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

For the people’s sake: Synchronising Sino-Indian Relations

Sunday 28 September 2014, by Uttam Sen


India and China represent one-third of humanity to make their mutual relationship both illustrative and compelling. The choices and contradictions before the Sino-Indian multitude can serve as an example of what people at large have to live and contend with. The duo also hold the world’s attention because put together they have the power or agency to predetermine events.

Border incursions by China into eastern Ladakh, reportedly at their heaviest on the second day of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Delhi, were admittedly a red herring, but imposed an inconsistency that had to be faced. The Indian side did so by taking up the issue with the Chinese. The response, that these were bound to occur along a non-demarcated border, opened a can of worms, though not unpredictably. The issue is complex enough for stand-alone dissection. The official bilateral approach has been to reconcile accounts on the sides by skirting the disputed point when proceedings threaten to grind to a halt. The joint communiqué at the end of the visit virtually restated the position. It went one step further by declaring the intent of finding a solution. Presently both sides consider the other the intruder in the space they occupy as a result of the unauthenticated Line of Actual Control created by the unilateral Chinese withdrawal in 1962.

India’s breakthrough in ties with Japan, a line of credit for the Vietnamese military and oil exploration in the South China Sea, have aggra-vated a bilateral equation which necessarily contains conflicting sets of assumptions. Even at the time of writing, the Indian Prime Minister was anticipating his visit to the US with enthusiasm on investment and a “strategic partnership”. On his part, Xi had briefly entered the Maldives, traditionally within India’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean, and underlined his maritime silk route project from China through South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean to Europe. Xi was well received at his next stop in Colombo. China is investing in infrastructure that will help Sri Lanka develop into a regional trading hub.

In a fraught atmosphere India is discomfited by trade routes so perilously close to the strategic calculus. China also nurtures its all-weather friend Pakistan with an abandon that makes light of Indian priorities, as some would have it, in deliberate violation of them. India is less circumspect about the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor and has agreed to consider it. Strategy among giant countries is in many ways a competitive, one-way street. But it could be turned to mutual benefit as China demonstrated during its halcyon détente with the US. China went on to flood the US market with inexpensive goods and mount an unprecedented trade surplus. Yet it is noteworthy that China has never dropped its guard against the US and probably anticipates the same attitude from India.

Additionally, observers have been puzzled by the news on September 23 that Xi had summoned select Army Generals and put them on alert: they needed to be conversant with the global and domestic scenarios and prepared for “regional wars” in the age of information technology. The significance of the item for India, emanating from China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, anxious to impress China’s ascendant identity on the world, is not fully clear yet.

There is also a counterweight to gaining overall strategic advantage, equally essential to a people’s well-being. Growth is vital to security and a well-grounded aspect of India and China investing in each other’s prosperity. The $ 20 billion in investment (declared rather than committed) across various sectors by China, employment-generation through industrial parks in Maharashtra and Gujarat, space cooperation and efforts to reduce the trade imbalance, cultural exchange and so on, present that side of the picture. Already more could happen than immediately meets the eye. Development of the Railways is the tip of the iceberg in blameless investment (no land acquisitions, and absorption of surplus Chinese capital) which will be instrumental in creating necessaryinfrastructure and ensuing linkages to repay the debt being created by adverse balance of payments. The trade imbalance can be currently addressed through freer passage of Indian goods and services to China.

The catalogue is confessedly short of some unrealistic expectations raised earlier, but pungent enough for credibility and continuity amidst shifting sands. The facility to predetermine events lies there because the enhancement of human capability is the timeless, universal theme which India and China share in the name of humanity. Sino-Indian relations constitute a multifaceted domain which cannot be reduced to its bare essentials without the danger of over-simplification. Dominant dispensations in both countries stake claims to heritages that we subconsciously carry but cannot always modify to their pristine forms, some of which found resonance in the principles of co-existence updated to the conviviality India created—till the time of the border incursions. There has been a well-founded call on the world of realpolitik to reconsider mutual approaches with greater expertise from both sides.

There is also an empirical dimension that invites scrutiny. Practical considerations like economic and strategic rivalries between new-found friends can be unsettling. But they can also be defused to establish performance and reliability of a wider hypothesis. Much was heard of the flip side of technological proficiency and its attendant profit maximisation credo which is resulting in major global asymmetries. Even if they are not directly dealt with in Modi’s next port of call they can be borne in mind to keep global business afloat rather than docked in cyclical busts.

The ambit of theory on the production, consumption and transfer of wealth could be widened to harmonise with international relations, where a “globalising” agency like Information Technology, which India has embraced from head to foot, can make the ostensibly unglittering pill of sustainable development easier to swallow alongside. Yet both Xi and Modi have been lauded for their efforts at speeding up growth. Xi wants to shift his country’s growth model towards services, while Modi is recognising the exasperation of both traditional and new industry with the moribund condition of national infrastructure fairly proactively. Conversion of the zero-sum game to a win-win situation would mean taking a leaf out of the factory of the world to supplement the services that English language aptitude and software skills have smoothened for India. Polemics should be peripheral when the window of opportunity through low labour costs is still open for India, even while we preserve the potential of design and engineering work at which rich nations excel.

But Xi definitely blazed a trail of inscrutability which could amount to anything from a tactical ploy to the caveat that China was now the first among equals.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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