In the ongoing great global churning, with countries trying to secure their own interests, India is steering a wary course between a mostly inimical China and an unpredictable Uncle Sam which professes to want New Delhi on its side.
Trade tensions between the USA and China, which have hurt the latter more, have provided India with a small economic opportunity that it can leverage by trying to correct the crippling trade deficit with China. There has been some headway, with improved market access for its non-Basmati rice and soyabean oil cakes, but Beijing has been niggardly on allowing access to Indian pharmaceuticals and generic formulations of drugs.
It is on the political front that the greatest headway has been made between India and China, with not just four bilateral summit level meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in 2018, but also enhanced defence interactions and restoration of the defence and security dialogue.
What has transpired is that warily, India and China, have decided to work on their areas of agreement and not remain fixated on their very grave disagreements. That Washington has opted to back New Delhi, not only for an enhanced role in the Indo-Pacific, a term and concept with which India is very chuffed, but even for a role in Afghanistan and pushed for it to be part of the peace negotiations in that war-ravaged country, have helped India to keep China off its back.
The trilaterals at Buenos Aires, on the sidelines of the G-20, were another interesting balancing act for India; between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe.
The USA’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) Bill, which is now law after Trump signed it on 30 December, provides India more room to manoeuvre, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, a concept about which Beijing is very wary. China would not want a situation in which an institution like the quad, for example, grows into an alliance, with Vietnam and some other ASEAN countries lending the quad of Japan, USA, Australia and India, background support.
A more confident New Delhi, therefore, is less diffident about standing up for itself vis-à-vis Beijing. With better leverage and an improved political relationship, India’s position, for example, may be aligned to Beijing on the Karmapa Lama, but New Delhi remains strongly opposed to Xi’s dream Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It is not just the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is, of course, a direct threat to India’s sovereignty and has raised many red flags on the security front, but it is the entire concept behind the BRI which has raised India’s hackles, because it goes against the established rules-based order.
India sees the BRI as an attempt to re-write globally accepted norms, regarding transparent tendering for projects, methods of construction and so on, to which India had finally adjusted itself. China has ridden roughshod over these norms and pushed its own money and methods on others.
It is not the debt burden and financial crisis in which BRI projects have placed many countries, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Pakistan, that is the problem for India. Those are decisions between other sovereign nations and China. The problem lies in the formulation of a process in which no other country can participate.
Increasingly, other smaller countries are beginning to raise objections to the Chinese model of infrastructure development and accepting the validity of India’s opposition to BRI. China wants India on board the BRI, but New Delhi plans to work around its steadfast opposition to the BRI in dealing with Beijing.
On the Karmapa Lama issue, New Delhi is willing to play ball and has chosen not to recognise Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa Lama, although he has been so accepted by the Dalai Lama. Unlike the deep respect in which New Delhi holds the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s most revered spiritual leader and another area of conflict with Beijing, India has not accepted his endorsement of Ogyen Dorje and has scant respect for the man who claims the post of head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
How keen the Indian government is to stay on the right side of the sensitivities of the Chinese government and not create another focal point of controversy is reflected in the clear articulation of its stand on the Karmapa Lama, saying that he is on a par with any other Tibetan refugee, even though he has been provided a residence and vehicle by the Indian government, primarily at the request of the Tibetan ‘leadership’ in this country.
New Delhi will treat the Karmapa, a citizen of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the Republic of China who has taken citizenship of the Commonwealth of Dominica, as any ordinary foreigner who must apply for a visa. Sidelining the Dalai Lama’s acceptance of him is an acceptable compromise for India as it deals with China on issues.
As both Himalayan neighbours realise hostilities are not an option and they must deal with each other, if not amicably then at least with civility, both Beijing and New Delhi have decided to proceed with caution, on an issue-by-issue basis, on their merits.