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‘The Elusive Tipping Point: China-India Ties for a New Order’ review: An equilibrium with China

India’s relations with China stand at a crossroads after the border crisis of 2020. Where relations are headed, and whether the post-1988 model that saw both countries shelve differences over the border and seeks commonality in other areas is still valid, remain the subject of much debate in New Delhi. (In Beijing, there appears to be some reluctance in acknowledging relations have indeed come to a crossroads, with officials insisting that the basic pattern of ties is unchanged — a view that has few takers in India.)

The Kashmir angle

The search for an equilibrium, which P.S. Suryanarayana describes as the search for “a positive tipping point”, is the subject of his new book. A researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and formerly a long-time foreign correspondent of The Hindu based in Singapore and earlier in Islamabad, Suryanarayana has put together a collection of 10 essays, presented as separate chapters that examine stand-alone issues in the relationship, from the past to the future.

While ostensibly a book on India-China ties, it heavily focuses on the role of a third country in this relationship: Pakistan. The author’s basic argument is that finding a happy equilibrium will not be possible until there is some sort of understanding with the third player in this equation.

The book provides a deep account of how Kashmir figures in this three-way dynamic. Recent China-Pakistan developments, the author suggests, don’t bode very well for the India-China front. Indeed, it is the deepening China-Pakistan relationship that may well be driving the recent downturn in ties with China.

Turning point

Suryanarayana sees 2015 as a turning point. The Narendra Modi government coming to power in 2014 had generated much positivity in Beijing that with “two strong leaders” at the helm, both sides might be better placed to make headway on intractable issues such as the boundary question. In the author’s view, the “promise turned into a mirage” because of two events. In 2015, he writes, China’s President Xi Jinping “took Islamabad firmly under his wings” with the launch of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that came soon after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China. The Doklam border crisis would follow two years later.

CPEC, he suggests, underlines the primacy of the Kashmir issue and its inextricable link to broader security dilemmas. After the Pulwama attack in 2019, he notes, Beijing and Islamabad would agree “to take forceful measures” to safeguard CPEC. This has seen raised stakes for Beijing in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. “It was clear that China adopted from the beginning a proactive military posture to protect CPEC assets in disputed Gilgit-Baltistan,” he writes, which suggests “a new complexity may complicate the security dynamics of the China-India-Pakistan triangle”.

The author argues that to arrive at a bilateral equilibrium would require finding a way to better accommodate the other’s core interests. For India, he writes, this includes Delhi’s “quest for political détente and peaceful coexistence” on the basis of “mutual and equal security”, balanced economic relations, and China’s acceptance of India in international institutions including the UNSC and Nuclear Suppliers Group, among others. China, on the other hand, seeks continued perpetuation of its sovereign control over Tibet, a ‘One-China Policy’ vis-à-vis Taiwan, limited depth in India-U.S. ties, and retention of “asymmetric advantages” over India. Reconciling these interests may indeed be a tall order. A “tipping point” would become “less elusive” in his view if “India could improve its comprehensive national strength”. Until then, Beijing might see less incentive to seek an accommodation and the current state of uncertainty may endure.

The Elusive Tipping Point: China-India Ties for a New Order; P.S. Suryanarayana, World Scientific, $88.

ananth.krishnan@thehindu.co.in


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