Rapporteur Report -- Session 3: Engaging China
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  • The third session of the Dialogue titled ‘Engaging China’ was chaired by Mr. Gautam Bambawale, Joint Secretary (East Asia), Ministry of External Affairs. The two presentations in this session were made by Mr. Adam Ward of IISS and Prof. C. Raja Mohan of Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

    Mr. Adam Ward argued that China has already risen to a significant extent and is desirous of being a seen as a responsible power. At the rhetorical level, China talks of a harmonious international system and peaceful co-existence. It espouses the idea of political non-interference and rejects military alliances by terming them as ‘Cold War mentality’. It does not want to be part of military alliances that would confine it in a geopolitical sense. At the practical level, it has associated itself with a number of multilateral institutions which would serve as avenues for China to make a case for its own interests. Its bilateral relations have also fanned out impressively. China does not want to impose a huge burden on itself and does not want to make huge investments in global public goods. He argued that China presents itself in the guise of something much lesser than it actually is. Chinese strategic thinkers argue that China has learnt from history and will not follow the path which other world powers have tread. However, it is likely that future generation Chinese leaders may be more assertive. There is enough evidence in China’s current behaviour to contradict the official position espoused. Though China does not want to become a part of the Cold War mentality, there are strands in Chinese strategic thinking that resemble ‘Middle Kingdom Mentality’.

    As far as engagement with China is concerned, the rest of the world wants to benefit from China’s economic emergence and integrate with it regionally and globally since there are limited alternatives. The policy of containment is futile, counter-productive and expensive to pursue. If properly structured, the policy of integration could help contain Chinese behaviour in some way. Since China’s strategic trajectory is opaque, the only other alternative is to hedge. But the challenge is to get the balance right between hedging and engagement. Blatant hedging could block the possibility of fruitful engagement. If engagement is far too unconditional a country’s interest would be trampled upon by China. Asia-Pacific, which is a multipolar region, is bound together by a spectrum of concerns that they have about China and as a result the latter is today feeling “claustrophobic”. China in the future could react in two ways: it may deepen its commitment to multipolarity or assert its position by imposing choices on its immediate neighbours. In the next 10 years or so, China’s behaviour is likely to oscillate between assertion and conciliation and it will depend on the context and contingencies.

    Prof. C Raja Mohan reflected on the recently held Bali Summit where the question of balancing China was put on the table. During the last two decades, the assumption about the rise of China was that it would be peaceful and can be accommodated in the international system. Despite talks of hedging, the actual expression is that others must prepare for the unhappy consequences of China’s economic rise. Though the issue has been put in a multilateral context, there is no doubt that it is about dealing with China’s rise and the way to balance China. He pointed out three developments that are noteworthy. One, initially, it was assumed that the Asia-Pacific would grow in a collective framework through APEC or ASEAN and that the regional integration would be Sino-centric. But today, a counter organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership in which China is not a member is being formed as an alternative. At the recent EAS summit, 15 out of 18 members raised the question of the South China Sea and maritime security issues. Therefore, China’s maritime assertion has also been countered. Three, the US is announcing a new military doctrine as it feels threatened by China’s forward presence along its coasts and is also trying to establish a basing facility in Australia to stay out of reach China’s reach and maintain flexibility. So the developments in all three domains suggest that the future of Asia is going to be different from what was seen in the last two decades.

    However, there are structural constraints in dealing with China. China remains the No.2 economy and if its economic power grows, its military power is also likely to grow which could assume mammoth proportions which the entire world will have to deal with. China cannot be contained like Russia was. Russia voluntarily opted out of the international economic system but China is well integrated within it. So the strategy to isolate China and prevent it from acquiring a pivotal role within the international system will not work. Balancing a well-integrated China is a problem. With regard to India’s approach in dealing with China, India is going to plough a lonely furrow. India has balanced China in the past and will not be China’s pawn. Its dealings with China will be based on four issues –territoriality, periphery overlap, global order (UN Security Council, etc.) and expanding trade deficit. India has two options to deal with China either through internal balancing (by improving its military strength) or through external balancing (by making alliances). And the third way would be to combine both. The challenge that India faces is how to balance China without sacrificing its autonomy.

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