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  • Hamsini Hariharan

China, India: Known unknowns

This book review first appeared in The Business Standard on December 15, 2016 and can be accessed here.

Amitav Acharya offers a different perspective in analysing the Bandung Conference.

A year is a short time in international relations. With the heralding in of the Trump Presidency, analysts have been quick to predict what it will mean for Asia. This comes at a time when China is rising, as many predict it to be the next superpower. Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to see how countries in the region will swing considering their relations with both the dominant powers.

Where does India fit in amongst these narratives? Debates are increasingly pitting India as a counterweight to China. While speaking of military buildup and strategic plans, alarmists will tell you that conflict between these two countries in Asia is inevitable. But we do not know how other countries in the region will act, whether they are US allies like Japan, Philippines, Thailand or Australia or countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam which have traditionally tried to balance the superpowers against each other through weak institutionalism.

In East of India, South of China, Amitav Acharya looks at how Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-lai fared at the 1947 Bandung Conference. Nehru had firmly denounced collective security pacts- an unpopular move particularly among smaller, newly independent countries. Although the conference ensured that the SEATO gained no new members, Nehru’s image suffered a major blow. Chou En-lai however showed that Chinese Communisim was different from that of the USSR and was able to charm other Asian countries to engage with the country. Historians now see this as Nehru losing and Chou winning at the Bandung Conference.

Acharya offers a different perspective for analyzing the Bandung Conference. He considers Chinese political wins as short term and short lived while Nehru’s strategy had long term impact but cost India on the short term. China did score major diplomatic points with Chou’s moderation and the formulation of Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. However, it failed to set up a permanent Afro-Asian institution and finally gained acceptance only when it stopped abetting local communist insurgencies in South East Asia. While Nehru is thought to have lost Bandung, it is his views that continued to shape the Conference as well as Asian regionalism.

The Bandung Conference is important because it was the first attempt at regionalism in Asia. Since then, only the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has survived to stay relevant through the decades. India and China both remained aloof until the 1990s when both started engaging with South East Asia. Now, both countries (China more than India) have started player a bigger role in multilateral institutions and taking the lead in regional governance.

Of course, there is little that Asian institutions can or will do about conflict in the region. Great power rivalry in Asia has been moderated by weak powers leading regional architecture. For this, Acharya gives due credit to the ASEAN for stabilising the region. Acharya describes India’s role in the changing Asian order as adaptive- not acting as a balancer in the conventional sense but as an offshore balancer. It is hard to put a finger on the differences between the Look East Policy and the Act East Policy but he puts it down to India’s increased military engagement with countries in the region arguing that India’s deployments and military presence is at its most striking military interaction since World War II.

With respect to spheres of influence in South East Asia, Acharya draws up different ways in which a possible Chinese Monroe Doctrine could materialize. He visits realists like Mearsheimer, constructivists like David Kang and draws up American and Chinese history to show why Asia’s future will not be modelled after the past. He argues that a good test of Chinese Monroe Doctrine would be to see which core country would deny the US military facilities. He also goes on to argue that direct competition between Indi and China in South East Asia will not materialize and it is unlikely that the region will be transformed into a hegemonic one. However, with the ushering in of the Trump precedency, even traditional US allies may shift their allegiances as is the case in the Philippines. What does this mean for competition in South East Asia? What will this mean for India?

Amitav Acharya’s book, does not tell us what Asia’s future is going to be like. To be fair, that is not the objective of the book. The book aims to be a benchmark against which present and future developments can be studied. The book provides clues about how actors have socialized in the past but does not provide us with answers about how the situation will play out. The most striking feature of anarchy in international affairs is the uncertainty of responses. The geopolitics of South-East Asia, with regards to China and India proves this. Both India and China are looking at securing their national interests and are looking out, now more than ever. Whether they will clash or whether they will accommodate seems to be a question that no one can answer.

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