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New phase in India-China ties May 23, 2015

Posted by jessebuck in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Vinay Kaura

Despite there being no landmark breakthrough on many contentious issues, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s third meeting within a year with Chinese President Xi Jinping was fairly successful. The visit was undertaken to improve bilateral relations through sustained high-level engagement with Beijing.

There is no doubt that India-China relations are entering a new phase, where there are amazing benefits of mutual cooperation as well as unbound risks of persistent suspicion. Both Modi and Xi have the task of not only avoiding confrontation between their countries but share “a historic responsibility to turn this relationship into a source of strength for each other”. Indeed both of them seem to be investing their personal reputations in a process of reconciliation, as evident in Xi’s decision last year to first land in Modi’s hometown of Ahmadabad before heading to New Delhi, and Modi’s decision to first land in Xi’s home province of Shaanxi before going on to Beijing and Shanghai. The ‘most powerful selfie’ moment of the two prime ministers in Beijing seemed to make diplomacy look exciting and engaging. Would these personal gestures help in a dramatic turnaround in the bilateral relationship full of mutual suspicion, distrust and hostility? The answer lies in their ability to address the long-held negative perceptions of each other.

China’s meteoric rise into the front ranks of the leading powers has set in motion a fundamental shift in the global distribution of political and economic power. China continues to amaze the world, including India, by achieving one success after another. It is no longer a rising power; it has risen on a scale unparalleled in the modern world. China’s impressive resurgence as a great power constitutes a remarkable change in the politics of India-China relations as well. As neighbours, as trading partners, and as regional powers with conflicting geopolitical priorities, the China-India relationship has become increasingly complex.

Because of China’s overwhelming material and military power, and the will to utilize it to defend and extend Beijing’s interests, India and China are states of mismatched status. China’s will to shape events rather than let events damage its interests gives it decisive influence in international politics. Having the world’s largest population, authoritarian China is an economic behemoth, clearly reflected in its status as the world’s second largest economy. China is also a recognized nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and spends nearly four times as much on defence as India. Can this huge gap be closed in foreseeable future?

A democratic India could well be China’s rival – but its inability to play this role is clearly manifested in widespread poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, inadequate infrastructure, and notorious bureaucratic red-tap. In other words, India is economically, institutionally and militarily too incompetent to be competitive to China. Therefore India, which seems unprepared to cope with the strategic fallout of China’s rise, should neither be complacent nor give a knee-jerk reaction.

Official rhetoric has sometimes attempted to downplay the areas of contention with China. There are a host of factors at play; nevertheless the primary reason for this cautious approach is simple. Even though India finds itself closely aligned with the US in terms of political values, geographically it is in close proximity to China. Like most Asian countries, the preferred strategy for India is to live pragmatically with China. Yet Modi’s visit to Mongolia and South Korea has given clear indication to China that India has begun to ‘act east’.

Another argument that provides the intellectual underpinning for cooperate-with-China discourse in India is that India risks losing its distinct diplomatic identity if it were to echo the stance taken by the US towards China; India could always enjoy a special advantage in terms of its relationship with China if it took an “independent” position over China from the US. Moreover, the supporters of the prioritization of economic relations would also like to bring about a remarkable increase in two-way commercial exchanges, already $70 billion, leading to an overall improvement of political relations between India and China. As China continues its phenomenal economic development, there is a growing realization in India that China can be used as the “engine” of its own economic growth. Modi sees sufficient merit in the idea. If India’s economy regains a higher growth trajectory and many of the unnecessary hurdles are done away with, then India’s market will be too large for Beijing to ignore.

Besides sound economic rationale, China’s own desire to have friendly relations with India is understandable from geopolitical perspective as well. President Xi Xinping knows that China’s neighbourhood environment is not very favourable: China has 14 countries on its borders and relations with many of them are delicate. Due to Beijing’s unilateral decisions on issues of sovereignty, particularly enforcing air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the contested waters and the continuing territorial disputes over the South China Sea, Beijing’s many neighbours no longer subscribe to the ‘peaceful rise’ rhetoric of China. Thus pushing India into America’s arms makes little strategic sense for China. While India, as a ‘swing state’, may find itself in the enviable position of being courted by both the US and China, it is in larger Chinese interest to be seen as moving very closer toward India.

The incremental steps toward political normalization should now expand the social and cultural space for robust person-to-person exchanges that would remove negative stereotypes of each other. A new electronic visa scheme for Chinese nationals in India and opening of a second route for pilgrims to Mansarovar in Tibet, announced during Modi’s China visit, are welcome steps.

Whether Chinese leaders realized it or not, Modi’s several public utterances in China – courageous and refreshing – actually represented India’s flexibility about negotiation on longstanding boundary dispute by forsaking “the mantle of colonial Britain’s subcontinental pretensions.” The fundamental makeup of the Chinese regime will however make it hard for President Xi to move in the same direction. That is why there was no grand gesture from him either on the boundary dispute or on India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.


1. Anuj Kumar - June 18, 2015

China and India both are super powers of asia India is a big market for china to sell its products so China also want friendship with India