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The Dragon Breathes On Neck, As We Look East

Chinese political influence or military presence astride oil routes. Image Credit: The Coloured Journal.

Is India with her ‘intensified engagement’ in South East Asia through ‘Look East Policy’, capable enough of effectively facing the increased Chinese strategic options in the region and in Indian Ocean?

As Sudhir Devare former Ambassador and Secretary to MEA who was also actively involved in formulating the much ambitious Look East policy pointed out, this policy has two important components- socio-political and strategic. He had pointed out that the strategic imperatives -which would include traditional and non-traditional security, maritime security, economic interdependence, energy security, human security etc -would also pave the way for greater dialogue and cooperation among the countries concerned. And, he felt, going by her strong presence already in place in this region India could very well meet the Chinese initiatives.

However, Devare, who recently visited Tripura central University and held media interaction on Wednesday (25 August 2010) , felt that in pursuing this policy, India is actually rediscovering its ‘eastern identity. He sought to tone down the strategic threat in the region that emerges from the growing Chinese maritime efforts in the Indian Ocean.

“We need not to be unnecessarily concerned at the Chinese initiatives and efforts in the region. We have adequate naval strength in the Indian Ocean”, he said adding that despite disputes and suspicions at some areas New Delhi and Beijing can still carry on dialogue at larger Indo-China relations and cooperation.

“Our Look East policy is not directed against anybody or responsive to Chinese initiatives”.

Devare maintained that the ‘Look East’ approach-which brought ‘a direct interface for Northeast region with Myanmar and Bangladesh’- should be seen on the backdrop of the broad political situation, and rapid as well as sustained economic growth especially in infrastructure and consumer goods in the Asia-Pacific with an aim for regional integration within Asia.

Devare said, ‘Look East Policy’s one of the most important component was dialogue among Southeast Asian countries, both bilaterally and regionally at ASEAN level. For India it would also provide a useful opportunity to interact at regional platform, namely the ASEAN’.

But despite this hope facts stand today, in the Look East policy that the security imperatives in the policy were not expressive enough -at least as far as countering the aggressive Han Chinese initiatives in the region -specially its Blue Water ambitions -are concerned. In fact, so far, virtually except the RITE’s Sittwe port construction in Myanmar -that would follow Kaladan river project to give an opening to North East India’s Mizoram to the South East Asia, there was not much headway in infrastructure creation to implement the Look East Policy.

On the other hand China is actively and aggressively involved in adding one after another pearl to its ‘String of Pearl’ policy. A cursory look at the Chinese options in the region would make it amply clear that the Dragon is indeed breathing down on the Tiger’s neck.

China had, for the last few years, been trying to strengthen its presence in South East Asia especially in creating infrastructures and increasing its trade and foreign investment relations. But, behind the economic initiatives there is clearly a strategic and military ambition on the part of Beijing for strengthening its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean.

China at present is actively involved in 1200 miles long oil and gas pipeline from Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu Port on the Bay of Bengal to southwest China. The pipelines will cross Kunming in Yunnan Province and pass through Guizhou province to Chongqing in southwest China. Besides, China will also upgrade Kyaukpyu port in Arakan.

For China the Myanmarese port of Kyaukpyu port is also strategically important. Through this port Beijing will be able to import natural gas and oil from the Middle East and Africa – the two countries that supply about 85 percent of its oil demand. The Myanmar project will also help Beijing gain direct foray into the Indian Ocean avoiding Malacca Strait where Indian strategic presence is strong, and the South China Sea as well.

(The USA contested the Chinese sole claim on South China Sea. The USA needs the sea to be out of Chinese influence for free movement of its ships and aircraft. China’s dispute with Vietnam over South China Sea is also a major issue for Beijing).

Apart from Myanmar China is also taking active interest in Bangladesh developing Chittagong Port and a deep sea port at Sonadia Island at the Bay of Bengal. But the most ambitious strategic Chinese project that is being envisaged is the proposed Bangladesh road link that would connect Chittagong to Kunming in Yunnan via Gumdum in Myanmar and would also bypass Malacca Strait.

As the present Awami League government in Bangladesh kept open its option for Chinese assistance, Beijing is also likely to fund for Pagla Water Treatment Plant and the Shahjalal Fertilizer Factory as well as development of telecommunication sector there. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni was recently reported to have commented that China assured more investment in Bangladesh, and was ready to ‘reduce the bilateral trade imbalance’. In that case Beijing will also include more Bangladeshi products to have duty-free access to China.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is also reported to have taken open interest in Chinese investments in her country.

While China is presently actively involved in exploring and strengthening its business and Indian Ocean centric strategic possibilities in Myanmar and Bangladesh, it has already gained strong foot hold in Hambantota in southern part of Sri Lanka and in Gawador in Pakistan. China is already engaged developing a massive port in Hambantota which will give Beijing a strong presence in the Indian Ocean while the already developed Gawador gave the Chinese direct access to the Arabian Sea.

The Hambantota project is estimated to be of US $ one billion and will be completed by 2023. Beijing claims that Hambantota would not be turned into a Chinese naval base but in case of Gawador in Pakistan China is keen to refuel and re-stock its ship to be deployed in Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.

The Look East policy clearly did not have matching security imperatives in it.

*The article is written by Manas Paul.

*You can read the original article here

(Courtesy: The Coloured Journal)

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