Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The quiet rivalry in South East Asia

Viewing a geographical map one might be forgiven for assuming India and China are neighbours. The two economic behemoths certainly share a long border, but there is a lot of space between them.

Not only do the high Himalayas rise like a wall separating the countries, China’s own vast and sparsely populated western provinces place each country’s main demographic centres of gravity thousands of miles apart. The long distance and intrusive mountains have kept the two cultures largely insulated from each other for thousands of years. Geographically, the two nations might as well have an ocean between them.

Yet today if it was not for the spread and advancement of military and logistical technology the obvious barriers that proved so difficult to overcome in the past might still hold India and China apart. The two nuclear-armed nations now possess some of the world’s most dangerous weaponry and the means to deliver it. Beijing and Delhi are of course focusing on many other objectives, but their economic and cultural rivalry is never too far from their thoughts.

Although tensions between India and Pakistan are still volatile and occasionally flare, Delhi is well on the way to shifting its military focus towards China. Beijing’s increasingly dominant presence in South East Asia has India countering as carefully as possible with a seriousness that suggests an economic, not emotional, competition.

Their rivalry stems from geopolitics and the results of travelling down economically very different paths. India pursued a strategy of promoting individual entrepreneurship and production for its huge market. China achieved economic success by encouraging foreign investment and exporting labour-intensive manufacturing goods across the globe.

India’s rough legacy of British colonial rule ensured the Indian economic elite had an advantage over their Chinese rivals. By embracing English - the lingua franca of the international business world – the world’s largest democracy has created pulsing technology hubs in cities such as Hyderabad and Bangalore. But economic dynamism does not simply translate into regional or national security.

China overtook Japan in 2010 as the second strongest economic power of the world, while India only rose to 11th place, as measured by nominal GDP. Predictions generally lean toward India catching up to China in the next 20 years or so. Even now the two nations are butting heads more often but India is more divided culturally than China and lags behind economically as a result.

Both Delhi and Beijing are interested in building influence all across South East Asia. Myanmar is the present stomping ground for both powers as the relatively large, but underdeveloped, country emerges from an economic cocoon. Myanmar shares a border with each but is deeply sided to China for investment so if India is to pull Myanmar away from Beijing’s exclusivity it will probably need help.

China and India also compete over giving aid to the desperately poor Bangladesh and turmoil riven Pakistan. Chinese engineers have built impressive ports all along the coast of the Indian Ocean, including Chittagong in Bangladesh and Gwadar in Pakistan. Because of these projects, China could feed off the instability along the Indian borders of Pakistan and Bangladesh to frustrate future Indian politics should it so desire.

India is justifiably nervous about such engineering projects as the slowly tightening noose can often be the most dangerous. China is largely trying to protect its lines of communication and trade routes by building ports with friendly states, but India feels surrounded.

This is an historical turning point for Beijing and Delhi. As the United States gradually reduces its footprint after years of Eurasian presence, two of the world’s largest populations will have to balance their own footprints as they jockey for energy and strategic influence throughout Eurasia.

Delhi prefers the rivalry between it and China. The animosity displayed on the India-Pakistan border is in stark contrast to the interactions of Delhi and Beijing. Confronting Pakistan is an endless, tiresome rivalry, but with China Delhi can compete on a somewhat balanced playing field.

However, as Robert Kaplan suggests, it might be India as the lesser power which obsesses over the rivalry. Beijing will be taking Delhi’s contest seriously but China’s game is spread over many fronts in the Western Pacific and Central Asia; India is still largely playing in their home court.

Each now see their respective spheres of influence more often overlap. Beijing and Delhi can both project advanced military power right into the other’s territories, with even great mountain ranges failing to offer the formidable obstacles of years past.

While they may not harbour any ideological bitterness, the geography of the two countries will extend a tussle between Delhi and Beijing for many more years as each grow stronger. 

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