Sino-India relations must be reset in wake of rapid changes in Eurasia - II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 03 Jul 2018 1 Comment

The rise of China and India as major economic powers and their close relations with Russia adjoining Europe could make the Eurasian zone, along with Southeast and East Asia, a motor for development in the coming decades. Both India and China have done very well in maintaining, and even upgrading, their relations with these two areas of future prosperity.


In describing these changes, topmost on the list should be the growing prowess of Russia, India and China within the five-country BRICS organization - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Although the domestic problems within South Africa and Brazil have somewhat stymied the BRICS’ expected growth as a powerful global grouping of nations, it has not curbed the growth of the other three, nor has it slowed down their economic and political interactions - a key ingredient for future developments.


India and Pakistan Join SCO


In addition to BRICS, the interaction between Russia, India, and China has been given a boost by their becoming the three most important nations in laying out the policies of the less well-known Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). “The SCO member states account for one-fourth of the world’s GDP, 43 percent of the world’s population and 23 percent of the global territory,” Russian President Putin told the China Media Group, which includes the CGTN English channel. He stressed the “rapid economic growth of China, India and Russia, all of which are major players in the organization.” (“Putin Names India, China and Russia as ‘Major Players’ in SCO,” The Hindustan Times,” June 6, 2018)


The SCO was originally formed in 1996 as the Shanghai Five - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Following the inclusion of Uzbekistan as a full member in 2001, it was re-founded in Shanghai that year and renamed the SCO. In 2017, India and Pakistan became full members. SCO also has six dialogue partners, including Afghanistan.


SCO was originally set up as a confidence-building forum to demilitarize borders. However, the organization’s goals and agenda have since broadened to include increased military and counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing. The SCO has also intensified its focus on regional economic initiatives such as the recently announced integration of the China-led BRI and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.


The potential for the SCO to be effective is manifold. Beside the fact that the leadership of the organization rests in the hands of the “Big Three” - China, Russia and India - the organization has provided another platform for the heads of state of Russia, India and China to interact directly and deal with the acute regional security situation. By including Pakistan as a full member, and having Afghanistan as an observer, an environment has thus been created in which terrorism and drug-trafficking can be addressed. These two destructive forces, if not dealt with firmly and with steady hands, could disrupt the development plans of the “Big Three,” weakening their ability to play an effective and positive global role.


A Task Cut Out for SCO


Terrorism already affects India, Russia, China and the five Central Asian “stan” countries - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Terrorism in the Indian part of Jammu and Kashmir, instigated from outside, continues despite various measures undertaken by New Delhi in recent years. Heroin/opium moving out of Afghanistan through Central Asia and Pakistan has bolstered financing of terrorists throughout the region. In India’s northeast, where many small but violent secessionist groups operate, heroin and synthetic drugs come in from its east. New Delhi is concerned about these developments and would like to shut down the conduit.


In Russia, particularly in the northern Caucasus, Islamic jihadis have exhibited their presence over the decades. Among the most affected areas are Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia, but also Tatarstan. Maintaining stability and enhancing prosperity in these areas are important for Russia, since Russia shares borders with the “stan” countries of Central Asia. All Muslim states that were for decades part of the Soviet Union, are now independent nations and are full members of the SCO, where Russia is a major force to reckon with.


For China, besides facing difficulties in dealing with militant Uyghur secessionists in Xinjiang province, a terrorist-free Eurasian zone is an essential requirement to make its BRI viable and beneficial for the host and recipient countries. BRI highways and railroads run through “stan” countries to Russia and Europe, and also through Iran to Gulf countries. China has invested heavily in this enterprise in order to make these transport corridors a success. However, if China does not step up to the plate in dealing with the drug traffickers and terrorists who roam virtually with abandon in these sparsely populated areas, Beijing’s dream of interlinking China through roads and railways with Central Asia, Europe and Middle East could end up as rubble.


The BRI is not a one-shot deal. Its utility will be realized on the basis of its 24/7 operations spread over years to come. That means the entire area around these installations has to remain terrorist-free; it is a task China must undertake in conjunction with the SCO and in its bilateral relations with the countries involved. Moreover, India-China relations, when allowed to develop fully, have an enormous potential in accomplishing this difficult task.


From Wuhan, a Ray of Hope for Afghanistan


At the Wuhan summit, Modi and Xi agreed to participate in joint infrastructure-related projects in Afghanistan. Although no specific projects have been spelled out yet, it is likely that these will be designed to bring some relief to the war-ravaged Afghans. “There will be more China-India projects in the region in the pipeline, some of which will involve a third party,” Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou told a media briefing at the end of the Wuhan summit. “The decision will have a bearing on the region and on Afghanistan’s role as a ‘roundabout’ of cooperation in Asia,” said Barnett Rubin, Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and former advisor to the UN Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA).


Rubin continues, “The message to Pakistan is clear: China welcomes India’s legitimate role in Afghanistan. For years the Pakistan military has rationalized its support for the Taliban and other pressures on Kabul by citing the threat posed by the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Now without saying a word directly to Pakistan, China has announced that it not only recognizes but wants to cooperate with the Indian presence in Afghanistan. (“Sino-Indian Project in Afghanistan Signals Cooperation, Message to Pakistan,” Sutirtho Patranobis, The Hindustan Times, May 1, 2018)


India had long been involved in Afghanistan, building, schools, hospitals, roads and even hydropower stations. However, none of that has done much to lower the level of seemingly unending hostilities, emanating partly because of a large presence of US troops in the country. One other problem that ensures hostilities, and discussed widely, is Pakistan’s unwillingness to cooperate in interdicting the movement of terrorists from Pakistan to Afghanistan and vice-versa. For years, Pakistan has denied this shortcoming. But a sign of change has shown up recently, and the credit surely belongs to China:


On December 16, [2017] Beijing hosted the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue. The three countries’ foreign ministers - China’s Wang Yi, Afghanistan’s Salahuddin Rabbani and Pakistan’s Khawaja Muhammad Asif - attended. The three countries agreed to establish a trilateral dialogue mechanism in June aimed at reinforcing trilateral cooperation in politics, economics and security. Afghanistan will host the second dialogue in Kabul in 2018.


“During the press conference after the meeting, Wang announced that “Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to improve bilateral relations as soon as possible and to realize harmonious co-existence, promising to resolve their concerns through comprehensive dialogue and consultation.” (“Why Is China Holding the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Dialogue Now?” Charlotte Gao, The Diplomat, Dec. 27, 2017)


Stability and peace in Afghanistan is of particular importance to China. China has plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan, according to a report prepared by the non-profit Boao Forum for Asia (BFA). The BFA, formed by China in 2001 on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has held an annual conference since 2001 in Boao, a city in China’s Hainan Province. The report, according to Xinhua news agency, says that -


China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under the Belt and Road Initiative, has not only improved local infrastructure but also is extending toward Afghanistan, reducing poverty, the hotbed of terrorism, and bringing better prospects for local people’s lives.” (“China Taking Pak Economic Corridor All the Way to Afghanistan: Report,” NDTV, April 9, 2018)


The Chinese initiative has shone a glimmer of hope. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Qamar Javid Bajwa, led a delegation that met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. “They discussed implementation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace, the fight against terrorism, reducing violence, and the Afghan-owned peace process,” Ghani’s deputy spokesman Shahussain Murtazawi said, according to TOLO news of Afghanistan. “Effective and important talks with Pakistan help us to find logical solutions for historical and fundamental problems,” Murtazawi said on June 13.


According to the Kabul government, the difference between the June 12 meeting and previous meetings was that the two sides agreed not to repeat “mistaken” politics, TOLO news reported. “Mr. Bajwa clearly said that the continuance of mistaken politics is neither in Afghanistan nor in Pakistan’s favor and politics should change in line with cases,” said Omid Maisam, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.


BCIM, the Other Topic at Wuhan


At Wuhan, the joint statement said that China and India would speed up the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor project. Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, briefing newsmen in Beijing on April 28 about the summit outcome - and playing down India-China differences over the BRI - said:


When it comes to connectivity our impression is that China and India do not have a principled disagreement. Actually the two countries are working on the BCIM which is an important part of BRI and for the BCIM corridor, India does not oppose it. Actually, it is an important partner in this cooperation. At the same time BCIM is progressing very smoothly.” (“Wuhan Summit: India, China To Step Up Policy Co-ordination,” Press Trust of India, April 30, 2018)


However, on the ground, BCIM is not progressing very smoothly. That is the reason that Modi and Xi brought it up in their discussions - to give it a push. The BCIM Economic Corridor idea emerged in the 1990s for possible cooperation involving southwestern China, eastern India, and the whole of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Conceived as a sub-regional economic cooperation project, the BCIM initiative was launched in 1999 in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province. Two prominent objectives have driven the BCIM initiative - one is economic integration of the sub-region that would also enable integration of Asia; the other is development of the border regions. (“The BCIM Economic Corridor: Prospects and Challenges,” K. Yhome, Observer Research Foundation, Feb. 10, 2017) The India-China Joint Statement of May 2013 endorsed the BCIM officially at the highest level.


Perhaps one of the reasons that the BCIM did not take off is that it has remained within the realm of the sub-regional developmental plans. Both India and China have grown significantly since China launched the BRI, and the Modi administration has been keen to develop northeastern states for a strong presence in Southeast Asia. The Wuhan summit declaration makes it clear that the time has come for the BCIM to take off.


Writing in the Bangladesh weekly, The Star, in 2014, Prof. Mustafizur Rahman of Bangladesh pointed out that: “the idea driving the proposed BCIM initiative was that, by drawing on [their] respective comparative advantages, all the four BCIM countries could expect to make significant gains through operationalization of the economic corridor, sub-regional cooperation within the BCIM, and BCIM-wide economic cooperation. These gains are envisaged to accrue from greater market access for goods, services and energy, elimination of non-tariff barriers, better trade facilitation, investment in infrastructure development, joint exploration and development of mineral, water, and other natural resources, development of value and supply chains based on comparative advantages, by translating comparative advantages into competitive advantages, and through closer people to people contact.” (“BCIM Economic Corridor: An Emerging Opportunity,” The Star, March 15, 2014)


And If the Korean Crisis Ends?


Finally, a further opportunity for improving India-China relations is emerging in the eastern end of the Eurasian zone. The crisis of the Korean peninsula has been hanging fire for more than six decades. Located close to three major nations - Japan, China and Russia - the Korean peninsula had long been teetering close to war. The open hostility between the two Korean states, following the four years of war (1950-53) and division of the country along the 38th Parallel, kept the area on the brink of a war throughout the Cold War. Although the Cold War ended in 1991, the situation on the Korean peninsula remained frozen in the past.


Only recently have both sides shown an eagerness to change. In a historic summit at Singapore on June 12, US President Donald Trump met with North Korea’s Chairman, Kim Jung-un, and together they laid a foundation for achieving peace on the peninsula. It is acknowledged that if and when this peace is achieved, it will provide a tremendous boost to the entire region. The process of industrialization and economic development of North Korea will bring the major powers in the region closer. It will also help secure the region.


It is evident that the establishment of peace and stability in the Korean peninsula could step up cooperation between India and China; both maintain full diplomatic relations with North Korea. And furthering of cooperation between these two nations will ensure growth and stability in Asia, the home of about 4.5 billion people, as well as the world beyond.



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