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Next Steps In India-China Relations

Sometime during the fall this year Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit India as part of the agreed high level bilateral exchange. Xi, who also leads the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the country’s military as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), would be more powerful than his two predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Xi Jinping has recently unveiled his “thoughts on national defence” which include “not an inch of Chinese territory” will be given up, and if China fights a war it will be determined to win it.

An Indian delegation is soon to visit Beijing for the India-China strategic talks. Although nothing much is expected from the talks as India will have a new government in a few weeks’ time, at the same time it is good to have the established bilateral framework moving smoothly. The two countries with a billion plus population each have interests where they will continue to run into each other frequently.

The Chinese are watching the Indian elections keenly. The punters are putting their money on a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) victory with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the next Indian prime minister. China has some experience with Modi when he visited the country as Gujarat’s chief minister. But neither the Chinese nor does anybody else have a clear idea of Narendra Modi’s China policy or foreign policy. One thing is certain, however. The Americans would have to do some repair work with relations if Narendra Modi was to become prime minister. India-US relations are very important for Beijing to conduct relations with India.

Another issue the Chinese might probe with the Indian delegation off the table is the BJP’s manifesto which seeks a review of India’s “no first use” of nuclear weapons and “no use” of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country.

Electioneering rhetorics and party manifestos are not always taken seriously as when in power the party has to review these in the light of national interest. US President Bill Clinton called the Chinese leaders “butchers of Beijing” while campaigning for his first term. After he became president, however, Clinton became the strongest American promoter for close relationship with China.

To the contrary, nobody took the BJP manifesto seriously in 1994 which promised nuclear tests. When these tests took place in May 1997, all were taken aback.

During his campaign in north-east India BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi invited China for cooperation in development, but warned against territorial expansion (along the India-China border). Obviously in the context of the upcoming visit of the Indian delegation as well as the elections China’s official English language daily the Global Times (Apr 10) carried an article titled “Solid foundations of Sino-Indian relationship critical in turbulent time”. This article does not offer anything new and messages are couched in such words that they can be withdrawn at any point of time.

The article, as is the trend in Chinese writings for some time now, admits that the two obstacles impeding bilateral relations are the boundary “conflict” and strategic distrust, and the two countries should seek common ground while shelving differences. The world “conflict” is used regarding the boundary issue when the message is to convey that the issue can become “unstable” or flare up.

The following in the article are of interest and require further examination: (i) New Delhi takes advantage of Washington and Tokyo to contain China’s rise, while being committed to strategic autonomy and basic principle of non-alliance, and (ii) India is in an unique position in China’s diplomatic agenda, and Sino-Indian ties of boosting multiple positive attributes.

China’s suspicion of India playing different games to contain Beijing through relations with Washington and Tokyo while maintaining a strategic ambiguity of non-alliance and independent foreign policy, comes through clearly. A surge in India-Japan relationship and talks in the area of defence after right wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in Japan is uncomfortable for China. These are inbuilt ghosts that China cannot get rid of.

A new element noticed in this article is a veiled warning. That is, because of Washington’s “pivot to Asia” strategy and Tokyo’s lurch to the far right, China is confronted with growing pressure along its eastern sea board. And China is aware that India is facing a complicated environment in South Asia and New Delhi is engaged strategically here. It is, therefore, conveyed that if India supports the US and Japan in western Pacific against China’s interest, Beijing is capable of making things difficult for India in South Asia.

For the good of India and China close economic cooperation and further opening India’s doors to Chinese investment is proposed, as well as collaboration in international issues pushing ahead a multi-polar world.

This is, perhaps, the closest that an article in the Chinese official media has come to indicate that Beijing has the confidence of using India’s neighbours against India. China-Pakistan closeness including in the field of nuclear weapons is well known. In Bangladesh they have the opposition BNP and its partners who are ever willing to execute the Pakistani line against India and in favour of China. China has made a lot of investment in Sri Lanka, but Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is a wily politician who may use the China card to an extent only. China’s friends in Nepal have their limitations, too.

India has economic and strategic interests in the countries of South East Asia and the Far East. Its Look East policy has begun to gather some momentum and has no anti-China content in it. New Delhi had always looked at Japan in a different way, and Japanese technology and investment are very necessary in India. Unfortunately, Beijing seems to see a threat in every move made by India which is of strategic interest to India – here strategic means a more comprehensive relationship including in defence and security fields, other than war. The one word that India has assiduously avoided in relation to countries of Asia-Pacific region is “war”.

India and China agreed to establish an India-China Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity when the earlier Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in 2005. This spirit has somehow gone into disuse, and replaced by ‘there is enough space in Asia for India and China to work’.

Till now, however, China has worked hard to keep India in a position of vulnerability be it India’s defence or strategic demands of the Indian people to be free of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) restrictions or its due place as permanent member of UN Security Council, among others. Building sea ports around India does not inspire confidence of friendship with China among the people of India, though various opinion polls conducted by international agencies show more people in India have friendly disposition towards China compared to Chinese people towards India.

Indian foreign policy towards China has generally been weak. Bilateral relations flourish when there is mutual respect. Post May 16, 2014 India will have to review its China policy, keeping national interest as the highest priority. Brushing of Chinese misdemeanors under the carpet will no longer do. Goodwill should not be in words only, it has to be seen also.

(The writer, Mr. Bhaskar roy is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail

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