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Pacing India-China Relations

Howsoever little, the forward movement on the border issue in the over all India-China relations may be appreciated. The recent visit of Gen. Qi Jianguo Deputy Chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to India (Apr 22-24), an Indian naval ship taking part in the PLA navy’s fleet review in Qingdao, Joint Working Group (JWG) bilateral meeting in Beijing, all add to positives in this relationship. Both sides have agreed to enhance military-to-military relationship to forge closer ties, and expand cooperation in various fields. This has particular relevance to the border issue especially transgressions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by troops of the other side.

Last year’s PLA’s incursion into the Indian side of the LAC in Depsang in the western sector, (pitching tents for three weeks) could have ruined an otherwise painfully and patiently constructed understanding between the two sides. At that point Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s maiden visit to India was also threatened. The matter was resolved at the political level, with India seeming to concede more. Anyway the situation was saved. Under the new border defence agreement more mechanisms are being put in place to avoid Depsang like situations in the future.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit India in the second half of the year, probably in September or October. By that time a new government would be in position in New Delhi. With change of governments in India, foreign policy does not undergo radical changes. In the last five years, however, there have been certain positions in the Indian foreign policy that demonstrated “obsequiousness” to the nation’s detriment.

Premier Li Keqiang’s visit last year did not yield much results. Of course, it was an exploratory visit to South Asia. In India, Li explored opportunities for Chinese business. From India Li went to Pakistan where he reassured Islamabad of China’s commitment and “all weather” friendship, underlining Beijing’s steadfast support to Islamabad’s defence and nuclear priorities.

President Xi Jinping will be coming to India in a somewhat different set of circumstances. Internal challenges in China are rising, and the problem with Uighur Islamic separatists/terrorists have become more acute in the last one year. Suicides and attempted suicides by Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people demonstrating against Chinese rule and demanding the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet have put the Chinese authorities on the back foot. Beyond these are external challenges especially rising opposition to its aggressive behavior on the eastern sea board on territorial claims.

China’s challenges are not going to blow away overnight, and it is in no mood to look at them with a fresh mind. At the same time, it cannot open another front of acrimony with India on the border. In fact, it would be in China’s interest to ensure a peaceful and stable border with India.

Under the circumstances, it would not be surprising if President Xi brings with him another agreement to further strengthen border management. If he intends to do so, bilateral discussions should start as early as June this year. China needs to demonstrate to the region and the world that it can walk the talk on such a contentious issue as the India-China border, and that they are reasonable interlocutors.

At the same time it would be unwise to have great expectations from Xi Jinping’s visit. From the Chinese point of view progress on the border issue is to maintain strategic stability to secure a peaceful environment. Nothing more. Resolution of the border issue is not in sight. Periodic statements from Beijing seeking an early resolution of the issue is mainly to keep alive hope and the atmospherics.

One of the problems that obstructs the resolution of the border issue is the presence of the 14th Dalai Lama in India. In China’s calculations even if the Dalai Lama passes away, an active Tibetan Diaspora will remain in India which has regular interactions with the pro-Tibetan groups abroad, especially in USA and other western countries. China sees this as a security challenge and even a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Beijing suspects India could join hands with the US in destabilizing Tibet, and hence high mistrust will remain.

China’s fervent wish is to see that India somehow eases out the Dalai Lama and dampens the spirit of the Tibetans both inside Tibet and abroad. If India attempts to do so it will be committing a major policy blunder with no retreat. One serious mistake was made in 2003 during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China, when New Delhi adjusted its position on Tibet autonomous region (TAR) to suit the Chinese position. What the Indian government hoped to get in return for this act namely the recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India has not come about. Nothing really changed including on the border. The best proposal on the border at the moment is to work on the peace and tranquility mechanism and put the issue in the deep freezer unless, of course the Chinese come up with a reasonable proposal in due course. In such a case Indian political parties must understand that there will have to be a give and take in territory without settled population and the Indian constitution amended suitably to accommodate.

On a wider horizon, some old problems between the two countries linger. China’s efforts to encircle India, albeit in a more sophisticated manner, continue. Its special relationship with Pakistan impresses it to continue nuclear cooperation which amounts to proliferation. India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) remains opposed by Beijing, which seeks to confer similar status to Pakistan as India in the nuclear field. There are several such issues where China’s counter move is a reality. This is perceived as China’s efforts to counter India.

India-China trade has no longer been attractive since export of iron ore was curbed in 2012. This was the biggest Indian export to resource hungry China. Bilateral trade fell from $ 74 billion in 2011 to $ 65.47 in 2013 (Chinese official figures). India’s trade deficit to China reached a record $ 31.4 billion in 2013.

Qualitatively also, India-China trade leave much to be desired from the Indian side. Beijing continues to block India’s pharmaceutical and computer software exports. China’s exports have reached the point where China is dumping shoddy goods in India. China’s main interest now is to enter the infrastructure and heavy industries sectors in India. A balance is urgently called for, but will China respond positively?

With China tending to major power status, the US having seemingly lost its unilateral power of influence, and India playing a role beyond the South Asia region, the global rules of strategic balance appear to be changing. China wants India’s foreign policy should remain neutral. It is, however, highly suspicious of an US-Japan-India unstated alliance to counter China. It is also disturbed by India’s growing relationship with Japan in the area of defence.

On the other hand US President Barack Obama’s recent (Apr. 2014) four nation tour to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines is perceived by China as the US strengthening its pivot to Asia more in military terms than economic terms. The enhanced security alliance with Japan and Obama’s clear statement in Tokyo that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in East China Sea falls within the US-Japan treaty, and the new 10-year agreement with Manila which will give US navy and air force greater access in the Philippines, are seen by Beijing as a return to the cold war. Beijing, however, is in no position to back off on the Diaoyu Islands and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as it has raised high expectations at home.

India is neatly positioned here to play a delicate diplomatic and strategic game to maximize its interests. Till now India has been overcautious in acting out a role in the larger region and even the global platform. China has been closely watching Indian moves and has kept India under pressure. Part of the pressure has been self-imposed by India. This is not to suggest that India should be aggressive. But at the same time it should not be a carpet to be walked over.

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

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