The Bishkek meeting between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping reaffirms the understanding both leaderships had reached at their Wuhan meeting in April 2018 – that India-China relations needed a reset to bring some stability into this relationship. But more importantly, the ongoing tension between Washington and Beijing has reinforced the logic that Asia’s rising powers must take more responsibility for providing order and stability in their neighbourhood.
India-China relations have witnessed much turbulence over the past few years. Convinced that only a negative policy would work, both sides between 2015 and 2017 furiously began building pressure points to keep the other off-balance. India tilted closer to the US; China towards Pakistan. Yet, neither was able to extract any concessions in their bilateral interactions.
This experience of escalating competition and costs – with the 2017 Doklam crisis as the turning point – persuaded both the Indian and Chinese leaderships that their policies were producing ‘lose-lose’ outcomes.
In February 2018, India’s foreign secretary told the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs: “India has to find and define for itself a relationship with China which allows us to maintain our foreign policy objectives and at the same time allows us a policy that is prudent enough that does not lead us to conflict on every occasion.”
This, in essence, was the backdrop to the April 2018 ‘informal summit’ in Wuhan, where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping sought to arrest the slide in the relationship.
The overall political framework of a stable relationship has once again been revived. And, this approach to peaceful competition should be extended to the next five years.
Competitive co-existence in South Asia
Chinese policymakers in the last decade have re-formulated their regional policy to pursue sustained political and economic relationships with several states in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean littoral. Much of this impetus has, of course, been provided by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
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India too has contemplated more ways to re-connect with its South Asian neighbours, but the ideas, resources and institutions to advance meaningful regional integration remain inadequate.
Although India and China are seen as competitors in the South Asian region, neither has fully succeeded in implementing its vision. Both have failed to situate their rival visions within a broader region-specific approach.
What has been missing from the policy discourse is an attempt to explore alternative frameworks to visualise the changing regional setting in ways that would still secure vital Indian interests, advance stability, deepen regional economic development while enabling China to pursue its engagement with South Asia.
Balance of power
China usually avoids interfering in domestic political battles, and its main priority is protecting its economic investments. In some cases, where China has deeper geostrategic interests, particularly in Pakistan and Myanmar, it has cushioned the adverse reaction from the West towards these states. Many neighbourhood regimes now see Beijing as a potential insurance card against possible western pressure and as a hedge against uncertainty regarding India’s position.
Interestingly, India and China’s policies are beginning to resemble each other. Delhi, like Beijing, also engages with many southeast Asian states who seek to hedge their dependence on China by developing more economic and geopolitical options. However, neither side is under any delusion that India’s neighbours can be rallied against India or that India can rally south-east Asian states to balance Chinese power. The balance of power simply would not allow such a thing in practice.
The defence budget of the entire southeast Asian region is about $45 billion. China’s is nearly four times that figure and with far more modernised and balanced capabilities. Similarly, the asymmetry between India and its neighbours is even higher.
Overlapping interests & differences
There are several overlapping features in India and China’s regional policies.
· Managing non-traditional threats (terrorism, extremism, separatism, distress migration) that impact regime stability of smaller South Asian states.
· Both prefer secular and stable regimes.
· Both seek open sea-lanes and maritime security of their trade routes.
· Both want South Asia to be geoeconomically connected with east Asia and economic interdependence to grow.
But there are differences too.
· China seeks to connect South Asia with China; India seeks to bring South Asia closer and more connected with Eurasia and southeast Asia.
· India’s main concern is that deeper connectivity between India’s neighbours and China will re-orient the foreign policies in ways that could eventually undermine Indian claims to regional authority. More broadly, Chinese engagement in South Asia might adversely influence domestic politics in the subcontinent and strengthen anti-India political forces.
· A major fault line would be militarisation of China’s regional connectivity projects in future.
One of the key geopolitical challenges for Asia over the next decade is whether and how a rising India and China can learn to be sensitive to each other’s core interests while pursuing engagement with their neighbours.
(1) Assisting weaker states: Both countries can focus on non-traditional security and shared interest in regime stability. This could lead to assisting weak states with capacity-enhancing projects and training programmes. The Wuhan talks had laid a framework for ‘India-China plus one’. In October 2018, India and China launched a programme to train Afghan diplomats as an initial step in a long-term effort towards trilateral cooperation (India-China-Afghanistan).
(2) Coordinating geoeconomic plans: Short of finance capital and industrial resources, India cannot undertake the sole burden of lifting South Asia from underdevelopment and low interdependence. Building constructive regional partnerships are unavoidable and China is one of the key players that need to be engaged more strategically by India.
India-China geoeconomic coordination and cooperation is necessary to avoid duplicating large infrastructure projects that could lead to excess supply-side capacities and fiscal burdens.
(3) Maritime cooperation: In recent years, India has recognised China’s ‘Malacca dilemma’, the long and insecure lines of communication that China relies upon for its international trade, and its interest in improving the security of its trade routes in the northern Indian Ocean. China too needs to reassure India about its port projects. Indian policymakers, however, must counteract any attempts at militarisation or conversion of Chinese infrastructure investments in South Asia into forward basing facilities for the Chinese military.
(4) Competitive co-existence in a common neighbourhood: Nearly all of India’s neighbours have expressed a preference for, (1) non-alignment or strategic autonomy as a guiding principle in their foreign relations; (2) multi-directional economic engagement with India, China, US, Japan and other powers; (3) sensitivity towards Indian concerns. As a recent study observed, smaller South Asian countries “largely still see India as the dominant power in South Asia, suggesting that Chinese economic activity, while welcome, will not necessarily translate into major military or strategic gains”.
Another discernible trend is that neither India nor China is participating in a Cold War-style competition, which suggests some sort of a tacit acceptance of a competitive co-existence in a common neighbourhood. Both countries are competing but within a framework of self-restraint. This could pave the way for a regional order, with informal ‘rules of the game’, in the subcontinent.
The author is a foreign affairs analyst based in New Delhi. He is also an Adjunct Fellow with the Institute of Chinese Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the Forum for Strategic Initiative.
This is the twelfth in a series of articles titled “Policy Challenges 2019-2024” under ThePrint-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) collaboration. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at www.cprindia.org. The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series is available on CPR’s website.
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