New Delhi: On Tuesday, China will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist republic with pomp, show and military goose-stepping. Time also for India to reflect on its ties with the giant neighbour to the east. Although India recognised the young communist republic six months after its founding, the two sides went to war a little over a decade later. Ties in more recent times have gone south over China’s opposition to India’s moves on Jammu and Kashmir, and its support and encouragement of Pakistan’s anti-India activities.
It would appear that China sees India as a rival in Asia and therefore the need to keep it in check. But here’s what a Chinese scholar said during a recent exchange with Indian scholars and diplomats in Delhi. “China has never regarded India as a strategic competitor,” he said. China watchers in India have dismissed that line, saying it is an argument Beijing has used for many years to undercut India’s regional status and growing global stature and ambitions. Clearly, they do see India as a strategic competitor and therefore the need to keep India off balance. The unresolved state of the boundary is seen as a move by Beijing to give it leverage over Delhi.
But someone should tell the Chinese that unresolved issues could become strategic headaches over time and the list of unresolved issues between Delhi and Beijing is growing and getting longer. Leaving aside the boundary, there is the bilateral trade deficit, China’s entry into India’s periphery, the discord over Indo-Pacific and Quad and then, of course, Pakistan and CPEC.
“If we want to look beyond this, there is a need to resolve our differences and talk about Pakistan also,” said Zorawar Daulet Singh, a Delhi-based scholar on China, pointing out that “Doklam was the culmination of the build-up of tensions. It was resolved only after the two leaders looked at the big picture”.
Singh was referring to the Modi-Xi Jinping informal summit in Wuhan last year, which is seen to have conveyed to the bureaucratic systems on both sides that the two leaders are committed to good relations. Recent developments may have shaken off some of the comfort level of the Wuhan summit. As former foreign secretary Shyam Saran observed: “The Wuhan spirit is a major thing in India-China ties even if there are no substantive outcomes. Such exchanges have helped when there were spikes in bilateral tensions”.
But he warned that India and China have to “evolve ways and means to ensure stability in our region,” a reference obviously to the Beijing-Islamabad equation and China’s entry into Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh with offers of cash to fund politically popular infrastructure projects. Add to that Beijing’s not-so-subtle efforts to push its case with Bhutan and undermine India’s position there. Then there’s China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean (expect more bases there, perhaps in Mozambique or Madagascar).
Saran believes the two sides must move to define a security architecture that could condition the responses of both countries and instill some confidence in each other’s intentions. “The highest increase in military expenditure has been in South Asia,” he warned, adding that “investing large sums of money in defence and maritime defence flows from concerns about each other. Mutual security where mutual assurances are made is better than unilateral steps”.
Saran also said it was necessary to reflect on the recent drone strike on Saudi oil fields. While the U.S. has accused Iran, the Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility. If that is indeed true, it marks the first time a non-state actor has used drones. This has enormous implications for India, which faces a terror threat from Pakistan. Recent instances of Pakistani drones dropping arms and ammunition in India’s Punjab underscore Saran’s point.
China’s tendency to view India through its prism of the U.S. may be contributing to the trust deficit. Whenever Beijing is under pressure from the U.S. (as is the case now), it reaches out to India with some (superficial?) gestures. Saran warns that this will not work. “India and China have a logic and value of their own if it is looked at from a strategic perspective. We must engage in vigorous dialogue to prevent any misperception”.
Will China change course? Million dollar question but the record over the last 70 years doesn’t provide much comfort.