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Mainstream, VOL LV No 13 New Delhi March 18, 2017

China-India Strategic Dialogue: Is there a Future?

Sunday 19 March 2017


by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Every time China and India hold any dialogue, the outcome is often marginal compared to the expectations. After all, the two countries have been involved in a series of protracted dialogues for more than 30 years without any visible solution to the outstanding border dispute and some other issues between them. The just concluded revamped strategic dialogue between China and India at Beijing should not be, therefore, judged from a pessimistic prism but from the futuristic trajectory of bilateral relations.

Given the divergence between the two countries on a series of issues affecting bilateral and regional security, it was naive to expect absolute gains from the strategic dialogue like membership for India in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) or listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. They make take time. It is important, rather, to build on relative and incremental gains which is what Sino-Indian relations are all about since the rapprochement exercises began in the 1980s. Witness, for example, the Afghanistan issue—on which there was broad understanding as to how China and India can cooperate in capacity building exercises in the war-torn country. If the two countries bridge their differences even on one issue, as the Beijing round reflected, it augurs well for a broader Sino-Indian strategic understanding.

The China-India strategic dialogue would further engender optimism if analysed within the environmental context of broader international relations and regional security situation in the Asia-Pacific. Cheung M. Lee, in a recent book (Faultlines in a Rising Asia, 2016), seems upset that a rising Asia has also become the departmental store of the world’s most pronounced security problems and regrets the absence of discourse on how Asia is going to manage, alleviate, or resolve the outstanding great power rivalries, simmering historical legacies and growing energy and resource competition.

China’s rise stands out as the biggest economic, military and political challenge. The US and other great powers in the region have engaged China in strategic dialogues so as to avoid strategic miscalculations. India is no exception! While Indian strategists see China both as a threat and an opportunity, they are unable to decode the alphabets of Chinese grand strategy. One example would suffice. China’s recent defence white paper on Asia-Pacific security is quite minimalist and vague about India. It would seem that neither India figures as a threat in Chinese strategic calculus nor does it get any priority as a rising great power. Both assumptions are quite wrong! One only has to see China’s actual security practice wherein it has been consolidating its military outreach in Tibet near the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It is also heavily investing in India’s other neighbours, apart from enhancing the profile of Pakistan vis-a-vis India, most notably through the ongoing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The informal agenda is to keep India boxed in the South Asian sub-regional politics and thwart its rightful place in international relations.

India, therefore, needs to invest in the key institutional platform of strategic dialogue, supported by other dialogues, for several reasons.

First, the challenges from China notwithstanding, India has to avoid this ‘Thucydides trap’ and manage its rise by avoiding collision with established great powers like China. Graham Allison, who coined this term, also cautions about the contemporary rise of nationalism in Chinese foreign policy in his recent paper in the Journal of International Security that reflects a very aggressive trend in Chinese strategic culture.

Second, India is also at a crucial developmental stage where it cannot afford any war-like distraction. The economy is doing very good and any hard-power games at this stage with China would be self-defeating.

Third, China has been constantly pricking India on a range of issues in economic, military and political realms. Many times, these could be the result of misperceptions due to sufficient knowledge gap between the two sides. While the two sides have proliferated the network of relations to a great extent, the dialogue provides an ideational platform to convey the concerns about such irritants.

Fourth, past dialogues have allowed India to raise the Pakistan factor with China and get it diluted, if not de-linked from the Chinese approach to India’s security concerns. For example, there has been a perceptible change in China’s stand on Kashmir, all due to India’s persistent diplomacy. The trend must be continued since India needs to convince China on other issues like its own permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Last, despite ongoing military modernisation, India suffers an asymmetrical power gap with China. While wars have become exception in international relations due to increased economic interdependence and political communication, there is uncertainty with China that is still dissatisfied with its status of a ‘partial’ superpower and faces many constraints in its foreign policy-making, most notably the undue influence of the Chinese Peoples’ Liberations Army (PLA). The unresolved border can provoke Chinese aggression leading to a war!

The security dialogue offers the best bet for long term management of China-India relations since alternate strategies may not work. Indian diplomacy has achieved quite a many milestones on the China front in the recent past. There is no reason to believe that the strategic dialogue will not deliver in future. We need to have faith in the dialogue and rather increase its frequency towards constant engagement (congagement) for the peaceful rise of China and India.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed in the article are strictly personal.

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