China's ambitions for itself and its role in the Indo-Pacific region are grand. To achieve its shopping list of premium strategic and economic goals it must maintain an annual per capita growth rate of at least 6.3% until 2021 and 5.8% through to 2049. This is no easy task. It will require, among other things, a robust foreign policy and strong regional trade agreements. But Beijing is slowly but surely obtaining both.
Vital to China's growth is its US$900 billion One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR). The initiative is an economic and strategic agenda by which China aims to more-closely link itself with the two ends of Eurasia, as well as Africa and Oceania. Emblematic of the importance of OBOR, Beijing hosted a red carpet forum in May of this year with almost 30 heads of state attending. It was an event not to be missed, unless, of course, you are an Indian official. The Modi government's decision not to attend was a clear signal to Beijing that India can not accept the OBOR.
India's snub of the forum was an unambiguous warning to Beijing that New Delhi will not aid China's project that ignores India's security and sovereignty concerns, particularly in Kashmir. But, India's rebuff conceals New Delhi's fear that it is increasingly powerless against its neighbour's plan of gradually cementing a new Sino-centric regional order.
Throughout the entire Indo-Pacific region, there is the lack of a clear strategy on how to manage China's rise. Nowhere is this truer than in India. New Delhi slept whilst China achieved strategic encirclement of India through its 'string of pearls' in the Indian Ocean.
India's recent realisations of China's regional ambitions were obvious in a speech made last year by Indian foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The secretary noted, ‘we [India] cannot be impervious to the reality that others may see connectivity as an exercise in hard-wiring that influences choices’. This telling admission illustrates how New Delhi is now fully aware of China's intention to use OBOR to 'hard-wire' itself in the region, and create a regional order that will sideline India by forcing it to play by Beijing's rules. Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, head of the Department of Foreign Affairs for India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, seconded this sentiment in an interview this year where we highlighted India's concern about China's 'overwhelming presence that's happening in several parts of India's neighbourhood'.
Last year India’s trade deficit with China was a mammoth US$47 billion. This means that any policy to counter this overwhelming Chinese presence is hamstrung by a heavy reliance on Sino imports to fuel India's own economic growth. Indeed, even a simple invitation by Canberra to observe naval exercises this year between America, Australia and Japan has been rejected by India out of fears that it would send a provocative message to China.
Whilst the snub is a clear indication that New Delhi will not assist Chinese attempts to contain India. It’s far from a robust grand strategy to secure India's position in the region whilst China continues to expand its sphere of influence.
Chris Arnel is the International Trade and Economy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.