A chance to narrow India-China differences

Does China view ties with India as conditioned by its tense relationship with the U.S., or its growing links with Pakistan?

Updated - November 17, 2021 02:32 am IST

Published - August 12, 2016 01:03 am IST

Ahead of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to New Delhi, officials at the >Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) are taking stock of the precarious state of India-China relations . The assessment has taken place through brainstorming sessions chaired sometimes by the Foreign Secretary directly, or coordinated by the MEA’s Policy, Planning and Research Division. Indian diplomats say the meetings are not pegged to Mr. Wang’s visit alone, but are meant to address a growing view among foreign policy elites that the Modi government has tilted too close to the U.S., at the cost of its relationship with Beijing.

The Foreign Ministry’s efforts to frame the relationship through some discernible parameters should be appreciated. But some of the disagreements between the two countries are grounded in the politics of the region and are intractable. China’s assertiveness, which has been amplified by the South China Sea (SCS) arbitral award, is a sign that Beijing now feels constrained by post-War international regimes put in place by the U.S. Maritime incidents are but one indication.

At the World Trade Organisation (WTO), China has been fighting a protracted battle for receiving “market economy” status, which the U.S. is opposing on grounds of Beijing’s alleged dumping practices. The dispute raises the question whether the U.S. will use WTO rules it helped create to constrain the Asian giant’s exporting capacity. India should not volunteer to take sides in this fight. The U.S. has assessed China’s economic and military competitiveness to be a long-term threat, and wants to limit its rise. New Delhi, on the other hand, is largely concerned about its own economic prosperity and security.

The Pakistan question Unfortunately, Pakistan’s client-state relationship with China has complicated the picture. The Indian government believes that Beijing’s embrace of Islamabad has rendered Indian interests vulnerable. Some of these fears may be misplaced. Pakistan neither has institutional nor political reforms in place to be a receptacle for China’s economic schemes in the region. The military nexus that began with China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme continues, but is unlikely to transform the latter into India’s conventionally superior adversary.

The political signals emanating from China nevertheless give India room for concern. For the renminbi to get any bang for its buck, China should have trained its investments, and that of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), towards India. This has not happened. Instead, Beijing appears content to pump its money and infrastructure to Pakistan, Central Asia, and a few Southeast Asian countries, raising the possibility of encirclement rather than rent-seeking.

Above all, China’s singular insistence on treating India and Pakistan on an even keel at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Nuclear Suppliers Group betrays a lack of good faith. This will likely be relayed privately to Mr. Wang by his interlocutors in South Block during his visit.

With its statement on the SCS award, South Block has made it clear that it will not hesitate to comment on issues central to China. The decision to craft India’s statement was made well in advance of the award, which Indian diplomats concede was a direct consequence of China’s transgressions at the NSG plenary in Seoul. If Beijing misread the rising temperature in New Delhi, Mr. Wang’s visit should serve as an opportunity to clear the air. India’s NSG membership is a work in progress, and the consequences of the SCS verdict will endure.

In this respect, both India and China are trying to accommodate their interests by testing the flexibility of international regimes. This should open the space for mutual cooperation, not one-upmanship.

The G20 summit

Among other key issues raised during Mr. Wang’s visit will be China’s presidency of the G20 group, which will culminate in the summit at Hangzhou next month. As the G20 host, Beijing holds the pen to the group’s outcome statement. The summit has the potential to flare up, given that the U.S. will push strongly on matters concerning the SCS and WTO. Beijing’s handling of the summit will hold a candle to its reputation as a responsible power in the region.

Indian officials argue that China has been promoting its narrow interests in multilateral forums. They cite recent discussions on the sidelines of BRICS meetings, where Chinese diplomats have aggressively promoted the idea of the collective as a counterweight to the U.S.-led order. India is distinctly uncomfortable with pitching BRICS as an “anti-West” initiative. In meetings with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last month, Beijing nudged its allies into muzzling the group’s declarations on the South China Sea.

At the Russia-India-China foreign ministers’ trilateral meeting in April, China used the good offices of Moscow, the host, to draft a favourable statement on SCS. Then, India conceded in the false hope that China will respond positively on its NSG application. No such concessions can be expected any more from South Block, officials say. Mr. Wang will have to convince New Delhi that China’s G20 presidency will take the group’s agenda forward, rather than dragging the summit through its own concerns.

For his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be in attendance at Huangzhou, should be cautious in signing up to G20 language proposed by the U.S. to needle China. Just as Beijing will try to steer the G20 summit towards its own positions, the U.S. will exert pressure on the group to absorb its views on the WTO and the SCS. New Delhi would be wise not to be drawn into this war of words. Mr. Wang will be asked an all-important question on his arrival in India: whether China views ties with India as conditioned by its tense relationship with the U.S., or its growing economic and military links with Pakistan. His answer will be crucial to the future of the relationship.

Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

An earlier version of this article referred to Wang Yi as Mr. Yi. It should be Mr. Wang. The error is regretted.

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