Engaging without strategy?

India is China’s second largest neighbour; China is India’s largest neighbour. Yet, their policies vis-à-vis each other are limited and narrow.

On a recent visit to China after a year, I hoped to plug into recent strands of policy thinking on India. While China’s institutional and organisational processes of foreign policy-making regarding South Asia remain very opaque, a general line of Beijing’s perceptions does trickle down to the think tanks and universities. 

In general, the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summit was viewed as a mixed bag. I sensed the Chinese are a little disappointed that they could not achieve a bigger breakthrough in bilateral relations given the high level diplomatic attention Beijing has been giving India since Xi took over.  

On the border issue, two things stood out. First, I got a hint of possible cleavages between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the diplomats on the border dispute – the former represents a constituency that rejects any compromise on “Southern Tibet”, China’s official term for Arunachal Pradesh. Second, the political leadership in both countries is acquiring a level of authority and command over the domestic system that might be opening a window for a settlement around the present territorial status quo. One scholar remarked, “if Xi and Modi can’t solve this issue, then nobody can”! It is a positive sign that both leaderships appear to at least express the logic for an early settlement. 

An interesting and contrarian insight I heard was from a young scholar who argued that China lacks a strategy for South Asia. Have India’s China watchers become accustomed to uncritically accepting the idea of a grand plan in Beijing for South Asia? The discrete nature of Chinese policy-making perhaps reinforces such perceptions. Nevertheless, one can discern a Chinese approach to South Asia, which is remarkable for its conservative consistency and the way Beijing defines its interests in the region. The approach has three pillars - maintain some sort of balance between India and Pakistan; ensure that India does not create trouble in Tibet; and develop bilateral ties with all South Asian states. 

While in practice, India’s place has increased in this overall framework, especially since 1998, the overall Chinese approach is driven by counteracting any adverse spillover effects on Chinese security interests on its periphery rather than a dynamic and sophisticated strategy of crafting a wider political equation with India. It is this defensive and negative posture that is now in flux. The Xi regime appears to be adapting this overall approach, although its contours remain either hidden or still undefined. Perhaps, China is groping for a new strategy unsure of what it seeks out of India and the region. On the geopolitical impulse behind Beijing’s outreach to India, Chinese scholars note that China’s changing threat environment in the context of a more vigorous US-Japan alignment in East Asia is the primary reason for Beijing's more proactive diplomacy on its continental periphery including South Asia.

Chinese game plans

On their part, Chinese scholars argue that India has followed a policy of keeping China out, and, despite Modi’s proactive engagement, many opine that China will not be treated at parity (“national treatment”) with other states like Japan and the US when it comes to participating in India’s economy. For example, even a seemingly trivial issue like travel visas reinforces Chinese perceptions. Chinese scholars expressed deep frustration with India’s policy and the tepid pace of processing conference and business visas. One Chinese scholar said that the Modi government’s rhetoric and slogans were not yet matched by changes in the nuts and bolts of bilateral relations.

While the logic of a “developmental partnership” as a “core component” of bilateral relations (Modi-Xi joint statement) is welcomed, there is still a lack of clarity on the details of the FDI policy and the investment opportunities available for China. Clearly, if the Modi government is serious about attracting large scale Chinese investment capital then such perceptions need to be addressed. Overall, both countries are still not in sync with the other’s anxieties, aspirations, and, on the preferred pace of policy evolution. India is China’s second largest neighbour after Russia. China is India’s largest neighbour. Yet, it is extraordinary how limited and narrow their actual policies are vis-a-vis the other. Both sides have built relations on mostly a defensive posture, albeit embellished with grand rhetoric. One Chinese scholar observed that it is the experience of multilateral cooperation that has provided India and China with an image of common interests. But bilaterally , the two countries still inhabit different worlds that are now intersecting given the changes in global politics. 

India and China cannot, however, just rely on geopolitical changes elsewhere to stabilise and advance their relationship. Both need to implement the agreed framework that began their normalisation path – frontally confront their border dispute, and simultaneously develop trust and economic interdependence. Operationally, separating politics from economics has proven difficult for India and China. This is in stark contrast to China’s high level of economic interdependence with Japan and the US, Beijing’s most difficult political relationships. 

The Modi government recognises this and has elevated the profile of China and East Asia in India’s overall foreign policy. To translate the meta vision into tangible transactions and outcomes, much ground work remains to be done by Delhi and Beijing. 

(The writer is a research scholar at King’s College, London)

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