CHINESE LESSON LEARNT
By Ms. Cauvery Ganapathy
considerable amount of contemporary International Relations
literature, concerns itself with deciphering the meanings
and implications of Chinese foreign policy. Why China chose
to hold a summit with Africa, a continent not apparently,
a demand generating entity? Why the Chinese Premier decided
on a stopover at a seemingly innocuous island, like Seychelles,
with an unexciting international profile? Why conflict ridden
neighbourhoods evoke diplomatic overtures from Beijing? What
makes China capable of formulating an international persona
that is at once that of a responsive participant --- active
or passive --- in the International order, while at the same
time amounting to an aggressive investing consortium?
consider China’s first area of focus --- Africa : China’s
interest in African dates back to the days of the Cold war,
when economically challenged or politically and socially unstable
countries, presented opportunities for expanding bloc affiliations.
It is therefore a relationship whose origin precedes the Oil
Shock of the 70s and by extension, the start of the energy
security discourse. It would hence be fair to imply that,
much before the world woke up to Africa’s potential
to be counted as more than just a Development aid statistic,
China had already consolidated her presence in the continent.
And it is by that logic that one would contend that China’s
access to the hydrocarbon resources of Africa is not the result
of any stupendous Chinese prowess in the competition for scarce
resources --- it is instead, simply an expected outcome of
the fact that when China made its first foray, no other country
saw Africa as a worthy ground for competition.
Absence of foresight and the inability to take risks for fulfilling
calculated visions are the two cardinal flaws that plague
both, diplomacy and policy making. Europe, having a natural
affiliation to Africa, given its geographical proximity and
colonial ties, never attempted to engage with the continent
beyond the role of an aid provider post its role as a colonial
exploiter. The idea was much the same with the US. India,
on her part, also twiddled away what could have been the chance
for a mutually beneficial relationship. As a former colonial
dominion, and then as the champion of the non-aligned world
order, India was poised without parallel to cultivate Africa
--- both, to their benefit, as well as India’s own.
The chance however, was not taken and despite the play remaining
the same, in all reasonableness, the act has changed.
The story pertaining to Central Asia doesn’t diverge
significantly from the African case. India shares a cultural
and geographical proximity that should naturally have translated
into a close partnership in multiple areas of national development.
Yet, a variety of issues disallowed the same --- absence of
transport corridors more suited to trade; the tepid steps
mandated, lest Russia misinterpret an attempt to cultivate
her own sphere of influence; and a most simple of reasons,
namely just an overlooking of the region as perhaps an area
that would require an investment that would not --- at least,
immediately --- be commensurate to the returns generated.
Ceremonial and symbolic articulations of this relationship,
have been plentiful--- several Heads of Central Asian states
have often presided over India’s Republic Day celebrations;
Central Asia’s cultural peculiarities have been celebrated
as exotic in India; developmental aid has commonly been forthcoming
from India. Yet, it is a well grounded business alliance that
has not really been facilitated.
Returns equaling, much less exceeding, investments makes for
a sound economic precept --- yet, how conducive it is for
a foray into areas virgin to investment, is perhaps a more
debatable concern. Central Asia is a valuable asset to its
neighbourhood in that, the hydro-carbon rich region is a strategic
flashpoint too. It functions as a very effective demarcation
between Asia and Europe. That apart, socially, culturally
and historically, it tantamounts to a veritable cross-section
of the Islamic world, the former Soviet states, and a more
secular, but sufficiently expressive, image of Middle Eastern
conditionalities. Hence, no parameters could actually justify
a sidestepping of the region.
India could share its technical prowess in a wide array of
disciplines, with the Central Asian Republics. Education,
the medical sciences and information technology qualify as
the most crucial exports that India could offer to Central
Asia. The region on the other hand could, apart from its traditional
exports and rich hydrocarbon reserves, also aid the Indian
cause by sharing its expertise in areas like cultivation of
arid lands, water management and the generation of economical
hydel power projects.
The absence of an agreeable transport corridor has been posited
as one of the reasons why India has not been able to optimise
its profile in Central Asia. Yet, it belittles any understanding
of foreign relations to believe that the absence of traditional
transport corridors is a reason good enough to not cultivate
better ties in today’s day and age.
India has in all probability lost the chance --- and in all
certainty, the race --- to enhance its chances in Africa.
But the conjoin of history may still argue India’s case
in Central Asia. Not all is negative in a competitor. Beijing’s
policies may not always excite emulation, but in its African
and Central Asian experience it certainly does. The suggestion
is not to support the perpetuation of undemocratic or brute
regimes in resource rich countries; but that can be India’s
own paradigmatic shift from the Chinese prescription. There
most definitely are countries in these two regions that could
be engaged with, while abiding by the ethos of democracy and
At yet another level, the economies of Africa and Latin America
have never grown as fast as they have today with Chinese involvement.
In all likelihood, this trajectory would perhaps finally bear
the trickle-down effect that the aid philosophy seems to so
obviously have disappointed.
Akin to the economic trickle-down that China seems to have
aided in some measure, India could perhaps, by a more pro-active
policy engagement in the two regions, also --- not entirely,
inadvertently --- help the cause of a more vibrant political
and democratic ethos in Africa and Central Asia. The cause
of energy security and strategic concerns no doubt is the
starting point of the suggested involvement in Africa and
Central Asia, yet realpolitik has never really been oblivious
to the spread of democratic principles as a by-product ---
and therein, would lie the novelty of the Indian endeavour.
"The New Colonialists," The Economist, London, Vol.
386, Number 8571, March 15, 2008, p. 13.