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The Rediff Special / T Karki Hussain

China, India and Southeast Asia after the Cold War

On the eve of President Jiang Zemin's historic visit, T Karki Hussain discusses how China's relationship with India and Southeast Asia has changed after the Cold War.

Chinese people For India, the strategic environment in the neighbouring Southeast Asian region has always been of great importance. The changes that have taken place in the international field in the early nineties have created a new political and economic context for India's regional diplomacy.

Unlike China, which has become closely involved in the regional concerns of peace, stability, development and security, India, though vitally interested, has yet to find a place in the newly emerging structures. India remains on the periphery rather than a vigorous player itself.

The Southeast Asian countries - ASEAN and now Indo-China--have adjusted their policies to the exigencies of a diminished superpower presence and China's accumulation of military and economic strength. They are seeking a co-operative framework of interaction with China by underlining the visible benefits of its constructive engagement in the region. Their immediate objective is to pre-empt regional imbalances if a resurgent China aspiring for a global role is allowed free play. The strategy that they have adopted is to accentuate the existing linkages with networks of economic interests.

India's improved ties with China and its reformist domestic agenda may stimulate its interaction with Southeast Asia. The challenge for India is to initiate a regional policy based on shared goals and compatible philosophies. While avoiding the facile temptation of becoming a balancing factor in South East Asia's power-equation, India could reinforce its strategic interests in the area by strengthening the existing bilateral and multilateral processes which already include China prominently.

From an Indian perspective the China factor presents an unique opportunity to forge closer ties with the Southeast Asian countries which continue to entertain doubts regarding China's future behaviour while simultaneously stressing importance of having China as a friendly neighbour.

China's pronouncements on the world situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War convey the impression that it believes itself to be in an advantageous position for the following reasons.

First, although the transition from bipolarity to multipolarity represents 'a volatile situation of strategic imbalance', the intrinsic value of China's importance in the tentative equilibrium has been enhanced rather than diminished.

Second, the collapse of Communism has seen the emergence of China as the most powerful ideological survivor state which theoretically would confront capitalism and exemplify the superiority of the socialist system, with the Communist party as the instrument of change.

Third, China will derive leverage from the contradictions between the US, Japan and Europe.

Four, with the military threat from the North receding, China's external security environment has further stabilised and become relatively peaceful, and several outstanding differences with neighbouring countries have been and are being constructively dealt with. This provides China with an excellent opportunity to devote its energy to economic issues!

Finally, economic success alone would legitimise the policy of holding back political reforms and perpetuating the role of the Communist party in the name of 'building socialist democratic politics with Chinese characteristics.' The Chinese hold the view that incremental, orderly political change would help avoid the fate of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.

Tempering this positive assessment is a note of caution. A 'dangerous seismic belt extends from the Balkans to Caucasus and Central Asia' with implications for China's unity. Problems in China's provinces such as Zinjiang and Tibet are complex and need a state of alert in the form of constant attention by Beijing on dissidence, agitation and secessionist trends.

Simultaneously, the Chinese leaders though relieved that they have been able to ride out the crisis which toppled the leading Communist leaderships and parties in Europe also realise that the economic factor which has acted so far as a buffer might become tenuous and undermine China's stability. They recognise that they have enough internal problems stemming from their economic reforms.

Jiang Zemin Regional disparities, uneven development, erosion of the traditional levers of control might cause pressures on China's unitary status and the one-party political system. China drew certain lessons from the Soviet debacle in late 1991 and gave utmost priority in its economic agenda to faster growth and deeper reforms to contain the backlash against socialism.

Chinese leaders stress the fact that it was socialism which delivered China from its endemic backwardness. China's socialist development after 1950 enabled it to lay the foundations of an industrial economy, making it strong enough to compete with other dynamic performers in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere.

Today, China feels confident that 'no major economic power can afford to lose its big market with its great potential.' Beijing stresses mutuality of interests that would result from Chinese prosperity in a recession-ridden world.

Excerpted from India and Southeast Asia edited by Baladas Ghoshal, Konarak, 1996, Rs 150, with the publisher's permission. Readers may direct inquiries about the book to Mr K P R Nair, Konarak Publishers, A-149, Main Vikas Marg, Delhi 11 00 92.


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