Neighbour or enemy? Both. Indeed, India-China relations are like playing a game of poker. Show no emotions even as one plans strategy, play is multi-causal, defiantly stand one’s ground and gamble on a winning hand. Both New Delhi and Beijing are doing just that, betting, with the underwritten message: Don’t mess with me.
Following the momentum initiated at the Prime Minister Modi-Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Wuhan Summit post Dokalam, Tamil Nadu’s ancient 8th Century Pallava era coastal town Mamallapuram witnessed the second edition of the India-China informal summit last weekend, post Kashmir to halt the slide in ties.
Certainly, this ‘Top-Down Pushing’ and ‘Action-Oriented’ informal format with no high hopes saw the leaders’ smooth-talk and discuss bilateral issues for over five hours. While Xi glibly spoke of “heart to heart discussions”, Modi called it “start of a new era in bilateral ties”, interspersed with setting up a new mechanism for trade and investment, bringing down the $53b trade deficit, working together on terrorism, enhancing mutual understanding, maintaining tranquility on the borders and cooperation on regional and global issues.
Undeniably, the informal summit helped carve out an overall framework of economic cooperation specially, in the backdrop of various global uncertainties. Take Huawei’s 5G technology. It could be a win-win situation for both. While India’s decision would be based on whether working with China could benefit people and be in line with its national security interests and address its concern of “backdoor worry” given the telecom giant’s ties with PLA, instead of succumbing to US pressures. It would serve China’s commercial interest against America’s sustained campaign to persuade its allies to exclude Huawei from their domestic markets and ban US companies from doing business with it.
Yet, ties are full of complexity. Deep mistrust, lack of confidence and the persistent security dilemma underscores the hollowness in Indo-China ties. Particularly due to unresolved border disputes and Beijing blowing hot and cold on Kashmir, despite no discussion in Mamallapuram. On one hand, Beijing towed Islamabad’s line, “China firmly supports Pakistan on issues concerning its core interests to safeguard its own legitimate rights and hopes the issue should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN Charter,” said Xi. And on the other he reiterating New Delhi’s stand that it is a “bilateral issue” and should be settled between India-Pakistan.
China contests the international boundary in the eastern sector by questioning the sanctity of the McMohan line and claims 90,000 sq kms in Arunachal Pradesh and calls it ‘South Tibet’. It illegally occupy’s 38,000 sq kms in POK and claims 2,000 sq kms in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Although there have been 21 rounds of talks there has been little progress.
Alongside, New Delhi has reservation vis-à-vis China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting China’s largest province Xinjiang with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan and passing through POK which violates India’s territorial integrity, membership of the UN Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers Group etc as India cannot afford to take any chances with what constitutes India’s national security and strategic interests and pursue them doggedly.
Questionably, does India have the appropriate diplomacy to counter China’s drive for supremacy in the region? Can it defuse this? What options does it have on the table?
Do the present assertive trends of Indian foreign policy portend the likelihood of an aggressive outcome? What is Beijing’s game plan? Is it to push the envelope with India? Or to boost “all-weather friend” Islamabad’s sagging morale?
Indisputably, New Delhi is busy countering China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy (befriending its neighbours to check Indian interests on multiple fronts) by claiming its space in Asia’s sun by forging alliances with Beijing’s neighbours. In its Look-Act East Policy it is engaging with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Vietnam etc. Aware of the deep inroads China has made in Myanmar New Delhi is making an effort to woo the generals back into its fold.
Worse, a defiant Beijing prone to bullying smaller neighbours into submission through a mix of cheque book diplomacy and military heft, is trying to squeeze Indian influence and interests and circumscribe the foreign-policy choices of India’s smaller neighbours.
Be it influencing Nepal’s domestic politics, funding Bangladesh’s new ports with the potential of dual-use in the foreseeable future, constructing roads through POK or drowning Sri Lanka in debt to gain eventual political leverage, Beijing continues to successfully block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It is furious about India’s rejection of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, a personal prestige issue of President Xi.
True, the disagreements are difficult characterised by uncertainty and fluctuations but sorting out these rifts should not be made the prerequisite for exploring the full potential, reduce miscalculations at the top level, open space for China and India to speak in one voice on various issues of mutual concern beyond bilateral relations and concretising cooperation on the ground.
New Delhi needs to craft a long-term China policy that combines dialogue with diplomatic pressure. Simply inter-acting, is not a solution. We need to take the bull by the horns and hammer out differences across the table. Irrefutably, think out-of-the-box and guts. Beijing has to match its words with deeds.
Modi realizes only too well that in today’s geo-strategic political reality pragmatism dictate real politic. There are no short cuts. New Delhi needs an all-encompassing and multi-pronged strategy to deal with Beijing even as it wants durable peace though this alone cannot guarantee non-escalation.
Thus, New Delhi new assertiveness would need all the wisdom, maturity and restraint to ensure that it remains in control of the Indo-China script. Certainly, in this zero sum game the muscle-flexing and one-upmanship will continue till trust is built. In the long-term India-China relations will be determined to by India’s strategic goals and objectives vis-à-vis the evolving regional and global security environment.
There is definitely a strategic imperative of peace between the two Asian powers as both need to focus their energies and resources on the gigantic task of economic evolution necessitated by the changing competitive global scenario. Modi is slowly changing the rules of the game from defensive posturing to being a hard negotiator whereby India is no longer China’s underdog but an equal, controlled aggressor.
Bluntly, unless the border question is out of the way, all talk of trust-and-confidence building and restoration of normal relations is unrealistic. Till then they need to bury the hatchet, keep the dialogue flowing even if it dialogues of the deaf, work out minor irritants to pave the way for better relations.
NaMo should take a leaf from ex-US President Nixon book The Real War: “Nations live or die by the way they respond to the particular challenges they face. The time when a nation most craves ease may be the moment when it can least afford to let down its guard. The nation that survives is the one that rises to meet that moment: that has the wisdom to recognize the threat and the will to turn it back, and that does so before it is too late.”
As Modi navigates tricky ties with China he needs to remember tough responses and clear red zones are the best guarantee of peace in the sub-Continent. An intoxicating mix of Chanakyan muscular diplomacy and ruthlessness, masked in velvet gloves. India has made plain: Only a peace among equals can last and takes two to tango!