India tries to forge a new relationship with China

May 18, 2015 9:42 AM (UTC+8)

 

By M.K. Bhadrakumar

The visit by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China last week (May 14-16) was never going to be easy. Modi was hard-pressed to juggle his agenda of economic reinvigoration at home (“development agenda”) with his firmer assertion of India’s security interests. The balance sheet of his visit underscores the policy dilemma.

Modi has reason to feel relieved that he is not returning to India quite empty-handed. His travels abroad and wanderlust (visiting 18 countries in the past one year) is being criticized in India as wasteful, extravagant and bombastic, and largely unproductive from the country’s point of view, while his theatrical performances during visits abroad look jaded already to the Indian audience. Yet, this is one foreign visit where he could claim some business outcome.

After all, deals worth $22 billion were initialed, including substantial quantum of Chinese bank loans for Indian companies. This will be touted as a feather on Modi’s cap. But then, on closer examination, many of these documents are in the nature of MOUs (memorandum of understanding) that are non-binding in character. They are good for the optics, but may not get implemented.

Indeed, there has been no tangible progress on the ground on the proposals regarding two “industrial parks” to be set up in India by China, which were mentioned during the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India last September.  Nor is there any sign of Chinese involvement in India’s railway sector other than by way of technical cooperation. There is no sign of China embracing Modi’s “Make in India” plans, either. Clearly, issues relating to trade imbalance and India’s investment climate are impeding progress.

Having pledged $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor recently, and another $40 billion in the southeast Asian economies for infrastructure projects, Beijing may not be in a tearing hurry to make investments in India. There were no focused discussions on China’s “Belt and Road Initiatives” during Modi’s visit. The Indian officials disclosed that China never so far broached the “Belt and Road” with Delhi.

No substantial progress on the negotiations for a border settlement could be discerned, although the topic figured, as usual, for a “fair amount” of discussion. The Chinese side didn’t relent on the resumption of talks on the clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), presumably reflecting its apprehension that an agreed LAC might morph into a de facto boundary. The fact of the matter is that China is playing the long game on its territorial issues and is not in a mood to compromise with anyone. In India’s case, China will also wait and watch how India handles the election of the Dalai Lama’s successor, which is going to be a defining moment in the overall relationship.

So, for the present we have to make do with the small steps that the boundary negotiations offer and preserve the peace and tranquility on the disputed border. A few more confidence-building measures have been put in place during Modi’s visit, and there will be additional military-to-military exchanges. Period.

Equally, there has been no shift in China’s ambivalent stance on India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Of course, China refrains from endorsing India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, too.

The overall impression becomes unavoidable that as regards the core issues, India-China relationship is set to maintain its incremental advancement of the recent years (“stable development”, as the Chinese side puts it). In retrospect, the high hopes raised by Modi when he came to power were somewhat misplaced, although the rhetoric is still there – on Modi’s part, at least.

In the media briefings, the Indian side claimed that “there was an overall sense that we needed to move on the outstanding issues, but we also needed to develop a more positive narrative our relationship and to build higher levels of trust … today the relationship is poised at a very important juncture where there are possibilities of moving forward.” It does sound like so being near, and, yet, so far away. Clearly, the strategic distrust cannot be wished away.

Modi himself framed it this way: “I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing the full potential of our partnership. I suggested that China should take a strategic and long term view of our relations. I found the Chinese leadership responsive.” The surprising thing is that he spoke up at all on these lines. Why did he have to?

But the Chinese side went out of the way to reciprocate Modi’s personal enthusiasm for the Sino-Indian ties. President Xi Jinping himself received Modi in his hometown of Xian in a first-ever departure from the established Chinese practice of receiving foreign dignitaries.

They clocked something like four hours together in Xian, talking politics or simply chatting up and enjoying themselves with the sights and sounds of the ancient city. It was almost an accurate replay of the cordial reception that Modi accorded to Xi in his home state of Gujarat last September — native vegetarian cuisine, colorful pageantry, pleasant informality and so on. The Chinese wouldn’t quarrel with Modi’s pet thesis that close personal equations at the leadership level can make a qualitative difference to the normalization process.

But it is difficult to guage how far the Chinese really bet on Modi’s capacity to bring about a big transformation in the bilateral relationship, which is ridden with complexities. During the past one-year period in power, Modi hasn’t exactly lived up to his carefully cultivated image of being a “visionary.”

Arguably, a window of opportunity would have been there in the early months of the Modi government – and Beijing probably expected a breakthrough too, given the overtures it manifestly made to the new government in Delhi – but that window slams shut with the opposition regrouping in Indian politics and a combative edge reappearing lately. The main opposition Congress Party has alleged that Modi is compromising on India’s national interests in his dealings with China.

If the ruling party continues to face electoral reverses in the provincial elections, especially in the forthcoming election in the second biggest state of Bihar in autumn, Modi’s political standing could get seriously affected – and, indeed, his capacity to push through controversial decisions such as border settlement with China will be in serious doubt.

Of course, Modi has no magic wand to disperse the huge backlog of strategic distrust that has accumulated in the relationship. On top of it, the right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, which happen to be the mentors of the Modi government, deeply distrust China’s intentions – notwithstanding Beijing’s assiduous efforts to “cultivate” the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the recent years.

Modi has to contend with a formidable phalanx of institutional opposition to advance any transformative diplomacy vis-à-vis China. But, having said that, a degree of ambiguity always existed as to how far Modi himself would exert to marginalize these powerful forces arrayed against any flexible or pragmatic approach to China – or, to put it differently, whether he might not even be making use of them for his own purposes to create leverage and to impress the Chinese that India is not a pushover.

To be sure, India’s need for friendship and cooperation with China today outweighs China’s need to be seen holding India’s hand. Yet, the nationalist lobby is convinced that India should be in no great hurry to woo China and should instead settle for the “Long March.” Influential voices within the nationalist lobby even recommend an autarchic path for India’s development that would altogether dispense with the need of getting Chinese investment and expertise by India simply getting its own act together in terms of the improvement of the domestic business climate and managing on its own resources.

The unspoken factor here is the massive upgrade of China’s relations with Pakistan that is taking place, which not only upsets India’s strategic calculus but is also a matter of great sensitivity to the Hindu nationalist groups mentoring the Modi government, who are re-defining India’s secular identity.

Quite obviously, China-Pakistan relationship is no longer India-centric and is fast assuming a trans-regional and global character, with the proposes Economic Corridor promising to be one of China’s main gateways to the world market in a near term, which in turn boosts the strategic partnership between the two “all-weather” friends. The development of Gwadar Port and the strong likelihood of the Chinese navy making its presence there and the expanding military ties between China and Pakistan lethally undercut India’s aspirations as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean region.

However, it is highly improbable that China will give up its leap of faith toward Pakistan, which is crucial to Beijing’s global strategies, by way of accommodating the Indian wishes. (India has protested against the proposed Economic Corridor that passes through the disputed Kashmir region.) The spectre of a US-India alliance also doesn’t seem to unduly worry China anymore, given the new level of self-confidence in the Chinese world-view and foreign policies.

This found reflected in the official Indian briefing on Modi’s talks in China, which kept harping on the “two major powers dealing with each other, two major powers in the region and in the world… who will be dealing with each other with mutual respect and sensitivity, and who will be taking into account each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations… (in) a constructive model of relationship… (of) strategic communication and strategic coordination.”

The briefing marked a noticeable shift in the narrative pursued by the previous government in Delhi. A keen sense of competition bordering on rivalry vis-à-vis China is apparent in the Indian policies in the recent months. If China has a Silk Route, India shall have a Cotton Route; if Xi linked his visit to India with visits to Colombo, India would respond likewise by getting Modi into Ulanbator (where he headed, in fact, from China to experience “true friendship” from the Mongols, as he put it sardonically). India has at no time before edged this close as it is today with the U.S.’ Asia-Pacific strategies.

But what is the point? India lags behind China in development by half a century and its capacity to leverage a “new type of relationship” remains seriously in doubt. The complex relationship could have done without the injection of such heavy strategic baggage at this juncture and instead could have focused on building mutually beneficial content – in sum, a China policy that optimally tapped into that country’s growth for catalyzing the development of the Indian economy.

Modi’s gambit is to keep Beijing off balance, and a little worried, perhaps, by wooing other nations as a counterbalance to China, while at the same time on a parallel track attract investments and money from that country for galvanizing his “development agenda”. In essence, Modi is following in some ways the example of Japan, which too has plenty of political differences and strategic issues and an intractable territorial dispute to sort out with China, but maintains close economic relationship.

It’s a gambit because India is not Japan, but Modi thinks he can pull it off.

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