Sino-India relations must be reset in wake of rapid changes in Eurasia - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 02 Jul 2018 1 Comment

In April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Wuhan, China, to have a two-day, informal one-on-one summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping [April 27-28]. The objective of the two leaders was to repair and re-energize stuttering Sino-India relations. Following that informal summit - although much of the content of their deliberation remains confidential - they issued a joint statement indicating their agreement to push the reset button. Meanwhile, there are signs that a broader cooperative participation in support of Afghanistan was mooted, and they agreed to speed up economic cooperation under the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) framework.


Manoj Joshi, an Indian journalist, in analyzing the outcome of the informal summit, wrote: “An important outcome is their decision to provide ‘strategic guidance’ to their respective militaries to keep peace along the Sino-Indian border. This would involve enhanced official level meetings to build trust and understanding, and implementation of existing confidence building agreements and institutional mechanisms to resolve problems in the border areas.


“Additionally, it was noted that the two sides also recognize the common threat posed by terrorism and the need to oppose it in all its forms and manifestations. India and China have decided to cooperate in joint projects in Afghanistan and we could also see possible collaboration in third countries such as Nepal or Bangladesh.” (“The Wuhan Summit,” Observer Research Foundation, May 1, 2018)


The Wuhan Effect


Reflecting on the Wuhan summit and pointing out that it was the 13th summit between the two - they met again at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Qingdao, China on June 9-10 - China’s Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, wrote, in an article in the Indian daily, The Tribune:

“The two leaders further deepened their understanding with each other and shared similar views on the historical position, stage and goal of development of China and India. The two sides viewed each other’s developmental intentions in a positive way and decided to build a Closer Developmental Partnership in an equal, mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.”


Prime Minister Modi briefed President Xi on India’s “neighborhood first” policy and the concept of “the world as one,” which are quite similar with President Xi’s idea of “neighborhood diplomacy as high priority,” and “to build a community of shared future for mankind,” the Ambassador wrote. (“My Interpretation of Wuhan Summit,” The Tribune, May 6, 2018)


Less than forty days later, Modi and Xi met again, this time at Qingdao, China during the two-day (June 9-10) SCO summit, attended by the heads of state or government of the Central Asian countries, China, Russia, India and six observer states. Less than two weeks before Qingdao, on June 1, Modi delivered the keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, addressing an issue that will surely have a positive effect in Sino-India relations.


In recent months, anti-China geopoliticians, mostly from the West, have been urging India to become part of an Indo-Pacific alliance, ostensibly to “counter China’s geopolitical ambitions.” In addition, efforts were made to label the annual Malabar naval exercise - which has been conducted for years between the United States, Japan and India - as a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, by bringing in Australia to counter China’s growing naval strength. The anti-China mob wants to merge that naval exercise with the Indo-Pacific alliance, thus forming a well-defined axis against China that would include two non-Asian nations.


But at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi avoided using the word “Quad” (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia, and conceived by some as a counterbalance to China’s rising presence in the Indo-Pacific), by separating the Indo-Pacific alliance from the security dialogue. At least a month before Modi’s Shangri-La speech, India had turned down Australia’s request to participate in the now ongoing Malabar Exercise - a major setback for the proponents of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.


At Singapore, Modi pushed aside misconceptions that India wants the Indo-Pacific to be an exclusive club, saying: “… India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate.”  He also said, “India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region - from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas - will be inclusive… That is the foundation of our civilizational ethos - of pluralism, co-existence, openness and dialogue. The ideals of democracy that define us as a nation also shape the way we engage the world.”


Modi did not comment on America’s renaming of the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command a few days earlier. Instead, he lauded India’s “multi-layer relations with China,” saying: “Strong and stable relations between our two nations are an important factor for global peace and progress.” His remarks were almost immediately echoed by the Chinese delegation attending the Shangri-La Dialogue. Modi’s remarks that India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as directed against any country, dooms the Quad.


On the other hand, the issues dividing the neighboring nations, India and China - the two most populous in the world, occupying a large part of the Asian landmass - are complex and are not expected to be resolved any time soon. However, the Wuhan summit and the subsequent interactions suggest that both leaders are keen to bypass those major issues - while not abandoning efforts to resolve them - and not consider them to be insurmountable walls. Instead, they chose to jointly participate in enhancing bilateral economic interactions, while cooperating in the security and development of infrastructure of the Eurasian region. This choice brings into play the BRICS association, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the BCIM framework, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the SCO, as we shall see.


But first, the troublesome background.


The Doklam Stand-Off


One of the main reasons for the reset was the necessity to ensure that bilateral relations do not suffer further damage as a result of two major, unresolved issues. After all, China and India are the fastest-growing large nations, each with more than 1.2 billion people, many of whom are poor; growing cooperation between the two is essential for the future.


One of these unresolved issues is the Doklam border confrontation. In June 2017, Chinese troops began construction to extend a road south into Doklam, in an area claimed by both China and Bhutan, an ally of India. The Doklam plateau - at the tri-junction of India, China, and Bhutan - is an uninhabited area used mostly for seasonal cattle grazing. Two days later, Indian troops entered Doklam to stop the Chinese project. Jingoistic campaigns by media managers in both countries followed, and went to great lengths to prove who was right and who was wrong.  


India and China announced on August 28 that they had agreed to remove their troops from the site at which the confrontation had occurred. After this agreement - reached just days before the ninth BRICS summit was to begin on September 4 in Xiamen, China - there was an urgency to put the relationship back on the right track, even while both sides remained vigilant in Doklam.  


The conflict is complex. The Modi administration is in the process of making the economic development of northeast India a priority to enhance a robust economic presence in Southeast Asia. More concretely, and of equal importance, Doklam is less than 100 miles from the strategic Siliguri Corridor, sometimes called the Chicken Neck, which connects India’s main body to its eight northeastern states. The corridor, varying from 13 to 25 miles wide, is India’s only road link to its relatively unstable and underdeveloped northeastern states. These states, spread over 105,000 square miles, have a combined population of 46 million. This eight-state area borders China in the north, Myanmar in the east, Bangladesh in the southwest, Nepal in the west, and Bhutan in the northwest.  


While the Doklam stand-off is not a dispute over the Sino-Indian border itself, there is a border dispute between the two countries. It is extensive, and it is a long way from being settled. On Dec. 22, 2017, India and China held the 20th round of talks on the decades-old border dispute. These talks were not designed to tackle the disputed borders head-on, but merely to establish peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). However, even the LAC has not been fully defined yet. What is encouraging, however, is that the 20th round of talks did not confine itself to the same old border issues, but reportedly covered the wide gamut of nettling issues between the two governments.


As of now, both sides recognize that before the border disputes can be adequately addressed with the specific intent to demarcate the border and identify it as an international border, other measures must be taken to prevent flash-points from suddenly cropping up in these distant and desolate places, embittering bilateral relations. One of India’s leading academics on Sino-Indian relations, Mohan Guruswamy, wrote in December 2017,


“Both countries agree that these are legacies of history and cannot be solved in the short or medium term and are best left for the future. But what causes friction between the two is that they do not have an agreed Line of Actual Control (LAC) to separate the jurisdictions under the control of their armies. The perceptions of the LAC differ at many places. In some places it might be by just a few meters, and elsewhere by tens of kilometers. (“Why India and China’s Border Disputes Are So Difficult to Resolve,” South China Morning Post, December 17, 2017).” What Guruswamy wrote is now very much in focus for both Beijing and New Delhi.


Trouble over the CPEC and BRI


Another major area of difficulty between India and China stems from the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The CPEC extends from China’s Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea, traversing Pakistan from its northern border to its shore in the south. India has spurned China’s invitation to participate in this project. It became evident when the leaders of 29 countries and representatives from more than 130 nations gathered in Beijing in May 2017 for the Belt and Road Forum. India declined the invitation, having decided not to participate in the deliberations.


Officially, India’s Modi government says that India cannot join the BRI. A major part of the BRI in India’s neighborhood is the CPEC, it says, which enters Pakistan through the northwestern Gilgit-Baltistan area of Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed territory that New Delhi claims, but which has remained under Pakistan’s occupation since 1948. India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Gopal Baglay, told the media that “no country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.” (“One Belt One Road: China-Pakistan Warmth, India Skips Summit,” The Indian Express, May 14, 2017)


But India went beyond this to speak of the conduct of connectivity initiatives in general, as a reason for not attending the Belt and Road Forum. “We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality,” India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said, adding that “we have been urging China to engage in a meaningful dialogue” on the BRI. (“Official Spokesperson’s [Response] to a Query on Participation of India in OBOR/BRI Forum,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, May 13, 2017) The just concluded Wuhan summit appears to be at least a step in the right direction.


China continues to urge India to join the BRI. China acknowledged India’s objection with respect to the CPEC. On Nov. 17, 2017, speaking at the Centre for Chinese and South-East Asian Studies in the School of Language at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, China’s Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, said that China may consider alternative routes through Jammu and Kashmir to address India’s concerns regarding the CPEC, which passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir. “We can change the name of CPEC. Create an alternative corridor through Jammu and Kashmir, Nathu La pass or Nepal to deal with India’s concerns,” he said on that occasion. (“China proposes alternative routes for CPEC via J&K, Nepal,” The Hindu, Kallol Bhattacherjee: Nov. 18, 2017). So far, nothing further has been heard about such an alternative route.


In addition to these two major obstacles to improvement of Sino-Indian relations, as one could expect, there are many other disagreements between the two countries. Seemingly, the maturing of their relations, and the exigency to achieve it, has put these niggling issues presently on the back burner, as they move forward to work together on more important issues.


With that as the background of relations between the two countries, conventional wisdom says a rapid improvement of relations between India and China is unlikely. However, conventional wisdom has its limitations grounded in time and space. Global political situations, particularly in the Eurasian region, have changed, and these changes are well reflected in the intent of both China and India to participate in that process. In other words, a new space for broader cooperation has emerged over a period of time.


(To be concluded…)

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