Into uncharted territory

India and China continue to be at loggerheads on a range of bilateral issues as China shows no signs of budging on key concerns that matter to India. Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar visited Beijing recently for the China-India Strategic Dialogue but nothing much came out of it.

Though Jaishankar suggested that he came with “a very strong sense of commitment to maintaining our relationship” and China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, underlined that he believed relations had seen “positive growth” in 2016, it was evident at the end of the dialogue that the two sides failed in bridging their fundamental differences.

There was no change in Beijing’s stance on blocking efforts to get Pakistan-based militant Maulana Masood Azhar listed as a terrorist under the United Nations norms as well as its opposition to India gaining entry to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. New Delhi has also been left asking Beijing to explain how it can take part in the Silk Road summit being held in China when the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir violates India’s sovereignty.

China’s reaction has been lukewarm to a new step proposed by India to help it become a permanent member of the powerful United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Last week, India said that it was willing, in exchange for induction, to surrender the important veto right that permanent members are entitled to. India along with Brazil, Germany and Japan — the G4 — has been calling for a change in the UNSC permanent membership in the light of changing global order.

There was some positive engagement on an unlikeliest of issues — Afghan­istan.

China reportedly expressed its admiration for India’s assistance efforts in Afghanistan and the two sides explored the possibility of joint development projects. This came against a backdrop of the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) to China. The IS released a video last week of Chinese Uighur Muslims vowing to return home and “shed blood like rivers” even as the Chinese military displayed its might as a show of force in Xinjiang.

A rattled China is calling for greater global cooperation against the IS, which is also a reason why China has joined ranks with Russia in a bid to engage the Taliban in Afghanistan. But even on Afghanistan, there remain some major differences as the foreign secretary was careful to underscore.

On the Taliban, he suggested “their (China’s) characterisation was that there were elements of Taliban which are very extreme. In their view, there were also elements of Taliban that can work with international community and the Afghan government.”

As Beijing and New Delhi struggle to manage their complex relationship, India has become more nuanced in its approach to dealing with its most important neighbour. Even as it seeks to engage China on a range of issues despite differences, there is now a new realism in acknowledging and articulating these bilateral differences. The diffidence of the past has been replaced by a new self-confidence in asserting
its vital interests vis-à-vis China.

This self-confidence is reflected in the manner in which India is gradually bringing Tibet and Taiwan in its bilateral matrix with China. Shrugging off Beijing’s protests, the Dalai Lama will be visiting the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as part of its own territory, and where Indian government representatives will meet the religious leader.

The Chinese government has suggested that the Dalai Lama’s visit will cause “serious damage” to China-India ties, as “China is strongly opposed to Dalai Lama visiting disputed areas.” Beijing argues that “the Dalai-clique has long been engaging in anti-China separatist activities and its record on the border question is not that good.” India seems to be taking it in its stride.

Beijing has warned India of “political consequences” if it interferes in the country’s internal affairs. Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister of State for Home who is from Arunachal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s point man on Tibetan issues, will be meeting the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the Buddhist Tawang monastery after an eight-year interval.

Taiwan ties
Taiwan is also now part of the Indian foreign policy discourse. A three-member women’s parliamentary delegation from Taiwan visited India last week amid signals that the two sides might be getting serious about enhancing their bilateral engagement. The leader of the delegation, Kuan Bi-Ling, underscored that Taiwan is “totally independent.”

She said that the One-China policy “is a de facto reality... We suffered a lot because of the One-China policy. We have crafted a pragmatic approach in our diplomatic engagement with major countries, including India, despite these difficulties.” This visit was in contrast to last year when India had reportedly backtracked from sending representatives to the swearing-in ceremony of then Taiwanese president-elect Tsai Ing-wen.

China lodged a diplomatic protest with New Delhi asking it to deal “prudently” with Taipei-related issues so as to maintain sound Sino-Indian ties. India brushed off these protests from China, saying the trip was not a formal one.

China has been warning India for some time now not to fall into the “trap” of the US and Japan as they are trying to use it to contain China, underlining that such a move may make New Delhi face more risks. What is clear is that Sino-India relations have entered uncharted territory as New Delhi seeks to engage Beijing strictly on reciprocity, resetting the terms of bilateral engagement.

The future of Asia, in more ways than one, depends on how the two regional giants relate to each other in the coming years. The Modi government wants to ensure that India is not the one to blink first.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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