The rise of China, its rapid economic transformation and military modernization, coupled with an aggressive and assertive position in its neighbourhood especially in the South China Sea in recent years, have caused a major concern in the region and beyond. After the 18th National CPC Congress, China under President Xi Jinping is seen to be strategically adjusting its policies towards its neighbours which in turn are engaged in working out their own relationship with China. The book under review is a unique and innovative exercise to create a more nuanced understanding of China’s external, security and economic policies by studying the perspectives from two of China’s major neighbours, India and Vietnam. Two leading research institutions, namely, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) from India and the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) from Vietnam have pooled together the analyses of scholars from the two countries on a host of issues, both of bilateral and multilateral nature, as well as the balancing behaviour of other powers in the region.
The book ably edited by academics Jabin Jacob and Hoang The Anh has thirteen chapters covering a wide range of subjects—political, strategic and economic. The distinctive feature of this book is its focus on China-Vietnam relations with very perceptive insights about the complex and multi-dimensional nature of their longstanding interactions. As the book notes, ‘the relationship cannot be simply described as uniformly cooperative or conflictual at any given point of time. Vietnam appears to be a near permanent bulwark against China in Southeast Asia but it will not and cannot simultaneously be in a state of constant antagonism either.’ It is further emphasized that the two countries are still among the few Communist countries in the world and the relationship between the two Communist Parties is a significant factor. Despite strong nationalist tendencies on either side, both the Chinese and the Vietnamese attach much attention to people-to-people and cultural exchanges.
The objective of the book is stated to be not a historical study, but a work contextualized against the backdrop of developments of the last three years or so as the East Sea/South China Sea disputes flared and new and competing ideas of multilateral regional economic arrangements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) emerged. In this regard, it is important to note that China does not practice anymore Deng Xiaoping’s dictum ‘hide our capacities and bide our time’ and despite clashes at sea between China and Vietnam and the worst anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in decades, channels of communication between the two party leaderships have remained open. The observation that the Vietnamese exercise caution in their ties, mainly because of their dependence on the Chinese in the economic realm and do not appear to seek a comprehensive victory on each and every matter vis-à-vis the Chinese—merely holding the latter in check on a few key issues to be good enough—is revealing and indeed an eye opener.
China’s new Southeast Asia Policy set out at the 18th National Party Congress and the evolution of its policies towards the ASEAN as covered in a paper in the book is a very useful discussion towards understanding China’s continuing efforts to bind Southeast Asian neighbours more closely to itself. The Chinese objectives, the political and security concerns in the region over China and the lack of room for manoeuvre that these countries suffer from, given the reality of China’s economic might, the distance of the US from the region, especially under the confusing foreign policy signals of Donald Trump constitute the broad contours of the region. China’s proposal to ASEAN for a treaty on good neighbourliness or a dual track approach (emphasizing bilateralism with the countries concerned with East Sea/ South China Sea dispute and not ASEAN as a whole) were part of China’s policy adjustments on security and stability in ASEAN which are not acceptable to the latter. However, China’s support to build the ASEAN Community and promote maritime cooperation through the 21st century Maritime Silk Road as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has had a positive impact on ASEAN countries.
The book also analyses the impact of the Chinese discriminatory policies towards ASEAN member countries which has made intra-ASEAN divisions more serious. It adds that China has attached high priority to some countries, while having cool ties with some. On the key subject of the situation in East Sea/South China Sea, the assessment of the Vietnamese scholar is highly critical and direct when he observes that China is uncompromising in its claim of sovereignty over the East Sea of Vietnam. On the one hand, China and Vietnam share the idea of ‘a community of destiny’ as a part of the BRI discourse, but on the other hand, it is apparent that China can compromise with the ASEAN on many issues but never change its standpoint of resolving the maritime dispute bilaterally with relevant countries. China’s deployment of an oil drilling platform H-981 in May 2014 had created unprecedented hostility in Vietnam.
The chapters in the book include such closely linked topics like the US rebalancing strategy, the Sino-Indian Maritime Interface and the Vietnamese factor, and a New Geostrategy in the Indo-Pacific. China’s assertion as a maritime power and India’s own rising maritime strength have created a new geopolitical dimension especially in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. In this context Vietnam’s relevance for India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia in general and to balance China’s maritime power in particular acquires importance. It is however argued in the book that the expanding India-Vietnam equations can be seen as the extension of India’s growing maritime strength and not merely a reaction to China’s expanding maritime power.
In another paper there is a detailed discussion about the US strategy in the region where the US has had military presence since decades. The ‘return of the US to Asia’ or ‘the rebalancing strategy’ after nearly a decade long ‘absence’ in the Bush administration reaffirmed the US national interests in the region especially in South China Sea. The improvement of the US-Vietnam relations is said to affect trust-building difficult between Vietnam and China though the economic relations between them are not expected to have a negative effect. The US rebalancing strategy and its profile in the region appear uncertain and unpredictable under the Trump administration.
In the context of the situation in South China Sea there is a suggestion made in one paper that in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the US, Japan, India and Australia the possibility of the addition of Vietnam be considered in replacement of Australia for which the author has given several reasons. How QUAD shapes up in the coming years itself needs to be seen.
China’s relations with its neighbours, as is well known, has a very strong economic dimension. In fact the factor of economic dependence, through trade, investment or the Chinese financial assistance today mainly governs the relationships. The situation with Vietnam is especially important as China has emerged as Vietnam’s largest trade partner though the latter suffers from a huge and unsustainable trade deficit (as in India’s case with China). Vietnam’s joining the modified Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (in which China is not a member) and its partnership in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will further add complexities to their economic relationship.
The chapter on ‘Growing Economic Integration of China and India with ASEAN’ in which the authors have examined in much detail the trade indicators gives a clear idea that India has to go a long way as compared to China with regard to the economic integration with the region in both trade and production networks.
In addition to China-Vietnam relations the book also examines China’s relationship with other neighbours like Pakistan, Mongolia and Cambodia. All these relationships are of unequal nature. However, there is an element of taking advantage of each other, particularly where there is emphasis on political and security cooperation as in the case of Pakistan. With Mongolia the relationship is typically that between a world power and a dependent country. Mongolia seems to focus on economic development considering economic strength as a major driving force to reduce the Chinese influence.
The chapter on Sino-Vietnamese engagement on the Mekong River is an important addition to the book since the effects of Chinese interventions on the furthest downstream of the Mekong basin countries, namely Vietnam, have been severe. The paper analyses the trajectory of conflict and cooperation between China and the Mekong River Commission countries which is of relevance to India as well.
This book gives a useful and important message when it says that ‘if India is to be serious player in East Asia under its Act East Policy, India would need to recognise the dynamics of not only China-Vietnam relations but also China’s bilateral ties with other neighbours in the region as these relations are of strategic import.’ Their complexity and multi-layered nature would inevitably impact on India’s relations with the countries of East Asia. Close understanding and constant evaluation of these relations is therefore a sine qua non for India’s own progress in its interaction with the East.
Sudhir T Devare, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs; and Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi; former Ambassador of India to South Korea, Ukraine and Indonesia, is currently Chairman, Research Advisory Council, Research and Information System of Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi. He is the author of India and Southeast Asia: Towards Security Convergence (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore).