The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Can India Survive in a China-Centered Asia-Pacific?

India needs to drastically overhaul its current strategy – or risk ceding the region to Chinese control.

By Lakhvinder Singh for
Can India Survive in a China-Centered Asia-Pacific?
Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

The successful completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with Asia-Pacific countries is more evidence that the center of gravity in the region continues to move toward China. The United States, which long dominated the region both economically and militarily, is being pushed back and the vacuum is being filled mainly by China, which is emerging as the largest trading partner with most counties in the region and is on the road to becoming the biggest military power as well. Given the growth of China’s economy and the developmental projects it is carrying out under the Belt and Road Initiative in recent years, more and more counties are aligning themselves with China.

China’s soft power is also on the rise. Increasingly regional students prefer to study at Chinese universities. Slowly the “American Dream” is being replaced by the “Chinese Dream.” This Chinese charm offensive is expected to accelerate in the coming years. The worldwide network of Confucius Institutes and Chinese-controlled international media are playing a major role in increasing and spreading its soft power influence. It is just a matter of time before all roads literally lead to Beijing.

What Does It Mean for India?

The regional tilt toward China is bound to stimulate the growth of Chinese power in many ways. In short order, China may become not only the biggest economic and military power but also the biggest technological and soft power holder. However, despite all the growth of wealth and prosperity, China is still a communist country ruled by a totalitarian regime. The Communist Party of China still holds the supreme power. Any demand of sharing political power is considered a serious challenge to its authority and met with brutal force.

Thus, in a China-led Asia-Pacific there is the high possibility that “democracy” might become the most despised political phrase in the region. Given the social and historical traits of the region, most countries may have no qualms with accepting some principal rules of China’s governing legal framework. However, given the sociopolitical realities of the Indian state, India cannot survive as a united nation without a strong democratic set up where different communities and regions are given fair and just representation in the governing order. No amount of brutal force can keep India united. Democracy and rule of law is the only option.

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Given China’s newly acquired economic and military might, India may not be able to successfully resist Chinese pressure on its governing system and maintain its way of life. China might see India as an open challenge to the supremacy of its one-party system and thus a possible political rival in the region in future that needs to be restrained as soon as possible.

Furthermore, given the expected growth of the Chinese navy in coming years, it will be nearly impossible for India alone to maintain a balance of power in the region and keep the Indian Ocean free from Chinese dominance and control. Without a free and open Indian Ocean, India will face an uncertain future.

Given the integration of regional economies with the Chinese economy at large, it will be almost impossible for India to practice a free and open market economy and continue trading with Asia-Pacific countries as before, since cheaply produced Chinese products can creep into Indian market through the back door via third countries and cripple the local economy. The Indian economy might go into a deep recession under a China-tilted economic order in the region,

Lastly, there is a high possibility that India may not have any friends or partners left in its own neighborhood in a China centered Asia-Pacific. Given the extent of the Chinese push into the Indian neighborhood, smaller countries in the region may not be able to resist Chinese economic incentives and pressure, posing serious political implications for India and the whole region. India may be left on its own.

The Way Out

Given the gravity of the situation, India needs a comprehensive strategy that can serve India’s national interest in the region. First and foremost, Indian policymakers must forego the attitude of denial and accept the current reality. They must accept that there are serious shortcomings in our current China strategy of trying to become friends with China through the “Wuhan spirit” or seeking to reassure through Indo-Pacific strategy. Both are not working now and are destined to fail.

India needs a course correction. Currently India has two options. India can continue with its current low-profile engagement policy, let China take over the whole region, and be ready to be eventually pushed out of the Asia-Pacific completely, leaving the entire region at the disposal of China. Or India can make a stronger push into the region, integrating itself more closely with regional counties, and then deal with China on the basis of that strength.

As China is currently making a push in almost every part of Asia, India does not have many options. In this situation, withdrawal from the region could be suicidal and hurt India deeply. Deeper integration is the only option for India to survive in a China-centered Asia.

India’s current “Act East” policy is too little, too late. Unlike the Act East policy — which is very general in nature and focuses mainly on economic cooperation — constructing a country-specific engagement and integration strategy according to the particular strategic and economic needs of that particular partner country is the best way forward. We could call it India’s new “Integrate East Policy.”

The Korean Example

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As a starting point of this new “Integrate East Policy,” India can begin with the Korean Peninsula, as it is emerging as the epicenter of a power struggle between China and the United States and becoming a main geographical point of the Chinese push into the region. Furthermore, South Korea offers the perfect scenario for India to understand what it takes and means to deeply integrate with the Asia-Pacific region.

Currently South Korea is under heavy pressure from China. The Chinese are using every possible opportunity to pressure Seoul not to support the American security initiatives in the region and instead tilt toward China’s own initiatives such as the BRI and RCEP. Unfortunately, India’s current policy toward South Korea has failed to take note of the ongoing power shift and is still focused on micro-level cooperation only. Macro-level issues have been completely ignored in practice and are used only for diplomatic rhetoric at summit meetings. The result is that, despite all the efforts to build a strong partnership between India and South Korea, India’s ties are still stuck at a very low diplomatic level. The loss of South Korea could have very serious strategic and security consequences for India. Thus New Delhi should chalk out strategy to help South Korea in the ongoing power struggle.

Currently the U.S.- South Korea security alliance is under serious stress. It may completely collapse in the coming years if appropriate measures are not taken in   time. South Korea is in dire need of support to stay afloat as a sovereign and independent country in a post-American era. Unfortunately, Indian policymakers have failed to see any role for India in enhancing South Korean capabilities. Because of this negligence, India’s so called “special strategic partnership” with Seoul has remained on paper only. India should come forward to help South Korea in capability-building so that Seoul can sustain itself in a post-American era and resist pressure from regional bullies.

Peace is a major issue on the Korean Peninsula. The peace process started by South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to have reached a dead end, and the cloud of nuclear war will soon start gathering over the Korean Peninsula once again. Here also India has failed to come out with any initiatives to prevent nuclear catastrophe. Indian diplomats feel no need to involve themselves in peace building. This must change.

The reunification of Korea is a core issue for the Korean people. Although India played an active role during and after the Korean War negotiations and settlements, the Indian role and contribution in the reunification process is almost nil today. India must do everything possible to unite Korea as soon as possible under a democratic setup to avoid the Korean Peninsula being united under totalitarian regime at a later stage. A democratic, united Korea is in India’s best interest.

Currently the South Korean economy is in bad shape and heading toward a hard landing. An economically weaker South Korea is very vulnerable to pressure from regional powers. Despite the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and South Korea, economic ties are still stuck at very low levels. Trade is growing too slowly. At this growth rate, the trade target of $50 billion will be missed again. Endless negotiations to improve CEPA continue, but Indian diplomats based in Seoul have failed to understand the strategic implications of weaker India-Korea economic ties. India must help South Korea as much as it can to strengthen its economic vulnerabilities to avoid economic blackmailing from the new emerging superpower.

South Korea is a case study for a broader problem. Only by involving itself in core strategic and economic issues in regional countries India can make its presence valuable and worth protecting from Chinese pressure by local countries. Without local support and a desire to have India around from local countries, India stands no chance in a China-centered Asia-Pacific.

The current attitude of Indians policymakers and diplomats who focus only on micro-level issues is a waste of time.  This could prove very destructive for the country in the very near future. India must focus on the big picture and integrate with the Asia-Pacific like never before.

Dr. Lakhvinder Singh is a Seoul-based geostrategist currently affiliated with The Asia Institute.