Sino-India relations: A tug of war with the dragon

xijinping_modi PM Narednra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping | Reuters

China and India have far greater shared strategic interests than concrete differences. This was the view expressed by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi at a foreign policy symposium in Beijing recently. Wang’s statement offered a hopeful endnote to what has been a rocky year for Sino-Indian ties. It is, of course, true that Beijing and New Delhi do share key strategic objectives, such as the reform of international institutions, ensuring rights of developing countries at the WTO, pursuing domestic economic development and combating climate change. Despite this, however, 2017 has been a year during which their concrete differences also garnered strategic dimensions.

For starters, China’s vehemence in blocking the designation of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as an international terrorist at the United Nations and its opposition to India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership appear to be elements of a policy of containment. Beijing’s objective in adopting such a policy is undeniably strategic, i.e., appeasing “all-weather friend” Pakistan and denying New Delhi a seat at an elite table where members shape global norms, while ensuring that it remains occupied with immediate concerns in its neighbourhood.

However, the effectiveness of such a policy is debatable. For starters, over the past 18 months, India has acquired membership into the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement — two of the four key multilateral export control regimes. India has also indicated its desire to become a member of the Australia Group, with formal discussions likely to begin as early as June 2018. It is important to note that Beijing is not a member of any of these three groups. Yet India’s membership to them boosts its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder and builds support for its NSG bid. Moreover, Beijing’s obstructionism only further contributes to the mistrust that pervades Sino-Indian ties and alienates Indian public opinion.

Strategic competition between India and China is also evident in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. BRI is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy agenda. It envisions mega infrastructure projects linking together to establish land and sea corridors cutting through Asia, Africa and Europe, which will facilitate trade, investment and greater regional economic integration. From very early on, keeping in mind geographic, economic and strategic considerations, China has sought to court India to become a BRI partner. In fact, leading up to the Belt and Road Forum in May, Beijing repeatedly invited Indian participation.

Read more: Belt & Road will lead to India-China conflict

India, however, has consistently maintained a skeptical view of BRI. For New Delhi, BRI’s positioning as an economic endeavor masks a larger foreign policy design to undercut India’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. The diplomatic jostling culminated in the Ministry of External Affairs’ May 13, 2017, statement, which formally declined Beijing’s invitation. New Delhi’s argument is that connectivity projects must not impinge on a country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and must also be based on “openness, transparency and equality” along with the “principles of financial responsibility.”

Rejection of BRI as it stands today is just one arc of a three-pronged Indian response. The other two being the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and the revived Quadrilateral grouping. The former, which is a product of conversations between India and Japan, is pitched as an alternative that envisages infrastructure, connectivity and economic projects based on principles of financial responsibility, sustainability, respect for sovereignty and generating employment for local populations. The latter, meanwhile, is an budding strategic partnership premised on a commonality of purpose, i.e., ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region and countering proliferation and terrorism.

Finally, the long-standing boundary dispute between India and China cast a dark shadow over the bilateral relationship through much of 2017. The Doklam standoff began in mid-June as Indian soldiers, acting on Bhutan’s request, blocked Chinese attempts to extend a road along a disputed piece of land between the two countries. For Bhutan, the Chinese were encroaching into its territory in violation of past agreements. India viewed Chinese road-building as a security threat, given its proximity to the strategically significant “Chicken’s Neck” area, and a violation of a 2012 deal on settling tri-junctions after due consultation. China, meanwhile, saw Indian actions as “illegal trespass,” violating its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Read more: China, India push for early resolution of border dispute

With both China and India digging their heels, it appeared that a prolonged confrontation was on the cards, with conflict being a possibility given the provocative rhetoric emanating from media and spokespersons in Beijing. In contrast, the Indian side repeatedly called for calm diplomatic engagement. The eventual resolution in late August saw status quo restored and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travel to Xiamen for the BRICS summit. But, with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th CPC Congress in October hinting at a tougher stance on issues of territorial sovereignty and Beijing reportedly eyeing permanent troop presence in the area, a recurrence of boundary tensions in the near future is all too possible.

After a year of ups and downs, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi in Delhi in late December. This was the first talks between the Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question since the end of the Doklam standoff.

The MEA statement following the meeting said: “They (the Special Representatives) underlined the need for the two countries to build on their convergences, while seeking mutually acceptable resolutions of their differences with due respect for each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations.”

This sentence captures the inherent complexity of the Sino-Indian relationship going forward. The strategic aspirations of each side are going to continue to impinge on their sensitivities and concerns.

The author is a senior multimedia journalist and Chinese affairs analyst based in New Delhi

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