India and China need to prudently manage differences, show mutual sensitivity
The informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan on 27-28 April 2018 raised expectations among strategic thinkers and policy makers from not just the two countries, but internationally, that bilateral relations between India and China would witness a positive transformation towards stability and better understanding of their national sensitivities, particularly relating to security areas.
The 73-day military standoff in Doklam – at a critical trijunction of India, Bhutan and China in 2017 had highlighted the strategic vulnerability of the two major powers in Asia across their disputed borders, despite fragile tranquility that has been maintained in accordance with various agreements and understandings reached between them since 1988. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made a landmark visit to China and his long handshake with then Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping led to the understanding that the boundary dispute will not be allowed to come in the way of their growing relations.
The press release issued after the Wuhan Summit recognised that India and China have wider and overlapping regional and global interests and agreed on the need to strengthen strategic communication to enhance mutual understanding and contribute to regional and global stability.
If high-level meetings were a barometer of progress in relationships, one could not have a better story to tell. Since Wuhan, Modi and Xi have met thrice – in June in Qingdao, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting, in July, in Johannesburg, at the BRICS Summit and, in November, in Buenos Aires, on the margins of the G-20 meeting. The actual nature of relations however, seems to have gone through little positive transformation.
Relations at the strategic level, despite frequent summit meetings, continue to be bedevilled by unease, discontent and lack of mutual trust. The Chinese have continued to strengthen their military presence across Indian borders in the north and east, particularly Doklam, which had been the theatre of the longest military confrontation between armies of the two countries since 1962 and led to a most acrimonious propaganda campaign by the Chinese official media.
The trade deficit has continued to grow and stood at $63 billion, of the total trade volume of $ 85 billion, clearly underlining the urgent need to address the issue. This is combined with the fact that Indian exports of pharmaceuticals, which internationally enjoy price and quality advantages, continue to face restrictions in China. Beijing has also continued to oppose India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and imposing UN sanctions against Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar.
China has continued to ignore Indian objections to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through territory illegally occupied by Pakistan and poses a serious strategic threat to India. Development of Gwadar port can disrupt Indian lines of marine trade and communications.
The optics of bilateral relations appear bright, largely because of vibrant people to people relations. Chinese Ambassador Luo Zhaohui recently pointed out that yoga is increasingly popular in China and Bollywood has brought India closer to Chinese homes. More than two thousand years of civilizational links between them, including of Buddhism and shared history, provide the glue which keeps the relationship together in the face of tumultuous strategic differences. During the recent visit of Foreign Minster Wang Yi for the high-level mechanism on cultural exchanges, seven MOUs were signed and 30 areas of cooperation were identified, adding further momentum to this area.
However, Ashok Kantha, former Indian Ambassador to China, said recently the glass of relations appears half empty rather than half full. He said the Wuhan summit has not brought the expected reset in the relationship and greater efforts are required to push the trajectory in an upward direction.
The positivity in the relationship comes from the fact that China, like India, appears to have elevated the level of the relationship with Xi directly assuming charge. Earlier it used be handled at the level of State Councillors.
The Wuhan summit was aspirational in nature, referring to simultaneous emergence of India and China as two large economies and major powers with strategic and decisional autonomy having implications of regional and global significance.
To achieve these aspirations, more needs to be done than just the perfunctory, even if it is to build on people to people relations. There is urgent need to address the fundamental issues bedevilling the relationship; these relate to not just bilateral differences but legitimate aspirations of two large neighbouring Asian countries; one already the second largest global economy and the other growing to catch up.
Both countries have shared cultural and civilizational influences but have also been in contest for influence in the region as far back as the Vijayanagar and Ming empires and, crucially, in the modern context, are in contest for influence in the Asia Pacific.
Kantha made three propositions: First, both India and China must adjust to the new geopolitical situation in the Asia Pacific where US President Donald Trump has described China as a strategic rival; maintenance of peace and security in the sensitive region which is important for trade and communications would require greater efforts to work together and avoid differences from becoming conflicts.
Second, structural challenges must be meaningfully addressed. Overlapping ambitions of both countries in the neighbourhood territorial and maritime region need to be managed carefully. Could the Indian navy and the PLA navy work together for common interest?
Finally, a paradigm shift is required in India-China bilateral relations. The strategic partnership which has begun to suffer from ennui needs to become more meaningful to drive the relationship toward greater heights. There is need to encourage constructive engagement and identify new areas of cooperation.
The issue of river waters must be addressed more purposefully by sharing data and working on collaborative projects. More energetic efforts are needed to remove irritants in the relationship and now is perhaps the time to work to resolve the sensitive boundary dispute.
The Wuhan understanding called for forging a common direction for the future of India-China relations built upon mutual respect for each other’s developmental aspirations and prudent management of differences with mutual sensitivity. The current wandering direction of the relationship clearly illustrates the need to bring this to fruition.