Realism should shape India’s China policy: Jaishankar

External Affairs Minister bats for peace in his new book “The India Way”.

August 29, 2020 02:03 am | Updated 10:09 am IST - CHENNAI

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar presents the first copy of his book “The India Way” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Twitter/@DrSJaishankar

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar presents the first copy of his book “The India Way” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Twitter/@DrSJaishankar

Getting India’s China policy right will be “critical to India’s prospects” and doing so will require “going beyond traditional assumptions”, says External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in a new book.

Indian assessments of China’s rise and of the gap in comprehensive national power “should be objective about its prospects in comparison” but at the same time, “where tested, it is essential to stand one’s ground,” argues Mr. Jaishankar in The India Way , a book that will be released on September 4.

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Turning point

A chapter of the book analyses in detail the twists and turns in the history of India’s relations with China and the road ahead for the relationship, and makes the case for the neighbours to seek an equilibrium as they manage their respective rises.

Mr. Jaishankar, a former Foreign Secretary, was India’s longest-serving Ambassador to China for four years, starting 2009. Drawing on his time in China, he describes 2009 as “the turning point in China’s current rise”, when “the combination of a global financial crisis, a change in the U.S. Administration, and the consequences of the Iraq war now no longer made it necessary to hide its light”. He sees China’s 18th Party Congress in 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power, as marking the start of another new era for China’s relations with India and the world.

The challenge India now faces, in his view, is “to manage a more powerful neighbour while ensuring its own rise”, and “in doing so, there must be an understanding on our part that this search for equilibrium is an infinite process”.

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“Some issues may be amenable to an early resolution but others may not,” he writes. “Today, the bottom line for the relationship is clear: peace and tranquillity must prevail on the border if the progress made in the last three decades is not to be jeopardized. The border and the future of ties cannot be separated.”

Global significance

This is a relationship, in Mr. Jaishankar’s view, that is now playing out on a global stage, and its future could ultimately “boil down to… whether each is sufficiently accommodative of the other’s rise”.

For India, this includes whether China will be open to India’s permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, while India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which “reflects both India’s arrival as a technology player” and which China has opposed, would be another such indicator.

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Recognition of the global significance of the relationship — and the need for both countries to find ways to accommodate the other — was one key driver, Mr. Jaishankar says, behind the two summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi. “What was different at Wuhan and Chennai was not just the intensity of the engagement,” he writes, “but its setting against the evolving global backdrop in which both have such an important role. The practice of leaders of India and China having geopolitical conversations ceased many decades ago. Its resumption could well be a sign of a different future”.

Border dispute

The Minister acknowledges that the past continues to cast a long shadow, and “the Chinese perhaps don’t realise how lasting the impact of the 1962 conflict has been on Indian public opinion”. The “loser” in the war, he writes, “was not just India but the relationship itself” with “every new border face-off” reviving those memories.

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On settling the boundary question, Mr. Jaishankar says that China going back on the positions taken by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, broadly suggesting a swap in western and eastern sectors, presents “a new conundrum”, with Beijing now “characterizing the eastern sector as the main area of dispute”.

Economic challenge

Mr. Jaishankar foresees “a sharper edge” to the economic component of the relationship, where “the initial advocacy in India of more trade with China has now given way to strong resentment at its one-sidedness”. The prospect of deeper economic collaboration, he argues, is by no means a foregone conclusion, with India reassessing an unequal trading relationship that has developed “without a semblance of reciprocity”. “Like the rest of the world,” he writes, “India too is finding it difficult to come to terms with a state capitalist model that has no precedent.”

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Regional connectivity is another area where both countries would, on the surface, have shared interests, but are coming to terms with negotiating different visions. He notes India is “comfortable with the connectivity contributions” of institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) where China “has a key role”, but less so with “unilateral enterprises”. India’s stand in May 2017, when it was the only major country to not attend China’s first Belt and Road Forum and it emphasised the importance of openness, transparency, and international norms, “led the global debate” on connectivity. “Since then,” he notes, “the global conversation on connectivity has expanded, much of it in line with India’s thinking.”

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As India navigates what will be “one of the most consequential relationships of our times” which “could determine the Asian century”, Mr. Jaishankar says it can look to contemporary China’s experience for some lessons — for instance, on how it dealt with different powers, by showing flexibility and not being wedded to past positions.

“At various times, it has concluded understandings with different powers to advance its rise,” he observes. “But emulating that is not easy for a polity like India that is characterised by greater consistency and caution. The objective is to create a better balance and working closely with converging interests. As China itself has demonstrated, working with others is an integral element of an upward trajectory. Only those who lack self-confidence will doubt the wisdom of doing so.”

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