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Issue No.: 570 | December 2014

Containment And Cooperation: Continuity and Change in India’s China Policy

B. Ramesh Babu
The BRICS Summit of 15-16 July 2014, held in Brazil is a landmark in global affairs…India and China were able to move a step further on their shared agenda of countering America’s global hegemony and multi-polarisation world politics.
Two distinct and contradictory strands of conflict and cooperation run through India’s foreign policy towards China. This is the only meaningful response to the double edged policy of China towards India. India’s first and foremost objective is to do all that is possible and a lot more at home and abroad to deter the dragon from launching another war in the Himalayas. The second and secondary goal is to cooperate with China bilaterally for mutual benefit and work closely with her on key global issues dividing the North and the South. India will continue to move forward on both fronts as long as possible and the two are not unconnected with each other. How long this tight rope walk will go on depends entirely on China. However, we in India must clearly recognize the fact that only a credible countervailing force will deter the dragon from aggression on the border with India and in the South China Sea, the latest theatre of China's expansionism. Since assuming office, Prime Minister Modi is injecting the much needed energy and realism i.e. "lakshman rekhas” in dealing with Pakistan and China even as he continues to bid for expansion of economic and trade relations with both of them. How this alters the political/strategic mix in the region and beyond only future can reveal.

Since the 60th Anniversary celebrations of the Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 in Beijing in June-July 2014, many developments of significance in India-China relations have taken place: BRICS Summit, Modi-Xi meeting on the side-lines of the Summit, Modi-Abe meeting, President Xi’s visit to India, Modi-Obama meeting, and President Mukherjee’s visits to Vietnam and Bhutan. On Tuesday (12 November 2014) Modi will embark on his 11-day three-stop foreign tour covering the ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Myanmar, G-20 Summit in Australia, and Fiji. As of now (9 November 2014), there is no confirmation of a meeting between Modi and Chinese Premier Li on the side-lines of the Summits. It is also not clear whether Modi will meet Chinese President XI on the side-lines of the G-20 Summit. 

Modi’s ‘Look East’ ‘Act East’

Modi has already declined the Chinese invitation to attend the APEC meeting to be held in Beijing on November 11, 2014. Since the intrusion of Chinese soldiers in the Chunar sector in Lakdakh during Xi’s visit to India in July 2014, relations between the two countries have been uneasy. On the side-lines of the APEC meeting, China organized a neighbourhood leaders’ summit in Beijing. Leaders from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, and Tajikistan attended. Nawaz Sharif and Xi Jinping signed many agreements whereby China pledged to invest about $ 46 billion in energy and infrastructure sectors in Pakistan. Chinese news reports once again described the two nations as "iron friends.” This may be seen as China’s response to Modi’s efforts to energize India’s "Look East” policy, which was rechristened as "Act East” policy. Let us take a quick look at these developments.

The BRICS Summit of 15-16 July 2014, held in Brazil is a landmark in global affairs. Together with their intercontinental partners, India and China were able to move a step further on their shared agenda of countering America’s global hegemony and multi-polarisation world politics. The BRICS Bank launched at the Summit is conceived as an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF, which are dominated by the US and the West. The long term goal of the venture is to develop a global currency alternative to the US dollar. Closest possible economic and political cooperation between China and India on a sustained basis, which has many imponderables, is crucial for such distant goals to fructify. 

India’s Rising Stature

The Modi-Xi meetings on the side-lines of the Summit are even more significant for India-China relations. In addition to reiterating the Chinese intent to invest in India on a large scale, the two leaders agreed on the crucial need to resolve the border issue quickly and amicably. President Xi invited India to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as the founder member. AIIB was formally launched recently and India is the only other big country that joined hands with the Chinese on the venture. In view of the American opposition to the Bank, Australia, Indonesia, and other countries did not join AIIB. In a welcome departure from the past, Xi invited India to be an active member of the The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or SCO. Furthermore, he invited India to attend the next meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting to be held in Beijing in November 2014. This could be seen as China’s readiness to accept India as a legitimate player in Asia-Pacific, and not merely a South Asian regional power. All these seemed a good prelude to President Xi’s forthcoming visit to India.

Prime Minister Modi wanted to meet his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe before the Chinese President came to India. Modi’s twin goals were to attract massive Japanese investment and to bring Japan closer to India politically and strategically. Modi succeeded immensely on both counts. Japan pledged to invest 2.1 lakh crores of rupees ($ 35.5 million) in the country during the next five years in many areas including in the defence sector. In a move of far reaching import, the two leaders agreed to upgrade their global and strategic partnership to a "special” level. Furthermore, the two leaders decided to explore with the US the possibility of upgrading their trilateral dialogue to the level of Foreign Ministers. Modi and Abe declared their intention to rope in "other countries” to enhance the security situation and ensure freedom of the high seas in the region. Modi made it a point to warn against "forces of expansion” in the region without mentioning any country by name. This is a noteworthy departure from the past. Earlier, the Manmohan Singh Government declared that India did not want to join any group perceived to be an anti-China coalition.

In an act full of symbolism, the three day State visit of President Xi Jinping began on Prime Minister Modi’s birthday at Ahmedabad. They posed together on a lacquered swing in the hallowed precincts of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram on the bank of river Sabarmati. There was a lot of media hype in India prior to and during the visit. Unlike in the past, the Chinese side also publicized Xi’s trip to India widely. Official spokesmen in Beijing billed it as "historic” and that it would usher in "another era” in the bilateral relations between the two countries. There was a pointed pre-visit build up saying that China was capable of matching or even surpassing the projected massive Japanese investments.  

Hard Realities

However, the reality turned out to be far more modest and even counterproductive in the end. China pledged to invest $20 billion in India during the next five years. The number of Industrial Parks were reduced to two from four promised earlier. A five-year plan was mooted to reduce the massive adverse trade balance of $40 billion. But, there was no reference to opening Chinese market for Indian exports. The pre-visit declared intent of a China-Russia-India linkage to counter America’s global hegemony did not surface, nor was there any mention of the earlier stated possibility of including India in the recently signed mega ($400 billion) energy deal with Russia. The why of the sudden and unexpected scaling down of the mutual expectations may be known only in the future, if at all? 

On the negative side, China indulged in its usual double game of playing hot and cold at the same time, which back-fired this time around. Even as the offers of huge investments and a new era of economic cooperation were on the table, Chinese soldiers intruded across the Line of Actual Control [LOAC] in Chumar sector in Ladakh and set up camps there. The Indian side responded by confronting the Chinese with a matching military build-up. Modi told the Chinese President while the official level negotiations were in progress that unless peace and tranquillity are assured on the border no progress would be possible in the bilateral relationship. Such a forthright declaration right in the middle of the delegation level negotiations did not happen before. Prime Minister Modi was clear and categorical on this score and deserves high praise. President Xi responded by merely stating that he would look into the matter. But, the confrontation on the border continued till five days after President Xi went back home. 

Transforming India’s Image in the US

Prime Minister Modi’s five-day trip to the US, UN, and Washington was full of style, symbolism, and also substance. It helped in transforming the image of India as a global player and an attractive investment destination for business and industry. What is of immediate significance in terms of India-China relations is the Modi-Obama decision to take the US-India strategic partnership to the next level (whatever that may mean). In the areas of defence cooperation, joint production of weapons, and transfer of dual use technology credible progress was made. The US-Japan-India trilateral equation was scaled up. Australia was willing to join the next round of the four nation naval military exercises. China opposed the developments by "hoping that the "Malabar” naval exercises will not hinder peace and stability in the region.”!  

Countervailing Coalitions

The latest meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) held in New Delhi during 16-20 October 2014 ended by repeating the same old good intentions. The two sides decided to "establish a regular meeting mechanism between the two military headquarters … and have hotlines …” etc. The two sides expressed, yet another time, the belief that these measures would help to enhance communications and connections between the two militaries. These can at the best be seen as incremental steps. Talks on clarification of the LOAC or steps towards the final settlement of the border dispute are yet to make it even to the agenda! Lack of understanding between the two countries on the border is not because of lack of communication facilities and connections, it must be stated emphatically. 

Towards the end of October 2014, Nguyen Tan, Prime Minister of Vietnam, visited India as a follow-up to the visit of the Indian President earlier. India-Vietnam signed several agreements, including one for off-shore oil exploration in the South China Sea. China reacted by warning India not to meddle in the maritime disputes between her and Vietnam. India chose to ignore the warnings and agreed to help Vietnam in modernizing its defence and security forces. The two countries also agreed to expand bilateral trade on a large scale.

As can be seen from the above, a lot of water has flown down the Brahmaputra and Yamuna Rivers in recent months. To begin with India and China seemed to be on a bonhomie trip. Japan pledged massive investment and moved closer to India politically and strategically. India-Japan-US trilateral inched forward. India was not averse to promoting a countervailing coalition of concerned countries in the region. On the other side, China showed its fangs by indulging in military intrusion in the Himalayas even as President Xi’s visit was in progress. All the positive declarations emanating from the Xi and Li dispensation in recent months did not make any difference on the ground. Hard evidence to the contrary is called for if such an assessment of China’s perfidy on the border is to be modified.  

Dealing with expansionist China

The border issue can be resolved only when China is ready to do so. In the meanwhile India has no choice but to deal with the devious, dangerous, and proximate enemy with its own brand of double edged policy. Containing China for peace and cooperation with the country for mutual benefit and on global issues dividing the North and the South divide will have to continue as long as such a tight rope walk is possible. While the transactions and interactions between the two have grown measurably in recent years, the macro picture of distrust and suspicion has not changed and will continue for a long time to come. To have a strong leader with overwhelming popular support and a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha is an advantage for India in dealing with the aggressively expansionist China. Both Modi and Xi are strong and powerful leaders. They have long innings ahead of them. Let us hope Xi and Li are sincere in their declared intentions to build good and peaceful relations with India and will be able to assert their authority over the PLA in the near future. If there is no rift between the political and military centres of power in China and they are acting in concert, as is more likely, the stalemate and recurrent crises on the border will continue for foreseeable future. 

In international relations, just as in real life, all problems do not necessarily get resolved. Ambiguities have their uses. Managing them and not letting them to explode in one’s face is the essence of diplomacy. Both sides should do their best to ensure that the armed confrontations on the border do not escalate into shooting wars. Recurrence of war on the border will change the whole ball game! Then, containment of China by all means will certainly take precedence over cooperation with the proximate and powerful enemy!

DR. RAMESH BABU, is a specialist in International Relations, American Politics and Foreign Policy. 
He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hyderabad, 2013- 2014. 
He is the Scholar in Residence, Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad.
 Formerly, he was the Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Professor of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai. 





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