Elusive balance against China

Elusive balance against China

Until recently, India viewed Japan, South Korea and Vietnam as prospective investors (the first two) or old friends (the third). Relations with them were “cordial", diplomatese for boring.

Now, suddenly, that is changing and defence ties have acquired new salience. The danger of the South China Sea being turned into a Chinese lake, India’s fear of “encirclement" in South Asia and news of the presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (the Gilgit and Baltistan regions of the old Kashmir state) seem to have changed matters. So when defence minister A.K. Antony begins his two-day trip to Seoul on Thursday, it is but natural that politico-military affairs should be at the top of his agenda.

Developing defence ties, however, calls for long-term commitment and should not be seen in the light of recent Chinese behaviour alone. That would be a mistake. For example, if China gives up its claims in various parts of Asia, would that mean the threat has passed? Will reasons for close defence cooperation cease to exist then? Clearly not. Chinese strategic perspectives are far-sighted and are subject to tactical adjustments in the short run if only to create confusion among countries that are trying to “balance" it.

In furthering these ties and building a “balancing coalition", there are peculiar problems and possibilities. All the countries in question have different compulsions and interests that make a linear let’s-gang-up-against-China argument implausible. South Korea, for example, not only has looked to better ties with Beijing in the past, but has also looked at the problem from a North Korean prism. In its efforts to gain the confidence of North Korea, it has to tread carefully when it comes to China, the main prop for Pyongyang in an otherwise hostile world. If Seoul is seen as trying to join an “anti-Chinese" alliance, if there is such a thing, it risks complications in something that is of vital interest to it.

There are, however, possibilities too. Today the “peaceful rise" of China is a myth. Chinese efforts at building a blue-water navy, its big and modern submarine fleet and its recent flexing of muscles in South-East Asia are at odds with its professions of peace. It has left its neighbours a deeply worried lot. Investment in defence ties calls for long-term commitment and should not be subject to myopic cost-benefit analyses and loss of interest.

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