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India-China Relations:Despite Negativity the Ties Are Broader and Deeper Than Ever Before

In recent years, India’s has been widely criticized for its policy paralysis, which has been reflected in the dwindling economic performance and all time low Rupee depreciation on the one hand and dysfunctional foreign policy on the other, especially when it comes to India’s smaller neighbors. At the outset, it halted the subsidized fuel supply to Bhutan just prior to the general election in July 2013. It became an election issue there and the then prime minister and chief of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, Jigme Thinley suffered a defeat. Secondly, the Indian Parliament scuttled the Land Boundary agreement between India and Bangladesh at India’s own peril in early September 2013, for the passage of the legislation would have enabled the swapping of enclaves thus solving our boundary issue with Bangladesh, and also bring relief to the hapless people living in these enclaves without any basic amenities since last 65 years! Worse, it would be an election issue too that would weaken the hands of pro-India Bangladesh prime minister and Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina, and strengthen the hands of Jehadi and anti-India forces in Bangladesh. It has shown equal political immaturity when the government put on hold the dialogue process following the beheading of an Indian soldier and mutilation of another in an attack by Pakistani troops in Poonch sector in January 2013. Surprisingly, India’s relations with China have not only shown the maturity but are broader and deeper than ever before notwithstanding the negativity and political mistrust between the two.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s China visit is falling a few months prior to the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Panchsheel agreement between India and China, the first ever confidence building measure (CBM) or the conflict management mechanism (CMM) between free India and China. The visit, which is a return visit to the visit of the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to New Delhi in May, will mark the first instance of back-to-back visits by leaders of two countries in the same year since 1954. It would maintain the momentum of the visits at the highest level, and is a pointer to the fact that India-China relations are moving towards a strategic depth as these have widened and deepened at various levels. Let us examine the following facets of this relationship:

Security scenario

Imagine if India’s borders with China plunge in the kind of volatility we have witnessed with our western neighbor! Thanks to the existing border mechanisms that India-China border has remained peaceful and there has not been a single incident of bloodshed for almost half a century. The Joint Working Group (JWG) on border in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s December 1988 China visit could be regarded as the second CMM after the Panchsheel. The “Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border area signed on September 7, 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas signed on November 29, 1996; and the Protocol on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question signed on April 11 2005 are unique in a way that these are not the byproduct of bipolarity of the world, neither the cold war, and nor the asymmetrical force structure between India and China; rather the evolution of these CMMs could be seen as lessons learnt by India and China from the hostilities and Cold War, and the result of the rapprochement and engagement after the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and China. The CMMs have emphasized time and again that India-China boundary question shall be resolved through peaceful and friendly consultations. Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means.

Even though there have been reports of troop transgression or incursion at the Line of Actual Control, but this has been owing to the differing perceptions about the LAC by India and China. In the wake of such incidents, India and China in early 2012, signed Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) at Joint Secretary Level of ministries of foreign affairs of the two countries especially for timely communication of information on the border situation, and for appropriately handling border incidents. In March 2012 both sides also agreed to undertake joint operations against pirates and sharing technological knowhow on seabed research. Another mechanisms, the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) that proposes the prevention of face-offs like Depsung Bulge of April-May along the LAC. The agreement could be concluded during Singh’s China visit.

The face offs along LAC are an indicator that any attempts to enhance the military capacity along the borders by both India and China may create further tension along the LAC and vitiate the security environment. On the other hand, the peaceful resolution of these face-offs point to the maturing nature of ties, and that both sides have the will and confidence to dissolve the crisis bilaterally and prevent the crisis from acquiring dangerous proportions; on the other hand, it is also a pointer to the fact that India-China relations remains “fragile” and the border issue is the root cause of most of the trust deficit and mutual suspicion, if not handled properly could rekindle the animosities in no time, and that the existing mechanisms have been effective in maintaining the peace and tranquility along the border, however, have also demonstrated that these fall short of finding a solution to the border issue. Therefore, it becomes imperative for both India and China to show political will and resolve, and reach an agreeable resolution of the border as soon as possible so that a way is paved for a firmer hand shake and trust.

CMMs at different level as well as “Memorandum of Understanding for Reinforcing Communication and Cooperation in the Defense Areas” between India and China signed during Pranab Mukherji’s, the then Defense Minister of India China visit, literally made joint military exercises on counter terrorism, fight against piracy, joint search and rescue between these two countries possible, albeit there still exists security deficit which is manifested in the form of visa refusal to Lieutenant General B. S. Jaswal, of the Northern Command by China in 2010, and suspension of defense ties by India with China in a tit-for-tat move. Irrespective of minor hic ups the overall environment has increasingly shown remarkable improvement. There are exchanges between all the three armed services of India and China at various levels never seen before.

Trade and commerce scenario

The trade and commerce between the two has never been so good in the history of independent India. Bilateral trade a decade back was just 5 billion US dollars, but rose to 74 billion dollars in 2011. However, owing to global economic meltdown coupled with India’s own macroeconomic policies, it dropped to around USD 66 billion in 2012. The target of taking it to the mark of 100 billion US dollars in the backdrop these dwindling figures and widening trade deficit of around 30 billion US dollars for India may derail the projections. As we have seen CMMs in security, the trade and commerce have also witnessed the establishment of the Joint Economic Group (JEG) on Economic Relations and Trade, Science and Technology at Ministerial Level established in 1988; Joint Working Group (JWG) on Trade at Joint Secretary Level established in 2003; The India-China Joint Business Council (JBC) between Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on the Indian side and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT); India-China Trade Remedy Cooperation mechanism at Joint Secretary Level, and many other JWG in other sectors like coal and steel etc.. In order to deepen and elevate the current levels of exchanges at micro and macro levels, both sides agreed to establish the annual Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) since 2011. During the second SED held in Delhi 11 MoUs worth $5.2 billion were signed.

Notwithstanding such initiatives, the approach from both the sides has remained cautious and incremental. There are also prejudices as regards security issue amidst economic cooperation. A study conducted by the JSG about the trade patterns between India and China suggests that a very significant potential exists for substantial expansion of trade between the two countries. The investment in high speed railway and other infrastructural building projects could be considered as big opportunity windows to both the countries. For India it could prove as an opportunity to learn from the Chinese experience, for it was during last 30 years of experience that China could develop its own technologies, perfect its manufacturing facilities, bring in new managerial practices and become self reliant in many sectors, like heavy machinery and computer hardware. Conversely in order to address the balance of trade issue, China could give a bigger market access to Indian pharmaceutical and IT companies in the Chinese markets.

People to people exchange scenario

The people to people exchanges are at the best; there has never been so many people traveling from one country to another. Over 600,000 Indian people have been traveling to China annually comprising of businessmen, academics, tourists, governments officials, cultural troupes and so on. Indian students studying in Chinese university alone, accounts for over ten thousand. The governments have taken various initiatives, be it the exchange of students; youth delegations; cultural festivals; media exchanges; and Cooperation in Mutual Translation and Publication of Classic and Contemporary Works. Worth mentioning are the first ever and back to back Media Exchange conferences held in Beijing between September 21 and 24, and in Delhi between September 26 and 27. Interestingly much of the negativity is created by the media only whether print or electronic, and most of it revolves around border, PLA and other security issues in India. The Indian delegation that visited China was amused to see the kind of changes that were taking place in media, and how the Chinese media has geared themselves to the needs of 600 million plus netizens, and how the social media was emerging as a watchdog in a society where it is believed that freedom of expression was a taboo. The number of reporters stationed in India and China has also gone up, albeit the number of Indian reporters in China remains low in proportion to Chinese reporters in India.

Global scenario

Even though the state of India and China is different from it was a decade or couple of years back when both India and China witnessed impressive growth rates to the tune of over 8 and 9 percents, the cooperation at global stage has strengthened even if India’s economic performance has dwindled to 4.4 percent this year. Even though the gap between India and China is widening in terms of economic development and overall living standards of their population, both have witnessed increased level of engagement at world arena. Both have found some real convergence of interests on issues such as climate change, democratization of international financial institutions through multilateral forums such as Russia-China-India Strategic Triangle, Brazil; Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS); Brazil-South Africa-India-China (BASIC); the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); East Asian Summits (EAS); G 20 and other multilateral forums such as both the countries being observers in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India and China have also initiated dialogue on terrorism and Afghanistan.

The multilateral cooperation has been used to strengthen the bilateral relations by both the countries, and both are working towards raising the level of bilateral relationship with the hope of creating larger stakes in each other’s economic systems through complementarities and interdependence. These have also resulted in China scaling down its policy of supporting India’s neighbors. Even though the relations have been best at bilateral, regional and multilateral level, there are elements of competition along with the problems left over from the history. The unresolved boundary issue remains the fundamental cause for mistrust at every level. China’s ‘all weather friendship’ with Pakistan and supplying the latter with sophisticated military weaponry including the missiles and nuclear technology, has cropped up time and again when referring to security environment. China using water as a weapon to coerce India has also created a negative image in India, albeit it largely remains the creation of media hype. Conversely, China has also accused India of meddling in its internal affairs by encouraging the Dalai Lama to engage is separatist activities, and also by fishing in the troubled waters of South China Sea on the one hand and coming closer to the US, and Japan for containment of China on the other. The joint statement signed during Singh-Obama meeting in US on 28th September that envisages closer defense and strategic ties, and India’s decision to participate in the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises in 2014 would certainly ruffle some feathers in Beijing.

Nevertheless, despite of all the negativity and an element of competition, the bilateral ties are robust. Both have acknowledged that the global political architecture is undergoing a fundamental transformation with balance of power gradually shifting from the Atlantic to Pacific. The notion of Nehru’s ‘resurgent Asia’ and Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Asian Century’ seems to hold ground, however, the future these notions would largely depend on the relationship between India and China, for the relationship will not only define the contours of new international political order in Asia but also the world at large.

(The writer, Dr. B. R Deepak is Professor of China studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. email: )

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