Cautious optimism must govern media hype over the outcomes of Modi-Xi Jinping "Bromance" at Mahabalipuram in the South Asian regional context and international geopolitical context.
There are far too many irritants to resolve between the two nations, particularly irreconcilability of national values, outstanding border disputes, trade imbalances, etc. Let me in broad outline provide background perspective to the Mahabalipuram-Chennai informal summit, which is a follow through of the Wuhan informal Summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in the aftermath of Doklam crisis, wherein they exchanged views on bilateral relations and issues of mutual interests and agreed - to “cherish” the “positive momentum” generated and implement the “important consensus” reached to continue efforts to ensure peace and tranquility along the border and to resolve the border dispute.
Going back in time to 2014, the two leaders met in India and signed 12 agreements in Delhi, one of which will see China investing $20bn (£12.2bn) in India's infrastructure over five years. Other than photo opportunities, the agreements have remained on paper only except for maintaining "peace on the border". In particular, setting up industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra remains on the limbo. Also, giving more market access to India to products, including pharmaceuticals and farm products to bridge the trade deficit remains a distant dream.
Until date, Xi Jinping has also failed to enlist India’s support for the Belt and Road Initiative, 5G network rollout, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP) agreement that includes most of the Indo-Pacific economies. One of the biggest reasons for this is the concern that such an agreement will allow Chinese manufacturers greater access to the Indian market while Indian manufacturers and services exporters will continue to face hurdles selling to China.
Most important, the ties between India and China have now come under renewed tensions over Kashmir after a joint statement issued after talks between Xi and Khan: China is paying “close attention” to the situation in the Valley. It also said that Kashmir issue is a dispute left from history, and should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN Charter.
After Xi-Khan meeting, External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said India’s consistent and clear position has been that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the country and China is well aware of New Delhi’s position.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Ambassador, Sun Weibo, stated “China pose no threat to India” and "new set of consensus" including "guiding principles" on the development direction of bilateral ties between the two nations are expected to emerge from two-day informal summit beginning Friday. Furthermore, the envoy said as the largest developing countries and emerging economies of the world, China and India have a responsibility to inject positive energy into a “complicated world”. “We believe that the Summit will take bilateral relations to a higher level and have a major and positive impact on regional and world peace, stability and development,” Sun said. “The two countries pose no threat but offer development opportunities to each other. The cooperation between China and India will not only contribute to each other’s development, but also advance the process of world multi-polarization and economic globalization and safeguard the common interests of developing countries,” Sun said.
However, feasibility of resolving the deadlock in Sino Indian relations considering China’s support to Pakistan over the current Kashmir imbroglio in the aftermath of revocation of Article 370 and 35 on August 5, 2019 is quite remote.
After all, in the latest meeting between Xi Jinping and Imran Khan, Xi emphasized that ‘Pak-China friendship unbreakable, rock-solid.” To expect Xi to do a volte face to befriend India is a forlorn hope in short term context.
In the past, strategic think tanks on either side held out hopes of diplomatic breakthroughs in forging Sino-Indian friendship whenever the Heads of the two nations held Summit talks or met on the sidelines of various international and regional forums.
In retrospect, the fundamental issue to reconcile is the clash of national values. China is a ‘totalitarian’ state, which is homogenous socially. In contrast, India is a democracy and a multi cultural society full of contradictions and controversies. Both nations understand the significance of irreconcilability of fundamental values.
Yet another key issue to resolve is Chinese view of outstanding border disputes as ‘accidents of history’. Relations have been tense ever since a border dispute led to a full- scale war in 1962, armed skirmishes in 1967 and 1987 and series of border clashes in recent past. There are currently 14 areas under dispute - eight in the Western sector and six in the Eastern sector viewed as the most important disputed areas- shift from the past.
Deng’s offer of status quo resolution in 1984 was a missed opportunity. Now, the Chinese believe that a border settlement, without major Indian territorial concessions, could potentially augment India’s relative power position, and thus impact negatively on China’s rise.
Recently, there has been a change in China's position from solving the border dispute "immediately" as opposed to "ultimately" in 1982-83, stating that it was a complicated issue and would be solved by the next generation. While Chinese insist on the return of Tawang (the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama) on religious grounds, Indians seek the return of the sacred Mount Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet.
Since December 1981, border negotiations having been endlessly going between Joint Working Groups followed by Expert Groups and Special Representatives meetings. Yet, there have been no resolution in sight.
An unsettled border provides China the strategic leverage to keep India uncertain and ensuring New Delhi’s “good behavior” on issues of vital concern to China.
Furthermore, unless and until Beijing succeeds in totally pacifying and ‘Sinicizing’ Tibet (as Inner Mongolia has been), China does not want to give up the “bargaining chip” that an unsettled boundary visa- à-vis India provides.
Next, resource scarcity in the twenty-first century has now added a maritime dimension to the traditional Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry. As India and China’s energy dependence on the Middle East and Africa increases, both are actively seeking to forge closer defense and security ties with resource-supplier nations, and to develop appropriate naval capabilities to control the sea lanes through which the bulk of their commerce flows.
China’s military alliances and forward deployment of its naval assets in the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Myanmar’s ports would prompt India to respond in kind by seeking access to ports in Vietnam (Cam Ranh Bay), Taiwan (Kao-hsiung), and Japan (Okinawa), which would allow for the forward deployment of Indian naval assets to protect India’s East Asian shipping and Pacific Ocean trade routes, as well as access to energy resources from the Russian Sakhalin province.
In sum, the geo strategic dilemmas are, therefore, real for both nations. Both see Asia’s rise on the world stage as bringing about the end of Western dominance. Neither power is comfortable with the rise of the other. Both are locked in a classic security dilemma. If one country sees its own actions as self-defensive, the same appears aggressive to the other country.
China’s Asia policy wants to maintain its status as the Asia-Pacific’s sole “Middle Kingdom.” As an old Chinese saying goes, “one mountain cannot accommodate two tigers.” Checkmated in East Asia by three great powers— Russia, Japan, and the United States— Beijing has long seen South and Southeast Asia as its spheres of influence and India as the main obstacle to achieving its strategic objective of regional supremacy in mainland Asia.
In contrast, India never played second fiddle to China culturally and historically. India too perceives itself as the dominant power of South Asia region. So, India views the Sino-Pakistani nexus, in particular, besides its foray’s into Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Indian Ocean region as hostile and threatening in nature – the ever increasing ‘string of pearls’ tightening the noose around it. India’s “East Look Policy”, QUAD alliance and others are real.
At the heart of Sino-Indian antagonism is also the Indian belief that China is seeking to deny India its proper stakes in the game of international politics. That China does not want India to emerge as an equal is evident from its opposition to India’s membership in the P- 5 (UN Security Council), N- 5 (Nuclear Club), ASEM (Asia- Europe Summit), APEC (Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation), and EAS (East Asia Summit).
Even if the territorial and maritime disputes are resolved, China and India would still retain a competitive or adversarial relationship. Therein lays the root cause of volatile/strained relationship: India’s strategic analysts have long emphasized the need to keep up with China militarily.
China and India, however, share remarkable similarities in economic outlooks and policies. Both are focusing on increasing comprehensive national strength on a solid economic- technological base. Both are major competitors for foreign investment, capital, trade, resources, and markets. Burgeoning economic ties between the worlds’ two fastest-growing economies have become the most salient aspect of their bilateral relationship... Many Indians see China as predatory in trade and look with worry at China’s robust growth rates, fearing getting left behind.
Today, China is economic super power what with its GDP nominal at $14.2 trillion (2019 est.); and GDP PPP at $27.3 trillion (2019 est.) far ahead of USA in PPP at $20.50 trillion in 2018. But the current trade war impasse between the two nations has slowed their growth prospects. India lags far behind China in almost all economic parameters what with its GDP nominal at $2,199 (2019 est.) and GDP PPP at $8,484 (2019 EST.). However, the trade between India and China compels both nations to behave like normal neighbors — allowing trade and investment and promoting people- to-people contact.
Bilateral trade between China and India touched US$89.6 billion in 2017-18, with the trade deficit widening to US$62.9 billion in China's favor. India still remains an attractive market to exploit. And, India needs to bridge the trade gap. Thus, both nations have a compelling need to cooperate with each other in pursuit of respective national economic interests. In the past, the Chinese side had agreed to import as much of its requirement of value added goods from India as possible. Yet, the trade deficit has only widened.
Finally, Sino-Indian defense ties were institutionalized in 2007 with the establishment of an Annual Defense Dialogue and by conducting three bilateral defense exercises since 2007. However, the PLA remains concerned with persistent disputes along China’s shared border with India and the strategic ramifications of India’s rising economic, political, and military power.
In sum, the two Asian heavyweights are vulnerable to deterioration in relations. As India grows outwardly, the two giants are beginning to rub shoulders in different parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The existing asymmetry in international status and power serves Beijing’s interests very well; any attempt by India to challenge or undermine China’s influence or to achieve strategic parity is strongly resisted through a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic means.
For the foreseeable future, India-China ties will remain fragile and as vulnerable as ever to sudden deterioration as a result of misperceptions, postures, accidents, and eruption of unresolved issues. Simmering tensions over territory, overlapping spheres of influence, resource scarcity, and rival alliance relationships ensure that relations between the two rising Asian giants will be characterized more by competition and rivalry than cooperation for along time to come. Time is now approaching fast for significant new geopolitical realignments.
In the short to medium term, neither New Delhi nor Beijing will do anything that destabilizes their bilateral relationship or arouses the suspicions of their smaller Asian neighbors. Their efforts will be aimed at consolidating their power and position while striving to resolve more pressing domestic problems. Nonetheless, a pro-U.S./pro-Japan tilt in India’s national security policy— a reaction to the power-projection capabilities of China— will be a defining characteristic of an increasingly globalized India.
In the long term, neither Indian nor Chinese defense planners can rule out the possibility of a renewed confrontation over Tibet, Kashmir, Myanmar, or in the Indian Ocean. A Sino-Indian rivalry in southern Asia and the northern Indian Ocean (especially the Malacca Straits) may well be a dominant feature of future Asian geopolitics of the twenty-first century, which could force their neighbors to choose sides. While they are competitors for power and influence in Asia, China and India also share interests in maintaining regional stability (for example, combating the growing Islamic fundamentalist sector), exploiting economic opportunities, maintaining access to energy sources and markets, and enhancing regional cooperation.
In sum, hawkish posturing by neither side is detrimental to the others security. As the Prime Minister stated recently, “there is adequate space both for China and India” to co-exist in peace. Since both are ancient civilizations with over 5000 years of peaceful co-existence, both should pursue a mature course in their relations instead of falling into the trap of mutual acrimony, interference in each others internal affairs and warlike confrontation, which may suit the outside powers national security interests.