The Beijing balancing act

In tandem: “Over the past several years, leaders of both countries have seen it in their mutual interest to keep relations on an even keel.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi.  

>Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s August 11-13 visit to India was closely watched for clues on the current state of India-China relations and the outlook going forward. There are two forthcoming multilateral summits, the >G-20 summit hosted by China in September and the BRICS summit hosted by India in November. Neither country would like the summit it is hosting to be overshadowed by bilateral differences. Therefore, at the very least, both need to downplay their differences and seek to create a positive ambience for the forthcoming summits in whose success each has a stake as host country. Mr. Wang’s visit does appear to have achieved that.

Putting mechanisms in place

On the vexed issue of China’s opposition to India’s membership of the >Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), it was agreed that a focussed dialogue take place between the Indian Joint Secretary dealing with disarmament and international security and China’s Director-General of Arms Control and Disarmament. On other issues having a bearing on bilateral relations, another mechanism has been established between the Indian Foreign Secretary and his Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. This appears to be in addition to the existing annual Strategic Dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level and the regular Special Representatives dialogue which, in the past, has gone beyond the mandate of border negotiations. One presumes that the issue of China’s >“technical hold” on the listing of Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammad leader, as a terrorist at the United Nations, and Chinese activities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) under its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative will be on its agenda.

It is unlikely that China will materially change its stand on these outstanding issues but the proposed dialogue creates a more propitious ambience for the forthcoming summits. Since these dialogue mechanisms are engaged with these contentious issues, the leaders themselves need not have to deal with them beyond generalities. At least that would be the Chinese expectation. For the Chinese, summit meetings are expected to be orchestrated encounters where leaders avoid unpleasant exchanges and project all that is positive in the relationship. One has learnt from Chinese friends that both at Ufa last year and Tashkent this June, Chinese President Xi Jinping was unprepared for the blunt talking and persistent airing of differences by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Wang would have wanted to ensure that forthcoming leadership meetings do not cause discomfort to his boss.

China is faced with a complex and deteriorating political and security situation in its Asia-Pacific periphery. The categorical and entirely negative arbitration award against China over its claim to the South China Sea — handed in July by a tribunal constituted under the provisions of the >UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — is a major setback for Beijing. Its relations with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) are now under unprecedented strain. To add to its woes, the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence system by the U.S. in South Korea has led to a worsening of relations with a neighbour with which China has, over the years, assiduously nurtured close political, economic, commercial and even cultural relations. (Korean pop music is extremely popular in China.)

These are new and adverse developments even while the U.S. and Japan continue to be perceived as major security threats to China in the region. Against this background, China would want to keep its western periphery with India relatively stable and benign. It is for this reason that Chinese official media has persisted with the message that there is no fundamental clash of interests between the two countries and that their convergences outnumber their differences.

There is anxiety that India may move closer to the U.S. and participate in security arrangements more directly challenging China in the >South China Sea. Beijing has cautioned that India should avoid getting “entangled” in the South China Sea issue, but there is also an expectation that it will continue to adhere to its stated policy of strategic autonomy. In fact, India’s reaction to the tribunal award has been measured, calling for utmost respect for the UNCLOS but also stressing the need for resolving differences through peaceful dialogue. It is reported that Mr. Wang did not raise the South China Sea issue in Delhi. This appears to confirm the view that China’s current preoccupation is to prevent India from escalating its stand on this issue. China expects that at the forthcoming G-20 summit at Hangzhou, the U.S. and its western allies and Japan may raise the South China Sea issue and embarrass the host country. India’s role could prove to be significant in this regard. That gives India a tactical advantage and this may well have been the reason for Mr. Wang to appear forthcoming on issues India is concerned about. I doubt whether China will change its substantive stance on these issues any time soon.

New Delhi’s reality check

In dealing with China, India has to be conscious of the fact that in terms of both economic and military capabilities, the asymmetry between the two countries continues to expand. >China’s economy is five times as large as India’s and even with slower rates of growth China will be adding more muscle from a larger base while India will have to grow much faster over a longer period of time to begin to narrow the gap. There are only two ways to deal with this power asymmetry; one is to acquire and deploy capabilities which will make any aggressive military move by China a risky proposition. The other is to enmesh oneself more tightly in the U.S.-led countervailing coalition targeting China. The latter does run counter to India’s view of itself as an independent power but there is a steady creep in that direction.

In terms of developing asymmetrical capabilities, my sense is that we are not quite there and remain vulnerable. This vulnerability increases if there is a coordinated move by China and Pakistan. In previous India-Pakistan wars, post-1962, China supported Pakistan politically and with supplies but refrained from attacking India across the border. This reassuring pattern of behaviour needs to be under our constant review and assessment. China’s willingness to stand alone in blocking India’s membership of the NSG on behalf of Pakistan, and in shielding it from international pressures consequent upon its use of cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy against India, point to an enhanced strategic role for Pakistan in Chinese regional and global calculations. Pakistan has so far been important to China as a low-cost and effective proxy against India. It is now becoming important for China’s ambitious OBOR project, which is long term in nature. It is also assuming importance in China’s Central Asian strategy. No surprise therefore that China is reported to be encouraging the Pakistan Army to take charge of implementing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) since the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif is said to be too slow on delivery.

With Mr. Modi now explicitly committed to the return of PoK including Gilgit and Baltistan to India, how would the Chinese react? Without Pakistani control over this disputed territory there would be no CPEC. If India additionally encourages anti-Pakistan militants in Balochistan, this would adversely affect the utility of Gwadar port, another key link in the OBOR. China would at least be under pressure to assuage heightened anxieties in Islamabad, and this may have a negative fallout on India-China relations.

The setting for managing India-China relations has become more complex and risky. Over the past several years, leaders of both countries have seen it in their mutual interest to keep relations on an even keel despite their essentially adversarial nature. A careful balance has been maintained between the competitive and cooperative components of the relationship. This has just got much harder to deliver.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries, and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 7:09:59 AM |

Next Story