It is often surmised in the domain of the international relations that if somehow Russia and the United States could find a modus vivendi, many hotspots and conflicts in the world could be averted. Even China’s skewed rise could have been straightened, as President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Beijing catapulted the ambitions for Russia-China bilateral cooperation to ‘no limits’ precisely due to US-Russia geopolitical contestation. Likewise, the idealist and the pacifist hope that if the two biggest powers and economies in Asia – India and China – could form a ChinINDIA collaborative matrix, we could have surely witnessed the rise of mutually beneficial ‘Asian Century’, which is now a distant dream courtesy the wars and the pandemic.
We do not live in an ideal geopolitical scenario. The Russia-US conflict over Ukraine is testing all relationships and their stress levels. India and China are no exceptions as both have strategic partnerships with Russia and are in the eyes of diplomatic storm brewing in the West. Any goodwill gesture towards Russia even if driven by objectivity or national interest is perfidy to the so-called champions of democracy. Some argue that India’s 11 abstentions at the United Nations Security Council were to ensure that Russia does not fully swing towards China. But the fact remains that Russia needs China to counter the US led western hegemony and simultaneously needs India to strategically pare the excessive influence of China.
India and China had learnt to live and work together under the ‘Competition and Cooperation’ policy paradigm for years and, despite occasional Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s incursions, no shot was fired for nearly four decades on the unsettled and disputed borders called LAC (Line of Actual Control). But the LAC has become the ‘Line as per the Chinese’. And then Galwan happened and 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in skirmishes with the aggressive PLA ( People’s Liberation Army) whose losses have been unaccounted for. After Doklam in 2017, that was resolved with the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, India began to be more wary of Chinese designs and expedited her preparedness for any eventuality while continuing with her cautious engagement policy. Hence, 2020 aggression in eastern Ladakh and Chinese reaction with its all weather friend Pakistan to India’s abrogation of Article 370 have been met with an eyeball to eyeball fashion. Forces remain deployed to respond, yet dialogue and diplomacy, which India advocated even in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, remain the preferred mode for resolution of difference and disputes despite the frustratingly dilatory tactics of the Chinese.
India has abdicated the ‘business as usual’ approach after the Galwan incident which was made abundantly clear to Foreign Minister Wang Yi when he visited in a much less hyped visit to New Delhi in March amidst a plethora of visits of global leaders to India. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar has often reiterated his 3Ms approach which could alleviate the situation to some extent with China which inter alia relate to mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests. He also advanced an eight point plan for complete de-escalation and disengagement on the LAC which should be strictly observed and respected while adhering to all the agreements in their entirety. Beijing ought to desist from unilaterally changing the status quo if peace and tranquility are to predicate the comprehensive relationship spectrum. The Status quo ante must be achieved, and border demarcation needs to be undertaken in right earnest if peace is to prevail. It is perhaps too much to expect of the Chinese leadership, the Communist Party of China and the Peoples’ Liberation Army whose hegemonistic approaches, debt trap and wolf warrior diplomacy are making the global transitional order even more fragile even as the world is yet to overcome the deleterious impact of the pandemic further compounded by the Russian-Ukraine war. Trust among major players including the Sino-Indian landscape is at its lowest.
As the Indo-Pacific emerges into a major global power contestation with US-China dynamic still framing the contours of contestation, Beijing, forgetting its own hegemonistic ambitions, accuses India of becoming part of the American design for containing China through Quad and allied activities. PM Modi had, on several occasions including at Shangri La and even at the UNSC meet on maritime security last year, clearly articulated that India’s Indo-Pacific policy or participation in the Quad is not for the containment of China but for a free and open Indo-Pacific as these are global commons. Although China dismisses Quad as a ’froth’ but is definitely concerned about its robust evolution and collaborative matrix in recent times. For India the awakening is after the Galwan and the pandemic that it has to be counted as a provide of a genuine global and value supply chain in the nearest future in which Quad has become a reliable pedestal. The upcoming May 24 Quad Tokyo Summit, happening in the backdrop of the European crisis, will be closely watched by the Chinese establishment. Meanwhile in the plurilateral domain India and China remain engaged be it SCO, BRICS, RIC or G20. China is the Chair of RIC and BRICS this year and India will be the chair of G20 in 2023.
China will remain a major challenge for India in the short to midterm, and even that can be extended to long term if as a result of current war and geopolitical and geo-economic contestations, a full-fledged Cold War 2.0 emerges . Currently Chinese policy seeks to contain India within South Asian bottlenecks be it through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) , Silk Roads of all hue and colour impinging on India’s sovereignty, stunting India in Afghanistan, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, border skirmishes, String of Pearls strategy in South Asia or 1+2+3 strategy in West Asia and over all Zero Sum approaches from Afghanistan to Africa to Americas.
The Chinese president may say that there is enough space for both India and China in South Asia but how much residual space is actually going to be there it wants to decide and dictate which is unlikely to happen as New Delhi has again emerged as a first responder in the region. But it will be an imperative strategic necessity for India to retrieve its neighborhood both near and extended and develop partnerships that can assure its strategic autonomy and operational preparedness in a fast changing global landscape. For the time being, as Dr Jaishankar said ‘The India-China relationship is today truly at a cross roads’ as China continues to shrink India’s strategic space.
(The writer is a former Indian ambassador and a regular commentator on foreign policy issues)