the West. The long-term vulnerabilities thus created for China with these new developments have yet to be fully assimilated by China, in the economic as well as the security domains. This is a severe setback to China because Myanmar till quite recently was its closest ally beside Pakistan and almost wholly dependent on China for its military and economic needs. Further, USA’s security cooperation with Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei could well make these nations sit back till the MSR is operational, to evaluate it at that stage, and then decide on the level of participation. At his point in time the jury is out for several ASEAN countries.
A proponent of the conceptualization of the new MSR decided to quote a great western philosopher of the 20th Century. While one can understand the quotation to bolster the MSR proposition, this presenter finds it difficult to go along with the passage quoted: “The 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell observed and I quote, "Contacts between different civilizations have often in the past proved to be landmarks in human progress”. (Speech by Dai Bingguo, 2014/07/12, Guiyang). The great philosopher quoted overlooked the enormous tragedy visited upon the civilizations and peoples of Asia, Africa, North and South America among other places where the European colonials ventured. In many cases some of the greatest exterminations of indigenous populations in human history took place: as in America, Australia, South America and several other countries. Therefore one has to be cautious when citing philosophers from elsewhere. The Chinese naval armadas of the 15th century played a diametrically opposite role.
 Before rounding off the introductory phase of the presentation, it would be pertinent to compare ancient Routes – one maritime and the other in the realm of elevated thought - from two of the world’s oldest Asian civilizations: the Silk Route emanating from China and the other meandering its way to it and much of East and Southeast Asia. The first around the middle of the 2nd millennium; and India’s Spiritual Route for the sharing of human happiness and well-being for all on the basis of the pronouncement of the great Vedic Rishis of yore, Vasudev Kutambakam. It is said that the Chinese emperor I Tsung who ruled from 860 to 873, himself chanted the Sanskrit Sutras from palm leaf books kept in the palace. 

This aspect will be further examined later, because seeing the present situation in and around China and several parts of Asia it is only the combination of the Indian and Chinese experiences that will eventually ensure that the new Silk Routes embody the principles of harmony and well-being for all, as quoted by one of your speakers from the texts of a Chinese philosopher nearly three millennia earlier:
" In the Spring and Autumn Period of China more than 2,700 years ago, Guan Zhong, an ancient philosopher and politician of Qi Kingdom, put forward four principles, namely non-alliance, non-belligerence, good-neighborliness and proper management of border areas. He advocated harmony at home and abroad, no use of force, opening up to the outside world and meritocracy. The philosophy of harmony had a far-reaching impact on building the Silk Road and even the foreign policy of China over the past 2,000 years”.

It admirably embodies the spirit of the new Silk Routes in our century, the 21st.

 Contested Maritime Spaces, Geopolitical Uncertainties & Military Escalation

Lee Kuan Yew, the respected elder statesman of Singapore has said that Chinese leaders recognize they can’t confront the U.S. military until they have overtaken it in terms of development and application of technology. Nonetheless, he says he is sure they aspire to displace the U.S. as the leading power in Asia. “The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific because that is where the growth will be,” Mr. Lee was quoted as saying in a recently published book. “If the U.S. does not hold its ground in the Pacific, it cannot be a world leader.” 
Lee Kuan Yew’s statement pithily encapsulates and summarizes the dilemma that the new Chinese leaders will have to wrestle with from now to the time that a modus vivendi is arrived at between the two great powers who wish to dominate the Pacific and the Indian Ocean maritime spaces. Presently the Americans have a decisive edge over China and are in a position to curtail its expansion in practically all the contested maritime spaces on account of their formidable naval strength, experience of handling large-scale naval forces, and the alliances that they have assiduously cultivated in China’s near maritime space, the South China Sea and the other seas off the coast of China. China may be investing colossal sums to build up its naval capability to match the US in the near-Pacific and at the very least to be able to keep its aircraft carriers that formed the core strength of U.S. domination of the oceans for over 50 years. Its new missile the DF 21 would soon be operational. China hopes that the aircraft carriers will not be able to come to the aid of its treaty allies, notably Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and now the Philippines. Whatever the sea-denial capabilities and modernization that China is undertaking, it is unlikely that it would be able to take on the might of the U.S. till fairly far into the future. Occupying a few shoals off the Philippines coast or sending exploratory vessels into sea domains claimed by it will probably be the limit of China’s assertion. It cannot risk further escalation that could bring in the US to stand by its allies, notably Japan.
Acquisition of energy resources will continue to heighten competition between energy hungry and energy deficient nations. In the MSR context China, Japan, South Korea and India will continue to depend on very high levels of imports for the foreseeable future. Securing of energy routes and ensuring uninterrupted supply will remain the prime concerns of the nations mentioned in Asia. Unfortunately for the two biggest nations China and India and the region where the MSR will take shape, the South China Sea as well as the Pacific and Indian Oceans are fast becoming contested maritime spaces. Up to the end of the last century it was taken for granted and generally accepted as such that the US remained uncontested in the Pacific Ocean. To a lesser degree, India was acknowledged to be the dominant sea power in the Indian Ocean. In the case of the South China Sea and the seas adjacent to China even if it was not appreciated as such, realization was dawning that sooner rather than later linked to the rise of the Chinese economy and concomitant increase in its military capabilities, China was bound to demand acceptance of its primacy in the South China Sea. The nine-dash line was re-imposed with increasing muscularity, overruling the objections of the other maritime powers and the claims put forward by its maritime neighbors under UNCLOS. The twin factors leading to the turnabout were the increase in China’s naval potential and the floating of an indigenously developed aircraft carrier. Along with rising naval power China felt that the time had come to test the water – figuratively and literally - with the declaration that its core interest besides Tibet and Taiwan included the South China Sea. It seemed to be willing to force respect for its 9-dash line, irrespective of whether it impinged on the EEZ or claims of other countries.
            Taking each one of the contestants in turn and starting with India with whom China has a major boundary dispute, India is increasing it s naval capability to meet a projected challenge from China. The latter meanwhile has already developed its fourth-generation nuclear powered submarine capable of targeting sea-going or land-based targets with torpedoes and missiles. Seeing that it is way behind China in its naval capability and apprehensive that China is bound to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean, India will rapidly increase its nuclear submarine strength along with that of surface ships; a boost it is hoped will be matched by the improvement in India’s economy that had been languishing in recent years.
            The phrase “Chinese Monroe Doctrine” was first coined by South Korean naval analyst Sukjoon Yoon. The PLA Navy’s ambitions of establishing maritime supremacy over the East Asian and South China Seas could be challenged by the Malabar exercises that are held in China’s backyard. The trilateral naval exercises in the western Pacific Ocean in July 2014 involving the navies of India, Japan and the United States are significant strategic developments that China views with considerable misgiving. Before that since 1992, the Malabar exercises were carried out on a purely bilateral basis between India and the US. However in 2007, as the convener, India expanded the list of invitees to Australia, Japan and Singapore in keeping with New Delhi’s ambitions to expand its naval capacity and power projection. China did not take kindly to 25 warships and submarines of a number of nations converging in the Bay of Bengal. Exhortations by the then Australian Foreign Minister for the need to build a “Quadrilateral Alliance” of India, Japan, the US and his country were designed to upgrade the Malabar series into a ‘Broader Asia’ alliance of democracies to match China’s rising influence in the region. Beijing issued a diplomatic demarche demanding an explanation of the purpose of Malabar 2007. Due to the antagonistic relations between China and Japan, the active presence of Japan’s naval vessels in Malabar 2009 and 2014 have further raised concerns in Beijing. It apprehends that Malabar series give a boost to America’s containment policy. The geopolitical uncertainties leading to contested maritime spaces outlined above go to the very heart of the problem. Tensions that could escalate further and indefinitely push back the MSR can be summarized as under:
-         The scale and rapidity of China’s economic and military rise on the global arena, unparalleled in recorded history, created a regional imbalance that had almost reached an order of magnitude before countermeasures by the threatened parties led to tensions that have the potential to get out of hand;
-         China, after enormously enhancing its military capabilities, decided to immediately press its claims, with force, if necessary. The same outcome could perhaps have been achieved by following its avowed peaceful rise, professed earlier. A slower maturation into a world power - that had, and still has inevitability about it – would have let the fruit it desired fall into its lap of its own accord. Instead Beijing may have jumped the gun.
-         The consequences of its aggressive posture allowed extra-regional powers, primarily the U.S, to come back and strengthen its alliances in east and south-east Asia;
-         Any further military push by China to occupy its contested spaces on sea or land could lead to escalation on a scale that might inflame the region as a whole.
-         Reports from the 2nd International Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region, Beijing: 27-28 May 2014 do not indicate any meeting ground. Each country generally held its own position. Chinese participants are said to have repeatedly spoken about Asian values, Asian Century and the need for creating Asian Security architecture minus the USA; (as reportedly enunciated by President Xi Jinping during the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Shanghai).
-         More regrettably, hardly any meeting ground was found at the deliberations in Naypyidaw at the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit in the second week of August 2014. The U.S. stated position drew a cool response from China. Le Luong Minh, secretary-general of the 10-member ASEAN had stated that the US proposal was not discussed by ASEAN ministers because there was already a mechanism in place to curtail sensitive action such as land reclamation and building on disputed islands. The top diplomat maintained that it was up to ASEAN to work with China to reduce tensions by improving compliance with a 2002 agreement as they work to conclude a binding Code of Conduct for maritime actions. (The Asian Age, New Delhi, Sunday 10 August 2014). 
According to Joseph S Nye, a Chinese military posture that is too aggressive could produce a countervailing coalition among its neighbors, thereby weakening China’s hard and soft power. In 2010, for example, as China became more assertive in its foreign policy towards its neighbors, its relations with India, Japan and South Korea suffered. As a result, Nye avers, China will find it more difficult to exclude the US from Asia’s security arrangements. (Joseph S Nye, Times of India, New Delhi April 27, 2011).

It is almost a historical truism that whenever a major intervention in the geopolitical domain by a world power takes place, it is seldom, if ever, possible to get back to the status quo ante. Something on these lines has taken place since 2010 in the SCS region, where China’s military and economic surge has reached proportions that could dwarf the combined might of the other countries having geographic contiguity to the South China Sea. In sum it is for China to hold its horses or tread water to use a naval term till a semblance of peace returns to the region. 

Reactions from the U.S. and Japan
There is a general perception that during the Obama administration bilateral relations between China and the U.S. have sunk to their lowest point since the Nixon- Kissinger period of the 1970s. Leaders in Beijing and Washington have disagreed on how to solve major problems in the international trading system, climate change and regional security.  Washington claims that its military and diplomatic alliances in the Asia-Pacific are a rebalancing exercise. Beijing, however, sees it as containment strategy, pure and simple.   South China Sea carries a third of the world's trade. For the US not to counter perceptions of declining commitment to the region would undermine its influence. America's stake in Asia is enormous - nearly a trillion dollars in annual trade, billions of dollars of investment.
On 1 July 2014, Japan’s Abe government announced a major change to the country’s post-war security policy by effectively lifting the ban on collective self-defence. It introduced new legislation that reinterpreted Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, thereby permitting Japan to use military force to come to the aid of an ally or a country in a close relationship with Japan when it is under armed attack. The July reinterpretation becomes highly significant for the region because it could force China to confront the possibility of dealing with a more powerful Japan in East Asia. It needs to be recalled that Japan suddenly changed the status quo in 2012 to "nationalise" the Diaoyus/Senkakus, leading to aggressive counter measures by China.
Summarizing the confrontations that seem to be hardening, fear of new cold war developing in the region cannot be ruled out. The biggest danger is that misperceptions on the part of the two biggest contenders - China and the US – could lead to a regional flare up should China push its claims more aggressively; and on the part of the US, it could fall into the Thucydides Trap should Republicans capture the White House when Obama’s second term comes to an end..
India’s Position   

India’s stated position on the South China Sea disputes was reiterated by India’s foreign minister in Naypyidaw at the ASEAN Regional Forum in August 2014. Briefly, it was maintained that about the SCS issue India supports freedom of navigation and access to resources in accordance with principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. She added that India expects to see progress with respect to implementation of guidelines to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the adoption of a Code of Conduct on the basis of consensus. (The Sunday Statesman, New Delhi 10 August 2014).
China is involved in bitter territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, where tensions have been boiling. China needs to spend considerable military and political resources to address these. Hence, igniting a dormant frontier territorial dispute with India is not in China’s interest. The cumulative effect of its hardened posture made the world and more so countries of the region sit up and take note. It resulted in a definitive backlash. Many outside China and perhaps some within feel that China could have waited a few more years before staking its claims. By that time its own military position vis-a-vis the American Navy in the Pacific would have been stronger. Further, a few more years of U.S. economic decline and military fatigue would not have inclined its leadership to rush in with the Pivot to Asia and the alliances that have been strengthened since 2010.
The doubt about future US capabilities or their efficacy has automatically made countries to its East look towards India as the regional balancer. The anxiety about China includes Australia that now wishes India to take the lead in forging an Asia-Pacific community on the lines of the European Union. During his visit to India in 2009, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd expressed that India was central to Asia-Pacific community and Australia and India ought to be natural partners in this region where big power rivalries would have to be ‘harmonized and reconciled’. A Positive step in this relationship was the signing of the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in November 2009 between the two countries. [Australian PM Rudd’s visit to India Dec 2009, Australian Deputy Secretary (Strategy)].
Similar overtures have been made to India from time to time by Japan, South Korea and the majority of the ASEAN countries. It was only in 1992 that India belatedly, and reluctantly, launched the ‘Look East’ policy. India is now the 3rd largest economy in Asia after China and Japan. Whatever China may make of it, none of the ASEAN countries, East Asian or for that matter Asia-Pacific countries look upon India as anything other than a benign presence. India, in fact, lends balanced multi-polarity to the South China Sea region and the whole of Asia, if not the world. India can by no stretch of imagination be considered an extra-regional player, like for example the United States of America for the simple reason that over the millennia Indian culture and thought pervaded all countries around it, spreading as far East as China, Japan and Korea. As a matter of fact, Chinese writers of the earlier centuries were wont to describe the country beyond the Himalayas as the ‘Western Heaven’. Millennia of peace, goodwill and harmony with the Indic influences have nurtured in all its East Asian neighbors a profound sense of comfort with its presence. To this day India remains a force for stability.
India cannot be unmindful of the fact that when and if the MSR finally becomes a reality its strongest and most important asset would be the massive inroads that China has been able to make in the SAARC countries surrounding India, starting with Pakistan and going on in recent years to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal. Evidently, its investments have benefited the recipients. Nevertheless, the potential security threats to India from an already formidable and burgeoning Chinese presence in South Asia have rung alarm bells in the defense fraternity. India’s growing participation in the Malabar exercises indicates the future trajectory of what New Delhi likes to term as the “Indo-Pacific” region (a concept that treats the expanse ranging from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean as an inseparable continuum).
India’s policymakers dismiss Chinese perceptions of New Delhi serving the American agenda via the Malabar exercises. Rather, owing to technical and geopolitical benefits accruing to India, they wish to encourage more such multilateral naval exercises with a self-confidence that refuses to be complaisant to China. The mutual admiration club comprising Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a catalyst for broadening the naval dimension of bilateral relations.
On 28th March 2013 India successfully carried out the maiden test firing of the over 290 km range submarine-launched version of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile in the Bay of Bengal, becoming the first country in the world to have this capability. This is reportedly the first test firing of an underwater supersonic cruise missile anywhere in the world. BrahMos Missile is reportedly fully ready to be fitted in submarines in vertical launch configuration which will make the platform one of the most powerful weapon platforms in the world.  There is cautious talk in some strategic circles that were India to provide the BrahMos missile to Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines it has the potential to become a game changer.
In the two decades since the Look East policy first came into play, India was generally content to look only towards ASEAN. Australia and East Asia were not really the focus area for India during that period. That India is now definitely committed to projecting further East into the SCS and beyond is no longer in doubt. India’s maritime projection eastward has so far been restricted to maritime activities related to trade and exploration for hydro-carbons wherever it has been invited to participate by the host country, as in the case of Vietnam. As to whether it is a prelude to the positioning and strengthening of a vigorous presence is difficult to say with any certainty at this juncture. Much will depend on China’s military assertion in India’s periphery as well as the projection of Chinese navy into the Indian Ocean to either balance or rival India’s historic primacy.
The diversion of the waters of the Brahmaputra and barrages on the Sutlej and Indus Rivers could further exacerbate tensions between the two countries. Whatever the case, a greater presence by the Indian navy beyond the Malacca Straits would be welcomed by practically all the nations of southeast Asia as well as Japan and South Korea.
At present there is considerable disparity in the economic strength of India and China. The latter has surged ahead spectacularly while India during the past years has been caught up in declining economic outcomes. Nevertheless, it is evident to China and the world that India could catch up in the coming years with the advent of a government with a decisive parliamentary majority and the emergence of a strong leader at the helm of affairs. In fact, by about 2035-40, if not earlier, these two countries could become the leading economies of the world. 



Looking Ahead

 Dr. Edward De Bono, lateral thinking guru and inventor of Six Hats Theory has this to say about India-China relations: “If India can partner China, the two can become a super power in a short time. Alternately, if India and China can form a coalition for bringing other developing nations under its fold, it can beat all other super powers. (The Economic Times, New Delhi, 18 September 2007). 
In moving forward to a sustainable and equitable paradigm it has to be kept in mind that with Euro-Atlantic economies being in comparative retreat, Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean will now be the dominant theatres for the rest of the century. The growing economic strength of the region will again become a magnet for countries from other parts of the world for commerce as well as for geopolitical realignments on a global scale that are bound to follow the shift of the centre of gravity from the West after nearly three centuries of dominance to the East. It is against this backdrop that the latest developments in the South China Sea urgently beckon a settlement that should be ecologically sustainable, economically just and equitable for all people living in the region.
Through several millennia Chinese civilization has influenced its neighbors. It enriched them culturally, through its scientific advances and commerce. Once again, after the humiliations visited on it in the preceding century, China has come into its own. Its phenomenal economic leap has showered benefits on all its neighbors, China having become ASEAN’s largest trade partner. Large Chinese communities are present in practically all countries in South East Asia. They too have enhanced trade and contributed to the richness of the societies in which they have remained embedded for generations. China’s assertiveness, some would call it over-assertiveness, stems from the legacy of its troubled history. The grave problems that threaten the viability of life on the planet require the emerging great powers, especially China and India to take the lead in tackling them. Viewed against the magnitude of the planetary decline that is taking place before our eyes with each passing year, the ridiculously petty disputes over a few islands in the South China Sea should hardly be leading the nations around it to over-militarization that could build up its own irreversible momentum. Should a major conflagration develop with the newer types of weapons being inducted into the arsenals of each country the situation could get completely out of hand with dangerous consequences all round. It is to be hoped that well before such a situation develops good sense will prevail.
The aim of India’s closer interaction with ASEAN and friendly nations in East Asia is not to contain China, but to restrain it from dreaming its dream in a manner that conflict breaks out in the region. The resultant damage to the countries involved and the region as a whole from a conflict that should it get out of control would be enormous, actually prohibitive. In worst case scenarios it could spell the end of the Asian Century whose principal beneficiary to date has been China. Increased trade that has spelled prosperity for many countries and raised tens, if not hundreds of millions out of poverty would be jeopardized. .  
            China and India are both poised for growth that could project them in the front ranks of the world in as little as twenty years. This could only happen if the massive outlays on defence budgets led by China, triggering in turn higher military spending by India and other countries in the region, are drastically reduced and instead confidence building measures commenced between China and ASEAN, China and Japan, China and Vietnam and China and India. In every case the ‘pivot’ (eschewing the negative connotation of the term) or central driver for the collective project of stabilizing and strengthening the Asian Century becomes China. As the harbinger of peace and prosperity China effortlessly and seamlessly will come into its own as the Middle Kingdom of yore. None of its neighbors, once assured that its peaceful rise can never be transformed into anything other than peaceful, would begrudge China its role as the brightest star in the Asian firmament, a prelude to greater glory at the global level by the mid-21st century.  It will also become the start point of the Maritime Silk Route of the 21st Century underpinned collectively by the largest Asian powers China and India, together strengthening the Asian Century for at least the current century, if not beyond.

Vinod Saighal
New Delhi – August 14, 2014.




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