The India-China forward march
The complexity of the India-China relationship has invited a cacophony of interpretations from observers in India and abroad. Neither outright antagonism nor sincere bonhomie, New Delhi and Beijing have been grappling with a template to manage their bilateral ties. That this engagement is occurring in the backdrop of Washington’s own evolving approach to Asia and its two rising powers has made the process even more challenging.
In recent years, India and China have expanded the menu of their engagement. In January 2008, the Manmohan Singh-Wen Jiabao Joint Statement had called for common approaches on climate change, energy security, food security and restructuring institutions of global governance. Their coordination over climate change negotiations in December 2009, dubbed almost immediately as the “Copenhagen spirit”, exemplified a case of actual collaboration on a global issue. Simultaneously, contradictions on issues of high politics, especially regarding China’s sub-Himalayan strategic involvement, remain unaltered, enabling analysts to effortlessly paint an adversarial image.
How does one deconstruct the apparent dichotomy in the India-China equation?
The principal point to discern is that while India’s periphery is part of its core security interests, for China it is mainly linked to its (exaggerated) threat perceptions over Tibet and its overland strategic infrastructure (road and rail links, port development) part of a policy of periphery consolidation and to secure and exploit potential geo-economic opportunities in the long-term as Beijing seeks to develop southern and western China.
China’s core interests lie primarily in Eastern Asia — Taiwan, industrial development and the Han heartland, which are several thousand miles away from the Indian heartland and the reach of most of India’s military capabilities. In other words, China possesses more leverage over India’s core interests without reciprocal Indian pressure on issues that matter most to China.
Thus, discord is occurring in areas vital to India, while cooperation is in non-core areas or on issues where China finds tactical solidarity with India useful. This fundamental dichotomy of Sino-Indian relations – discord at the regional level and collaboration at the global level – is unlikely to disappear in the coming years. From India’s grand strategic perspective, since its core interests lie in the subcontinent – territorial integrity, economic development and a secure periphery – it would be oxymoronic for these to be traded off for greater cooperation with China at the global or institutional level. And until India is able to construct material capabilities – both to deter China in the Himalayan theatre and a credible nuclear deterrence to ensure overall stability – and demonstrate an economic model that can integrate and reshape its periphery, the dual image of India-China relations will remain a relevant guide to policy makers and analysts.
Another vital issue in India-China relations has been the widening imbalance in their economic interactions. While most observers, including official statements, laud the $60 billion two-way trade, a dispassionate appraisal of the true state of Sino-Indian “interdependence” actually reveals a disconcerting asymmetry that should neither be celebrated nor suppressed in our China discourse. Accounting for nearly 20 per cent of India’s overall trade deficit and a dominant position as a leading supplier of telecommunications and power equipment for India Inc, China has acquired growing leverage over India’s development. In lieu, India supplies natural commodities like iron ore (44 per cent of exports to China) that are swallowed by our neighbour’s giant industrial maw. If unaddressed, such leverage will inevitably spill further into the political sphere.
Assuming the above narrative captures the essence of bilateral relations, what issues should New Delhi prioritise in its discussions with Premier Wen?
First, it is now generally accepted that India can no longer be the object of Chinese contempt in Asia. If China is seeking to reframe the terms of its relationship with the west, India too has persevered to reshape its own equation with the major powers including Beijing. Analysts in China have conceded that Beijing’s erstwhile posture of benign neglect towards India has outlived its utility (if it ever had one), an impression that has been reinforced by Washington’s courting of India in a gradual but sustained fashion. Logically, India must revise its own posture: from a grieving to a confident aspiring regional power.
Second, in recent years, India has arguably diluted it own stand on Kashmir to the point that our adversaries aren’t even aware of our “red lines” on this vital issue. Contrast this with China’s consistent and unwavering position on Tibet, Taiwan and so on. India should take this opportunity to unambiguously articulate its core interests and simultaneously signal a mutual intent to respect each other’s territorial sovereignty.
Third, New Delhi should convey its concerns over China’s surreptitious transfers of strategic technologies to Pakistan and urge it to adhere to its global non-proliferation obligations. For years, India’s own vulnerable status in the global nuclear system had precluded it from critiquing China’s proliferation record. This posture should now be reversed. India should also express its reasonable and defensible position on terrorist safe havens in the subcontinent, a position recently reiterated to Mr Obama, even if it invites a blank stare from our Chinese interlocutor.
Fourth, a growing myth among our strategic community is that China is on the cusp of acquiring a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean Region. The reality is that China is constrained in East Asia, surrounded by the most formidable naval armada ever assembled in world history. American submarines and aircraft carriers regularly patrol in close proximity to China’s eastern seaboard, making the notion of China as an Indian Ocean power a distant aspiration. China remains essentially a continental power. Hence, given the actual naval balance in the northern Indian Ocean, New Delhi could reassure Mr Wen that rather than undermining China’s energy and commercial sea-lanes, India seeks to promote an open and cooperative architecture in securing the maritime commons around India’s near abroad. China, for its part, needs to perhaps reassure India on its continental intentions by exploring confidence-building with India in the subcontinent — like forming a joint venture on an infrastructure or energy project in a neighbourhood state.
The policy challenge before both Asian powers is managing the other’s rise. New Delhi and Beijing have both officially exhorted that the world is big enough for each to grow and develop, and attain commensurate status within a plural international system. Yet, neither has demonstrated any creativity to advance the logic of their argument. Perhaps, Wen’s visit this December will offer New Delhi another opportunity to restate its case and start a sophisticated conversation that should focus not on token declarations but on incremental gains.
Zorawar Daulet Singh is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Alternatives; Brig. (retd.) Arun Sahgal is a Consultant at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.
This article was published in Business Standard on 11 December 2010.
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- China PM on India charm offensive, offers trade boost (reuters.com)