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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 40, September 27, 2014

India-China Relations: In Dire Need of Proper Management to Ward Off Differences

Sunday 28 September 2014

by Sheel Bhadra Kumar

Relationships in international politics, especially with neighbours, are highly complicated, sensitive and volatile. Nation-states have to handle and settle their bilateral issues very delicately keeping in view others’ concerns, perceptions and aspirations. If bilateral issues and concerns are handled delicately with neighbours, there can develop a cordial and stable relationship beneficial not only for them but also for others in the region. But If nations fail to develop a balanced and cordial relationship with neighbours, the pressure of strained and fractured relationship is felt not only by neighbours but by others situated in the region and beyond.

If we speak of the India-China relationship, we find elements of concerns, doubts, cooperation and competition in bilateral relations. The Indian media, press and politicians accuse the government of being soft towards China while Chinese scholars label India’s border infrastructure as provocative.

Recently the three-day visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping began on a positive note with a traditional swing on the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While sharing a rare bonhomie, the two countries signed two agreements and one memorandum of understanding. Reaching New Delhi, their talks started with a leap forward in ties. China pledged to invest $ 20 billion in India in the coming five years. Thirteen agreements—on boosting trade, an economic development plan, modernisation of railways, use of outer space, pharmaceuticals, cultural exchanges, audio-visual production, sustainable trade, a 1250-acre industrial park in Pune, a new pilgrimage route to Mansarovar, sister city pact—were inked. China even made a pitch for civil nuclear cooperation which India agreed to discuss.

When these positive developments were taking place, a disturbance created by the Chinese Army in Ladakh forced the Indian side to raise the contentious issue. India raised concerns over the ongoing stand-off at the LAC in Ladakh’s Chumar and Demchok sector between the Chinese and Indian armies and repeated incidents along the border with the Chinese refusing to vacate the area despite flag meetings to defuse the situation. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said the incident along the border had been effectively controlled and managed. President Xi hoped that the unresolved boundary dispute could be settled in the near future. The Prime Minister even raised the trans-border river problem and stapled visa issue but his counterpart remained mum on these matters. Thus we find that there are issues in which we are ready to cooperate but there are some vexed issues where we are not ready to cooperate thus making our relationship highly complex and intractable. But these two Asian giants want to develop a stable relationship with each other. They, of course, have their own designs and interests.

India wants a stable relationship with China hoping that its ties with China will open up the possibility that Beijing might use its leverage with Islamabad to shape Pakistan’s behaviour that might benefit India. India wants to fight terrorism effectively. China can play a vital role in countering crossborder terrorism. India needs investment and high technology. China can invest and provide the necessary technology to India.

On the other hand, China wants to limit India’s growing relationship with the US and Japan as well as with other countries in what China considers its backyard. While China is preoccupied with eastern maritime disputes and the North Korean situation, stable relations on its southern and southwestern flank would also help China. China’s ambitious plan of the Maritime Silk Road [MSR] and the Silk Road economic belt cannot be realised without India’s approval and consent.

China and India want to establish stable ties for the following reasons:

1. With the eclipse of unipolarism and rise of multipolarism, China and India realise the need to cooperate with each other.

2. After the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the need for stability in South Asia has increased many fold. Both these two Asian countries have a great stake in Afghanistan’s stability and the need to maintain the South Asian equilibrium.

3. They desire for a peaceful periphery in order to focus on domestic socio-economic, religious, ethnic and other issues.

Despite their desire to establish a stable relationship, there are issues which do not permit them to come too close to each other.

1. The long-standing boundary dispute reinforces mistrust over Chinese intentions. However, after the 1962 Chinese invasion, there has never been gunfire on the border between China and India unlike on the Indo-Pakistan border where blood flows very often. But despite increased engagement between the two countries on the border issue, it has the potential to stall, if not reverse, progress towards a more stable relationship.

2. Tibet remains a key source of tension between the two countries though the two countries have found a way to manage their differences on this issue. Even if the Prime Minister did not raise the Tibet issue, this issue came to limelight due to the protests by the Tibetan people residing in India. The Dalia Lama said that a peaceful and stable Tibet is in both China and India’s interests.

3. China’s special relationship with Pakistan has been a major source of concern in India. Its role in strengthening Pakistan’s conventional, missile and nuclear capabilities and assistance to Pakistan in developing projects and infrastructure in disputed areas between India and Pakistan are also of considerable concern for India.

4. China’s growing political, economic and military ties with India’s neighbours are also a subject of concern. China is developing its ties with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives and Sri Lanka which have military designs. China’s increased interest in the opening of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean has become an issue as India considers the area to fall in its neighbourhood. China regards its activities as part of its economic development plans and necessary to protect the security of its ships and oil interests. India is not convinced. India is pursuing a wait and watch attitude.

5. The trans-border river issue has become a subject of tension between China and India. Chinese dam construction on the Brahmaputra river and diversion of its water to its north-west area has become a matter of anxiety in India. Due to China’s unfriendly activities, flow of water in the north-east regions of India has become deficient which is quite alarming. Information sharing agreements are being violated by China.

6. Lack of trust, unpredictable intentions and aggressive Chinese behaviour are major hurdles between the two Asian neighbours.

7. The legacy of history remains a problem. Every time there is a border incident, it reinforces the narrative that prevailed in India since the 1962 war. The problem aggravates due to lack of connectivity, communication and little knowledge of the intentions of the other country. There is a trust deficit and lack of transparency between the two countrie.

8. The reluctance of China in endorsing India’s demand for a permanent seat in the Security Council and its objections to give India member-ship in the Nuclear Suppliers Group makes India doubtful of Chinese intentions.

9. Economic ties too have not escaped trouble. Trade imbalance between the two has increased. In 2010-11 the trade deficit was $ 28 billion and that increased to $ 40.8 billion in 2012-13. Prior to the Chinese President’s visit, Chinese officials had claimed that Xi would commit to invest at least $ 100 billion in India. But the agreement inked in New Delhi could reach hardly $ 20 billion Chinese investment in India.

10. Cyber espionage, restrictions on labour are also contentious issues between the two countries.

11. The visa liberalisation agreement which was negotiated in 2013 could not be signed during the Chinese President’s recent India visit. India has refused to conclude the agreement until China abandons its policy of issuing stapled visas for Arunachal Pradesh residents.

What Should India Do?

China regards India as its competitor and feels that the latter can overpower or surpass it in its effort to balance it by creating an axis with the US and Japan on the one hand and on the other hand create tensions for it by forging alliance with the South-East Asian countries with whom China does not enjoy very good relations. Therefore its posture and behaviour towards India remain aggressive, hostile, unfriendly and unpredictable.

India needs to adopt a multi-pronged strategy to tackle the dragon’s moves. India has to build trust and improve communications with China. It needs to increase political, economic and even military co-operation with China on bilateral, regional and multilateral levels. Instead of getting drawn into the process of LAC clarification, India and China should move boldly to settle the boundary dispute. Simultaneously India will have to be patiently ready to compete with China because in international politics you have either to speak as an equal or from a position of strength to be heard. Therefore India needs to increase its military preparedness and strength to ward off any adventure from the Chinese side. It has to tenaciously develop border infrastructure in the border areas. It needs to consolidate and expand development activities in our border regions. India will have to follow its Look East policy. It will have to develop and strengthen our relations with the East and South-East Asian countries. The Prime Minister’s Japan visit and our President’s Vietnam visit are good moves taken in the right direction. Indo-US relations give India a leverage. It works as an offshore balancer. Therefore India should take sufficient measures to develop its relations with the US.

Relations between the two Asian giants depend on a number of internal, bilateral, regional and global factors. India has to manage its relations with China with prudence and firmness. India has to play cool and remain vigilant to develop its own capabilities. China has itself adopted same tactics and strategy against its adversaries like the Soviet Union [now Russia] and the US adroitly.

Dr Sheel Bhadra Kumar is an Associate Professor of Political Science, Government P.G. College, Mahasamund (Chhattisgarh).