Nervous neighbours

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2007, 12:00am

A brief article at the very bottom of the front page of the PLA Daily last week announced that about 200 soldiers from China and India would hold joint anti-terrorism exercises in Kunming from December 19 to 27. This exercise is designed to build mutual trust between the armed forces and inform each side about the other's mettle.

Yet considerable distrust remains between China and India, not only along their militarised border but extending into the larger region as well. With rapid economic development and growing concerns about energy security, their competition is intensifying for political and economic influence in Southeast Asia.

Despite incremental efforts, deep distrust can still be seen between the two militaries, evidenced by the slow pace of collaboration. Joint naval exercises involving a few ships from each side took place in 2003, 2005 and this year.

In 2004, a handful of Indian soldiers practised mountaineering with their Chinese counterparts in Pulang county, Tibet . A defence co-operation agreement was signed in May last year, paving the way for more substantive exchanges.

However, military co-operation remains diplomatically sensitive, as shown by regular Indian announcements of Chinese border incursions and the slow pace and small scale of joint drills. The exercises taking place this week were delayed for over two months before an agreement was finally reached.

The Sino-Indian relationship is complex: leaders on both sides balance contentious bilateral issues with their respective geostrategic objectives. The so-far intractable impediments include an unresolved border, India's relationship with the Dalai Lama and China's support for Pakistan.

Farther afield, both China and India harbour suspicions that the other might align with third parties - the United States or Russia - to encircle or contain it. For both sides, the most critical battleground - in preventing encirclement and ensuring access to energy and global markets - is Southeast Asia.

Both China and India see Southeast Asia as an integral part of their respective spheres of influence. India's 'look east' policy, formulated in 1992, is a broad strategy for political and economic engagement with Southeast Asian nations. It signalled a shift in New Delhi's foreign policy and recognition of China's rise and growing role in the region. China's advances have worried political and military leaders in India. Many of them point to China's investments in strategic infrastructure projects - such as seaports in the Indian Ocean - as evidence of Beijing's aspirations to expand its presence at India's expense.

In response, India has boosted ties with the US. The US-India nuclear deal and the five-nation naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in September - involving over 100 ships from India, the US, Australia, Singapore and Japan - further fuels Chinese distrust and concerns about their own encirclement.

While the Indian military has perhaps overstated the extent of Chinese military expansion in the Indian Ocean, China is clearly outstripping India politically and economically in the region.

Kunming - China's gateway to Southeast Asia and host to the military exercises this week - is also the terminus of two planned pipelines from Myanmar. These pipelines will channel Middle East, African and Indian Ocean gas and oil overland to China's southwest, avoiding the vulnerable maritime chokepoints in Southeast Asia that so concern Chinese strategists.

New Delhi was stung by Myanmar's decision to decline India's bid and instead award the gas pipeline to China. This showed clearly that co-operation is not always feasible in the zero-sum competition for critical resources.

Both Beijing and New Delhi have significant concerns about energy security. China depends on imports for almost half of its oil, while India imports 70 per cent of its oil and half its natural gas.

In addition to Myanmar, both nations have competed globally for energy deals notably in Angola, Nigeria, Ecuador and Kazakhstan. While India was disappointed by several failed efforts, China was concerned that competition was driving up costs.

This spurred both sides to try to co-operate in future exploration and development efforts, building on successful experiences such as their joint ownership of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company consortium in Sudan.

However, these partnerships have not eliminated competition, as shown by the rivalry over Myanmar. While Chinese and Indian leaders have decided that co-operation may be preferable to competition, it will not be easy for them to quickly overcome competing interests, animosities and deeply held suspicions.

Drew Thompson is the director of China Studies, and Starr Senior Fellow, at The Nixon Centre in Washington




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