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China-Indian Relations: Rivals Can Turn Friends

The ‘informal’ summit between China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Wuhan,scheduled to take place on April 27-28, has resulted in a rise in the verbal barrage over “reset in ties” between the two neighbours.
 Xi Jinping and Narendra modi

Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times

The ‘informal’ summit between China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Wuhan,scheduled to take place on April 27-28, has resulted in a rise in the verbal barrage over “reset in ties” between the two neighbours. The summit, announced in a joint press conference held on April 22, will see the two leaders meet one-on-one, in absence of other ministers or advisers. The agenda is designed to redefine the future relationship of the two countries, according to the Indian media reports. It will also coincide with the historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea – a meeting that China, without a doubt, has its fingerprints all over, from the North Korean side. “This year, under the guidance of our leaders, the China-India relationship has realised good development and shown a positive momentum,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the press conference. “The informal summit will be an important occasion for them to exchange views on bilateral and international matters from an overarching and long-term perspective, with the objective of enhancing mutual communication at the level of leaders,” explained Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, according to the External Affairs Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar.

It is being claimed that such a meeting will offer an opportunity for both the sides to reset ties, following last year’s protracted military stand-off in the disputed Himalayan border region of Doklam. Beijing and New Delhi’s relations have also been strained, thanks to India’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh in April 2016. Arunachal Pradesh is a region of India that is considered by some to be the Southernmost part of Tibet– the spiritual homeland of the exiled Dalai Lama. The debate in India is about what approach to take –whether to join the US and its allies to limit China’s influence or cooperate with China to play a leading role in the world together. Or should India ‘reset’ relations to avoid ‘stand-offs’ such as in Doklam, but simultaneously carry on with consolidating military ties with US and its allies as a counter to China?

Given that the two countries have not fired a single bullet at each other in last 40 years, despite the hostility and bitter rivalry between the two means that neither desires to escalate the matter. Operating independent of alliances ensured that China saw India conduct its foreign policy largely independent of outside influences. However, the recent surge in India’s military relations with the US – especially, rising dependence on the US for the arms, and a push to cut down weapon imports from Russia simultaneously (under the threat that the US might invoke Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), sends a clear signal that India is leaning to become an integral part of the US policy of containment of China. So, it is in China’s interest that it does not fructify a military alliance.

Former Chief of the Indian Navy Admiral Arun Prakash wrote recently in The Indian Express* that “the end of the Cold War represented an inflexion point for the world order, it was also a traumatic event for India. The disintegration of the USSR saw India losing not only a political ally and sole purveyor of arms, but also the rationale for “non-alignment”. The US, with an excellent sense of timing, reached out with proposals for military-to-military cooperation in 1991. The Indian Navy, keen to shed its isolation, initiated the first Indo-US naval exercises to be named “Malabar” in May 1992. In its 21st edition last July, Malabar became — much to China’s discomfiture — a tripartite exercise with units of the Indian, Japanese and US navies participating”. He argues that “the larger security environment is assuming complex dimensions with a US-China trade-war looming, US-Russia relations taking a nose-dive and China’s Belt and Road masterplan unfolding in the Indo-Pacific. For India, however, it is the emerging Moscow-Beijing axis and Russia’s courtship of Pakistan that should ring alarm bells. He advocates therefore a military alliance with US and pushes for Indian signing two pending ‘Foundational’ pacts CISMOA and BECA which US has been pushing for.”

The notion of rivalry between the two neighbours – India and China – is not only the ambition of India’s ruling class, but is also cultivated by the outside powers such as the US and its allies, who stoke India’s ambitions by pretending to take India’s ‘big power’ status seriously. Indian ruling classes, however, must acknowledge the asymmetry of power of the two countries. For instance, not only China’s GDP of $12 trillion is five times that of India’s at $2.2 trillion, but China outspends India on military thrice over: $175 billion against India’s $58 billion. On the other hand, the GDP of the US is $20 trillion in 2018. It has a military budget of $740 billion. These figures are evident of the fact that the US is far ahead of China. However, it is noteworthy that this gap has narrowed in the past two decades. And just so that we keep things in perspective, China accounts for 21 per cent of the global R&D expenditure, which is $2 trillion. So, it may not be a global military power as of now, but China is undoubtedly the second strongest economy in the world, and will potentially outpace the US in the next 10 years. However, the US, under the presidency of Donald Trump, appears to have created more problems for China. For instance, in Korean peninsula, its backyard and the trade and military irritants have risen between the two hegemons, China has lowered its rhetoric vis a vis Japan, Vietnam and India and vice versa. These countries see China reach out to them as  a question mark over its pre-eminence in Asia. Also, to perceive Russia-China relations as opposed to Indian interest is fallacious. The alliance is directed to counter the US and its allies. In fact, there is not a shred of evidence to show, apart from speculation, that the Russia-China relations poses a threat to India, as of now. . If India were to turn to US  and forge an alliance, under the mistaken belief of countering Russia-China alliance(with Pakistan thrown in), then we turn two big powers, one an old ally and the other a giant neighbor, and our most intimate enemy Pakistan into a coalition against us.  It is easy to make enemies of friends, but not as easy to turn enemies into friends.

Also, China’s course correction in its relation with its Asian neighbours ought not to be confused to be a sign of weakness. The likelihood of trade dispute with the US causing slowdown in China’s economic growth have to be understood in its context to decelerate its economy since 2015, to clean up the financial sector mess and to boost domestic demand. A slowdown due to foreign trade dispute will push China to create domestic demand. In other words, present is a scene in a new developing scenario.  Point is not to proceed from the assumption that China’s economy is in deep trouble. It is relatively better off than most of its closest competitors in global economy. So to quibble over its pre-eminence because the US and its allies have raised the volume of their rhetoric and muscle flexing, forcing it on the back-foot, is an ideological blindness, not a mark of reasoned realism.

Besides, India and China will remain neigbours, no matter what the nature of their ties.  However, it is difficult to co-exist peacefully, when idea of big power ambition and rivalry for hegemony forms the basis of a relationship. There are some aspects of Sino-Indian relations, which ought to be kept in mind. India’s recurrent differences with China are held by India’s strategic analysts &planners to be ‘structural and unlikely to ease in near term’. After an apparently promising start in 2014-15, relations dipped to a point in 2017, where India and China were in a standoff for 73 days at Doklam – an area claimed by both China and Bhutan as a part of their territory. The 19 rounds of bilateral talks over Line of Actual Control held so far, got stalled in 2017. Meanwhile, trade deficit with China grew to $52 billion in 2017 – constituting nearly 50 per cent of India’s total trade deficit. India felt anxious too about China’s burgeoning economy and military ties with countries in South Asia, which India regards as its own region of influence. India is also concerned about China’s naval buildup in the Indian Ocean, through which, bulk of India’s and China’s oil and other commodities are shipped.

So, while India is wary of Chinese forays into Indian Ocean, the perception of the US and its allies—the ones which colonized us in the past—are using the narrative of countering Chinato makeus blind towards thethreatening presence ofthe Western navies of the US, France and Britain in Indian Ocean. For instance, their presence in Persian Gulf is potentially capable of interdicting not just Chinese trade, but also India’s trade, turning India’s relations with the western countries bitter. The maxim that countries have permanent interests, but not permanent friends applies to the US and its allies too. Whereas, it is imperative that good relations with one’s neighbours remains a permanent interest. .

Paradoxically, until 2008 – when Chinese naval presence in Indian Ocean was less visible – India failed to capitalise with a head start and build ties with its neighbours on land, in the Ocean and in the seas around us. India’s relations with countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and now Seychelles (which recently declined India’s proposal to set up a naval station in the coral island of Assumption, which would have enabled India to monitor shipping in the strategically important Mozambique Channel) have soured. Behind all this, India sees a Chinese hand. However, China had warned against outside interference in Maldives during its internal crisis leading to declaration of emergency and arrest of judges and politicians. On the other hand, China has advocated to Nepal to “leverage its geographical advantage and connect China and India for greater development (of all three countries).”So there is no clear case to be made for China’s forays as being inimical to India. They need not be.

It is true that India and China have a difference of opinion, when it comes to Pakistan.  India considers Pakistan as an irritant and its ties with China as a threat to India. Whereas, China sees Pakistan as its closest South Asian ally. It is also true that China uses Pakistan, at times, as a cat’s paw against India. Why should we shy away from admitting that the road to Pakistan now travels via Beijing? It is not as though the onus of the deterioration of the Indo-Pak relations is on Pakistan alone. But, adversarial relations can be turned around. The remarkable thing is that China and India, notwithstanding dispute over the borders, have not fired a single bullet against each other in the last 40 years. More often than not, on international issues and UN resolutions, China and India vote together. India itself is mostly is at odds with the US on a number of vital matters. Recently, the Union Minister for Oil and Petroleum Dharmendra Pradhan stated that China National Petroleum Company is concerned with the issue of Asian premium charged by the West Asian oil exporters from Asian countries that import crude oil. And he claimed: “(W)e are looking at further cooperation on crude procurement, scouting for oilfields, bringing in the best enhanced oil recovery activities and technology sharing.”

This brings me to the last point. The burgeoning relations between China and Russia ought to be read as something which holds a positive lesson for us, instead of perceiving it as a threat. If two rivals sharing a common border—who have exchanged bitter words and bullets in the past—can amicably settle their differences, then it is indeed a positive development. So, at a juncture where uncertainty looms, to aspire to overcome the asymmetry of power with China, by going for an alliance with the US is a senseless and harmful perspective. It sends a message that India is taking a stand against Russia and China, and is standing with US and its allies, with all the attenuating conditions. Geography demands that relations with a giant neighbor remain even keel. Indian government should not tie up India’s future with a declining power like the US, but instead should strive to widen the area of cooperation and coordination with China, relentlessly. Point is to shed the ambition of out-rivaling China as the key motivator driving India’s strategic policy, and prioritise the wellbeing of Indian people, who need stabile and peaceful neighborhood, which is intrinsic for country’s progress. Will the ‘informal summit’ help us get there? Or will it be merely an interregnum, a lowering of tension, while BJP government persists with its desire to join war preparations by the US against China and where China does not slow down its military buildup vis a vis India? Enlightened self-interest ought to remind us that wars between the neighbours, in which an outside power calls the shots, would cause destruction mostly to the two neighbours.It will be the US, which will, so to say, encash the cheque. So if once bitter rivals Russia and China, can become close allies to counter the US, then it is in our best interest to hope that India too can mend fences and improve relations with China and bring a wasteful rivalry to an end.

*”Reappraising India-US”: Arun Prakash; Indian Express, April 14, 2018.

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