India and China are poised at the crossroads to shape reordering global order in various fields. The window of opportunity is available for both Modi and Xi to sink past distrust and acrimony and traverse on a mutually advantageous and inclusive strategic partnership
Are India-China relations heading for significant strategic breakthroughs considering the rapid pace of diplomatic exchanges that have taken place in 2018? Ipso facto, the ongoing China-US trade conflict consequent to Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy opens a window of opportunity for both China and India to “reset or recalibrate” their relations to reshape the old international political and economic order. However, both nations will have to overcome Western pressure on issues like trade and intellectual property rights.
The high stakes geopolitics in a multipolar world is quite dynamic and complex. Great powers need to balance their relations with each other in pursuit of peace and stability so vital for their national interests. After all, “today’s friends can be tomorrows enemies; and today’s enemies can be tomorrows friends” as mankind’s history abundantly testifies.
At stake is the future of 2.5 billion people – almost 40% of global population. Peace and stability are vital to sustain progress in both countries. Strategic confrontation is harmful to people of both countries interests. None should rule out the possibility of China-India-Russia strategic partnership, which can be a real game-changer in regional and international affairs.
Ipso facto, the new strategic framework must be based on mutual cooperation and collaboration to reform old global order. To do so, both need to shed their mutual “seize mentality and hostility”.
Many conflicts between China and India in the past broke out due to a lack of trust or at the Western instigation, like so-called dragon-elephant competition or rivalry. The Indo-Pacific strategy is an explicit attempt to rope in India against China. But the strategy hasn"t brought India any strategic benefit except to trigger vigilance between New Delhi and Beijing. Even now, it suits Western strategic interests to ensure China and India to confront each other, particularly from military arms sale angle.
In the past, Xi Jinping is on record: “If we speak with one voice, the whole world will listen.” China believes that the interests of both countries are mutually intertwined, and hence “mutual respect” is especially important. Like with the USA, China wants India to respect each other’s core interests, concerns and choice of the path of development. India too wants China to reciprocate on its strategic interests.
Engaging the Dragon
Let me briefly review the flurry of diplomatic activity between India and China that lends hope for posterity. To recall, Modi and Xi had met in Xiamen on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in September 2017, to revive ties that had been hit by the Doklam border crisis that ushered the formal end of the 72-day stand-off between the two armies. As a follow-up to these talks, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang had visited New Delhi in December 2018.
The latest scheduled Xi-Modi meeting can be as significant as the one in 1988 when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi met in the mid-1980s. If Xi and Modi demonstrate sanguine and sagacious statesmanship qualities, they can certainly “reset” ties with far-reaching strategic ramifications on the global plane what with the global order in dynamic flux due to Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy.
On 23-24 February 2018, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale held talks at Beijing with top Chinese officials - State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, as well as Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou - on advancing ties between India and China. Followed on 6 April 2018, visit by Kong to Delhi and meeting also with Indian NSA, Ajit Doval. The Indian defence minister and national security adviser also recently visited China in succession.
The latest is the visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Beijing and her meeting with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and the announcement that Modi and Xi will meet in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on April 27-28 to improve bilateral relations with a focus on globalisation and the threat of rising protectionism.
Most important are the statements issued following diplomatic exchanges at the highest level and reviews of Chinese columnists appearing in Global Mail and People’s Daily. One can expect breakthroughs in fields with the convergence of interests particularly in trade and globalization issues.
For example, Wang Yi addressed a joint Press briefing with Sushma Swaraj. Calling the two nations "natural cooperation partners", Wang Yi said their common interests far outweigh their disputes. "It is an inevitable choice of the two countries to stick to long-term friendship, mutually beneficial cooperation and common development." Wang Yi highlighted socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, while India is at a critical period for its development and rejuvenation – hard and irrefutable facts.
Wang Yi also stated, “Xi and Modi will have strategic communication on the world"s profound changes, and exchange, in an in-depth manner, views on overall, long-term and strategic issues regarding China-India relations.” "The two countries should take the opportunity of the leaders" meeting to cement strategic trust, deepen substantial cooperation, properly settle disputes and realize common development, therefore contributing to regional and world peace and development," Wang said while holding talks with Swaraj.
At the joint press briefing, Wang said the two countries would enhance coordination on the SCO platform, and work together for fruitful outcomes of the upcoming SCO summit in east China"s coastal city of Qingdao in June, with China taking the rotating chair.
As per Wang Yi, Xi-Modi meeting is bound to help deepen mutual trust between the two leaders, make a strategic judgment on the world pattern and China-India relations, and guide the two countries to set new goals and open up new prospects for the bilateral ties. "This not only benefits the two countries and peoples, but will also exert significant and positive influence on regional and world peace and development," he said.
Most important to note is the statement of Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang that the two leaders are expected to “exchange views on overarching long-term strategic issues as well as the latest trends of the world so that the world will develop in a more stable way” faced with rampant unilateralism as well as the rising protectionism in the process of globalization.”
Hopefully, Indian academia, media and political circles agree to develop cooperative ties with China instead of indulging in Modi-bashing. Dalai Lama latest statement “past is Past; Tibet can remain part of China”, provides scope politically for Modi to achieve breakthroughs on border talks without political fallout and backlash on the domestic front. Within China, hostility toward India is being replaced by hopes for friendly ties. Both China and India share many common interests in international affairs.
"Sky is the Limit” for sustainable strategic partnerships
Let me reiterate that “Sky is the Limit” for forging enduring and sustainable strategic partnerships, if the politically highly sensitive and emotive “border disputes” are resolved on quid pro quo basis.
Most critical is to abandon “Cold War” baggage of hostility, particularly the current ‘seize’ mentality. Geo-strategically, India believes that China has ‘hemmed in’ India from all sides: all-weather strategic partnership with Pakistan towards the West; driven a wedge with Nepal in the North; Myanmar and Bangladesh towards the East; Sri Lanka in South and the “String of Pearls” in the IOR; and strong foothold on the East African Coast; strategic containment of India from all around.
Furthermore, India views China’s opposition to UNSC and NSG memberships, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), blocking its bid to get Masood Azhar, the JeM Chief, declared as terrorist, trade imbalance, Tsangpo River water dispute and renewed support to ethnic separatist groups in the Northeast , as inimical to its national interests.
For China, the developing USA-Indo Strategic Partnership is a matter of concern. China apprehends that India may tilt towards the USA. In 1995, both USA and India took the initiative to develop political and strategic multilayered defence relations through the first Defense Framework Agreement and renewed in 2005 and 2015. The latest tilt is the Joint Vision statement following Modi-Obama talks that highlights many areas of congruence in the Indo-USA relations. Both agreed to fine-tune India’s Act East Policy with USA Asia-Pivot to rebalance Asia Pacific region, particularly concerning freedom of navigation and over flight in the South China Sea and the IOR. The most recent is the signing of the logistics agreement between the two countries.
India-China Silk Route Corridor
Some analysts suggest that India needs to work on its own counter strategy by offering a plan for a direct India-China Silk Route Corridor ( ICSRC) that could run along the traditional Ladakh-Xinjiang axis. The ICSRC could provide an alternate transport, energy, trade, fiber optics and communication highway that could originate from a port in Gujarat run across northern India to connect with Kashgar in western China through the Indus Valley in Ladakh. The initiative would have multiple advantages for both India and China without compromising on their respective security concerns.
In retrospect, the border dispute holds the key to future relations. The window of opportunity to settle the ‘border’ issue is now or never. If China is earnest in forging enduring strategic partnership with India in pursuit of neutralizing USA position in the IOR and also in the South China Sea region, it must resolve the “Border Dispute” on quid pro quo basis. If the border dispute remains unresolved, progress on trade, economic and social relations based on the principle of “cordiality of mutual relations based on Panchsheel” may remain unachievable proposition.
India has been forced to get entangled in the USA based strategic partnerships – “QUAD” or “federated defense.” If India is courting Washington to help balance their relationships with each other, it is but natural. Be that as it may, India must stop using the “QUAD” strategic initiative and others partnerships with western nations to checkmate China’s security interests.
Recognize both nations that their spheres of influence and interests overlap thus implying the imperative for mutual cooperation and collaboration instead of confrontation. If both nations earnestly attempt to forge friendly relations, it can tilt the world’s geopolitical balance.
However, neither Indian nor Chinese ‘Hawks’ rule out the possibility of a renewed confrontation over Tibet, Kashmir, Myanmar, or in the IOR. Militarily, China is strong on the Himalayan frontier; India is strong in the IOR region and enjoys a unique advantage by virtue of its geostrategic location, like a knife jetting into the heart of IOR. So, their rivalry in the IOR may well be a dominant feature of the future geopolitics of the 21stcentury, which could force their neighbours to choose sides.
Given China’s policy aims, intent and capability, China cannot afford to challenge India. While Beijing has the capabilities to venture out into the IOR, it cannot sustain its presence, especially in the event of a conflict. If so, both nations need to make fundamental shifts in their policy postures towards each other.
In short to medium term, neither New Delhi nor Beijing may do anything that destabilizes their relations. After all, China and India have “shared interests” in maintaining regional stability, exploiting economic opportunities, maintaining access to energy sources and markets, and enhancing regional cooperation. So, India and China must work together in areas of common interests, whether on climate change and WTO issues, in BRICS and the Russia-India-China format, at the G20 and SCO. Both countries have interests in reforming the international financial institutions.
In sum, both China and India are poised at the crossroads to shape reordering global order in various fields. The window of opportunity is available for both Xi and Modi to sink past distrust and acrimony and traverse on a mutually advantageous and inclusive strategic partnership paving the way for triad strategic alliance of India-China-Russia which offers the best hope for sustainable and enduring peace and stability not only on the Asian Continent , but also on the international plane.