Post-Doklam, China and India work to Manage Bruised Ties
The Chinese yen for order and harmony is visible across Kunming city and throughout southwestern Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and India’s Northeast. Wide, well laid out, clean roads, flanked by wind-and solar-powered streetlights and rows of spanking new residential complexes indicate a long term plan for this provincial capital.
That plan is to “harmonise” negative opinion and make Kunming the hub for President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), from whence will flow connectivity and trade through Myanmar, Bangladesh and Northeast India, the old BCIM corridor along the old Stilwell Road.
With India showing indifference to the Kunming dialogues to push the BRI through the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar corridor, there is a renewed Chinese effort to foster a “harmonious” regional dialogue.
In mid June, 2018, Kunming hosted the 5th China South Asia Exposition, with the largest Indian presence ever, and more interestingly, the first China–South Asia Cooperation Forum (SACF), to foster a regional dialogue to smooth over any opposition to or misgivings about the BRI.
Ma Jun, deputy Director General in Yunnan’s foreign office, said, “We don’t deny there are political issues, but trust is the key. It (BRI) will not be imposed on any country,” he said.
India chose to opt out of officially endorsing the plan or participating in the first China SACF, as it has a well-articulated problem with the BRI, which it claims impinges on its sovereignty through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through what it calls “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” and Pakistan calls “Azad Kashmir”. As a result, discussions were conducted at the level of think tanks and civil society groups, with semi-official endorsement.
“Particularly in the post–Wuhan context, India and China need to add more content in their interactions, and this is where the importance of think-tanks comes in, to provide the new ideas,” said Silas Thangal, India’s Consul-General in Guangzhou.
Officials in New Delhi said India would not be part of any Chinese official efforts to push the BRI, even in the eastern sector. Enhanced trade would be encouraged through linkages at the provincial level, but connectivity projects would depend on their perceived utility for India.
With the SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) forum in deep cold storage, China, which sought in vain to enter that forum, is seeking to replace it with its own regional dialogue about issues like connectivity and trade. India, which had resisted Chinese attempts to join SAARC, is not biting Beijing’s bait for now.
The China SACF was a “new forum for dialogues” and for “policy integration,” or effort to bring India on board, said Li Jiming, Director General in the Yunnan foreign office. “India is participating,” he said.
The Maritime Silk Route is another aspect of the BRI connectivity project with which India has issues. New Delhi plans to initiate a bilateral maritime dialogue with both China and Russia, officials said, adding that India had never been critical of China’s naval or maritime posture in the Indo-Pacific, but had merely sought a “rules-based order.”
China opposes the expression ‘Indo-Pacific’, coined by the US to give India centrality in the maritime space between the Indian and Pacific oceans. And while India may exult in the new coinage, the term has moved the focus from the ‘Asia Pacific’ region comprising the vast landmass of Asia to a focus only on the seas, cautioned former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, leaving China access to and influence over the vast Central Asian landmass.
Given the deepening global economic crisis after the US unleashed stiff tariffs on exports from China, India and even some of its allies, the possibility of global trade wars is very real. Therefore, for New Delhi aand Beijing, looking at each other more closely and enhancing bilateral trade relations is imperative and has acquired urgency.
The scope of the India-China relationship today stretches from agriculture to industry, skill development to innovation, infrastructure, trade & investment, tourism, environment, energy and developing smart cities.
Managing these till both countries are so invested in each other to ensure that alarm bells on the security front, including border encroachments, do not derail the relationship is the “new normal” and key takeaway from the Narendra Modi, Xi engagement at Wuhan.
The fluid global scenario, with Donald Trump’s Washington encroaching upon areas that China regards as within its sphere of influence, like North Korea and Russia, has forced both Beijing and New Delhi to gloss over glitches in the bilateral relationship, like Pakistan and terrorism, the boundary conundrum and the trade imbalance, and work together.
India has chosen to overlook China’s settled military presence in Doklam, while Beijing is very keen to get New Delhi on board the BRI, which Xi believes will give China the global heft and stature it seeks. It is not harmony and optics which have driven both China and India to re-engage more closely with each other, particularly after 2017’s bruising faceoff at Doklam plateau; it is sheer compulsion.
How deftly they manage their competition in shrinking global spaces and cooperate, maintaining at least the façade of a “harmonious coexistence,” will be the real test.