Influence of India and China in the Asia-Pacific region

Jason Young and Sekhar Bandyopadhyay discuss the influence of India and China in the Asia-Pacific and the implications for New Zealand, as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Spotlight Series lectures.

India’s view on US-China rivalry

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay: “India has always maintained its autonomy between the rival camps. In view of the rising China-US trade war, to some extent India has moved closer to the US, because China’s ambitions in the region – particularly China’s alliance with Pakistan, and also China’s investments in Sri Lanka and the Maldives – creates a kind of anxiety.

“So it has moved towards the US but not completely shut its door with China. India has participated in a number of common projects with China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 visited China twice and the Chinese Premier has visited India too.

“Indian policy planners are good at maintaining autonomy in a polarised world.”

NZ’s ties with India and China

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay: “New Zealand should take a realistic position, understand the positions of these two powers, look at the positives but know there are areas we need to be cautious about to protect our own interests.

“New Zealand is more closely related to China than India. Most importantly, New Zealand needs to explore more seriously how India could be a valuable ally, not just for trade.

The relationship with India shouldn’t be looked at only from the perspective of trade – there are many other areas where New Zealand and India can collaborate. Both are democracies, both share a lot of common values, and both have influences in their own way in world politics.”

Jason Young: “Both China and India have become so much more important for our foreign policy, our domestic politics and our place in the region, but as a country we have not acknowledged the full breadth of that importance. We have a tendency to focus a lot on trade.

“As we move into this era of more strategic rivalry, we need to invest a lot in making sure we have the best information, and the best understanding of those countries' positions from which to make the best decisions for New Zealand’s own interests, and to promote our own values within the region.”

China’s view on the Indo-Pacific

Jason Young: “From a New Zealand perspective, ASEAN and ASEAN centrality is incredibly important because it brings in all of the major powers in the region in a more neutral setting.

“From a China perspective, the bar for entering the free and open Indo-Pacific – which is like-minded democracies – is an impossible bar. For China, particularly under the current administration, that’s not doable.

“China’s position is they want a community which is safe for them; they want a community where the community treats China in the same way they treat India irrespective of the political system China has.

“It’s a form of international pluralism which is one of the key rivalries between the US which promotes a world of liberal democracies, and of course New Zealand supports the idea of liberal democracy. That’s one of the key rubs and also plays out in New Zealand’s relationship with China.”

‘Cheque-book’ diplomacy

Jason Young: “China historically claims Taiwan to be China’s territory. Currently, there are issues about Taiwan declaring independence. The Taiwanese government had diplomatic relations with most of the world – excluding India which didn’t recognise them – until the 1970s when they lost their seat in Security Council at the UN to China. This started a huge switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

“Six countries in the Pacific still recognise Taiwan, and therefore do not have diplomatic relations with China. They are Kiribati (2003), Marshall Islands (1998), Nauru (2005), Palau (1999), Solomon Islands (1983) and Tuvalu (1979).”

[Diplomatic switching] could happen in Africa and therefore potentially in the Pacific. This could lead to efforts by either governments to promote ‘cheque-book’ diplomacy. The worry is this could be potentially destabilising for the Pacific.

“In the Pacific the only nation that is debt-stressed is Tonga. The other Pacific states are relatively okay.

“New Zealand’s position is that ... countries within the region should make good economic decisions for their peoples. If they don’t, this could not only be bad for their country but could also be destabilising for our region. New Zealand is quite interested and concerned.”

The Indian Ocean region

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay: “The Indian Ocean does not directly affect New Zealand, but for India the Indian Ocean is major. There is a fear that China is encircling with naval bases in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and in Pakistan.

“The argument is that China is involved in the Indian Ocean and also in the Pacific. So the security architecture of the two regions cannot be separated. This is a position now accepted by the US when they renamed the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command in May 2018. It has also been accepted to some extent by Australia.

“Indian policy planners would say is not so much to ‘contain’ China, but it’s a kind of capacity-building. They think the two security systems cannot be separated as the same players are operating in both regions.”

Jason Young: “New Zealand is not part of the Indian Ocean – Australia is, so it makes sense for them to have a concept that is broader for their security environment. It also makes sense for India, Japan, Australia and other like-minded countries to promote a view of the region which is about freedom in terms of commerce, and also an open region.

“From a New Zealand perspective, the focus on inclusivity is really important. What we see with both the Belt and Road Initiative, and with the free and open Indo-Pacific, is that they have not got the inclusivity that they would need to be a truly functioning multi-lateral forum.”

Jason Young is Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations (VUW), and Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is Professor of Asian History (VUW).

– Asia Media Centre