The limits to Sino-Indian understanding

Anniversaries are occasions for expression of togetherness and the friendly and cordial greetings between India and China this week should come as no surprise. The 60-th anniversary of diplomatic relations between two countries is indeed a landmark in the bilateral ties.

The celebrations are noticeably forward-looking and the 4-day visit by the Indian foreign minister S. M. Krishna to Beijing on Monday may give fresh impetus to the Sino-Indian relations. Especially as the two countries have just put behind a period of recrimination.

India and China may be moving to manage their differences in a more cooperative fashion. There seems to be a mutual desire that their considerable differences should not jeopardize their relationship.

India and China are both intensely conscious that they face a highly volatile regional environment. The United States has established a military presence in the Central Asian region on a long-term footing. Indeed, the “reset” of US-Russia ties is under way while tensions have appeared in Sino-American relations and, clearly, the talk about a G-2 has been far too premature. In South Asia, too, the US intends to keep a long-term military presence. Pakistan is its key ally and the two sides are talking about a strategic partnership that looks beyond the imperatives of the Afghan war. Indeed, any forceful US-NATO thrust into Central Asia will be hard to realize without Pakistan’s cooperation. Also, the US-Iran standoff enters a dangerous phase and Pakistan’s role assumes significance.

In return, Pakistan hopes to extract US recognition of its aspirations as a regional power on par with India. What is less obvious is that the US’s regional strategy is aimed at containing China and Pakistan’s willingness to play a role in it becomes critically important.

Meanwhile, the tensions in India-Pakistan relations show no signs of abating and Delhi is called upon to adjust to the geopolitical reality that the US regional strategy accords a key role to Pakistani military.

There is uneasiness in Delhi about the stepping up of US arms assistance to Pakistan. And Washington’s reluctance to cooperate with India’s fight against Pakistani military’s alleged support of terrorism, its inclination to reconcile the Taliban in the power structure in Kabul and its invitation to the Pakistani military to help out in the “stabilization” of Afghanistan are also causes of concern in Delhi.

The mood in Delhi is one of dismay and disappointment that the high expectations of the US-India strategic partnership during the period since 2005 have failed to materialize under US president Barack Obama’s watch. The India-US nuclear deal of 2008, which was the high water mark of the strategic partnership, is proving difficult to implement.

Washington is yet to do away with restrictions on transfer of dual-use of technology to India. The US follows a selective approach to tackling terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil by focusing on what hurts its homeland security and its overseas facilities and personnel.

Unsurprisingly, some rethink in the Indian policies has become inevitable. Already it is evident that Delhi is determined to give new vitality to its strategic understanding with Moscow. Signs of a new approach to cooperation with Iran may be appearing. Delhi views the SCO with renewed interest.

The criticality of the Afghan situation has doubtless prompted Delhi to reach out like-minded countries in the region so as to build up a consensus of opinion against a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. The US strategy toward reintegration and reconciliation with the Taliban is viewed with skepticism in Delhi. The Indian statement at the United Nations Security Council on March 18 cautioned the international community against the perils of reintegration of the Taliban.

India and China have a congruence of interests in preventing the radicalization of the region. Suffice to say, therefore, that the geopolitical context of India-China relationship has lately undergone a big transformation and for a variety of reasons Krishna’s visit to China at the present juncture arouses interest.

In a major speech in Delhi last week, the Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon outlined the government’s thinking on relations with China. He said:

- An Asian identity is emerging in the world order and as was shown at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, “India-China relations have global significance.”

- There is continued validity in the approach that while the difficult and complicated boundary question remains unresolved, expansion of relations and functional cooperation needs to be advanced.

- Indeed, the two countries “have found a modus vivendi to deal with the fact of the boundary issue and to manage their different approaches to issues where their peripheries overlap.”

- Differences in world-view, structure, systems and foreign policy decision making need not come in the way of an expanding engagement between India and China and the two countries can successfully manage contradictions while building on congruence.

- The bilateral relations are “too important to be affected” by the relations with any third country.

- “India and China both cooperate and compete at the same time because of their interests and how they perceive the balance of power and situation around them.”

- Time is opportune to actively consider together the next steps in the evolution of India-China ties so as to “seize the opportunities for cooperation that the domestic transformations of our economies and the evolving global situation have opened up.”

- The global trend toward multipolarity and a more even distribution of power is accelerating and this has “increased the opportunity and need for India and China to work together on global issues.”

Menon concluded:

“In the immediate region in which both countries are located…there is common ground between India and China on combating terrorism and extremism, enhancing maritime security, and on the need for a peaceful environment… While there may be differences in method and choice of tools, in most cases there is a marked similarity of goals. Naturally, the bilateral modus vivendi which has been in place for some time may need to be reworked periodically in the light of developments.”

These stirrings of creative thinking underscore that the elements of competition in the bilateral relationship can be managed and the elements of congruence can be built upon. It gives cause for optimism.

Equally, however, the contradictions cannot be wished away. China’s relationship with Pakistan continues to be viewed with deep-rooted suspicion in the Indian public opinion. Historically, the relationship drew verve from the two countries’ adversarial stances vis-à-vis India. Chinese scholars insist that during the recent decade, China’s policy towards Pakistan has changed.

True, a more balanced Chinese stance on Kashmir is apparent. Again, China’s cooperation with Pakistan is not necessarily India-centric. China is troubled by the presence of Uighur militant elements on Pakistani soil; China is contending with an unprecedented US military presence in Pakistan; China competes for a share of Pakistan’s growing market for its exports and as a destination for investment; and least of all, Pakistan provides a potential access route to the Persian Gulf region for China that would reduce its dependence on the Malacca Strait, which is under US control.

Second, sections of Indian opinion remain critical about growing Chinese presence in the economies of India’s south Asian neighbors – Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives – and tend to interpret the Chinese initiatives toward these countries as invariably directed against India.

Finally, there is the backlog of the Tibet issue and there is disquiet in India regarding the Chinese military build-up. Overriding all this will be the trajectory of US-India military cooperation and the shadows that it may cast on the complicated regional security environment in Asia and in the so-called “global commons”, which will be of keen interest to the rising China as it grapples with the US’s containment strategy.

The fact of the matter is that the US loses no opportunity to fish in the troubled waters of India-China relationship. Conversely, the US has everything to lose if the two Asian giants come together on a shared platform and coordinate their stance on global issues.

In a nutshell, the US policy in the recent years has been to string India along by playing on the one hand on its fears of a “revanchist” China while on the other hand pampering India’s own vanities and dreams as an emerging power on the global scene.

The American arms manufacturers also have their own lobby in Delhi. Quite clearly, the influential pro-US lobby in India has played a role in orchestrating Chinaphobia in the Indian discourses. It pays to build up Chinaphobia in order to make out a smart case for India to cement its military-to-military cooperation with the US.

However, for the present moment, it may seem the growing disenchantment in Delhi with the US’s regional policies has engendered a favorable backdrop for India’s interaction with China.

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