Journalist | Writer | Analyst
The Chinese are very clear about what they want from President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, but a collective sense of anxiety about China is clouding India’s judgement and limiting its vision.
Like other big powers, China’s goals in South Asia, the Indian Ocean (or the “Indo-Pacific”) and the wider Asian region are driven by the growing appetite of its economy for sources for markets and raw materials and destinations for the export of surplus capital.
This drive to bring the world closer to China using trade, investment and, increasingly, finance, in turn, poses three challenges for China’s leadership: (1) ensuring trans-boundary connectivity and the security of sea lanes of communication so that a rival power is unable to disrupt trade and energy flows; (2) countering the emergence of new multilateral norms that might constrain China’s freedom to grow its economy or run its political and social system in the way it chooses; and (3) pre-empting the emergence of alliances or partnerships that might restrict China’s strategic space.
It goes without saying that the outcomes China seeks to forestall are precisely the ones that its principal global rival, the US, would like to realize. The manner in which the Chinese leadership has responded to these challenges is often contradictory and non-linear. In India, a chaotic and somewhat irrationally administered country, we make the mistake of assuming everything that happens in China is part of a carefully worked out master strategy that can be traced back to Confucius and Sun Tzu. Small perturbations in the relationship can lead us to manufacture grand conclusions. The reality is somewhat different.
Apart from the presence of political and business factions, Chinese foreign and strategic policymaking suffers from the absence of open articulation and is thus prone to grandstanding and the overshooting of targets. For example, China has, since the closing years of Hu Jintao’s tenure as president, simultaneously escalated its border disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines (and also with India to a lesser extent). This approach has made Asia and the world increasingly wary of a rising China. It also undercuts President Xi’s New Asian Security Concept, which talks of the indivisibility of security and the non-use of force or the threat of force. More importantly, Beijing has created a favourable environment for the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” strategy and strengthened the impulse among Asian countries to seek comfort in partnerships and alliances, the very outcome China dreads.
While Japan and Australia are traditional US allies, and the East China and South China seas are regarded as strategically essential, India is seen by China as a swing state in the emerging Asian security paradigm. Though some of the rhetoric Prime Minister Narendra Modi used during his visit to Japan suggested India might be choosing sides between Tokyo and Beijing—he criticized countries that “encroach upon the seas of others”, for example—the Chinese know New Delhi does not want to see its relations with Japan and China as a zero-sum game. They know the political trend Modi represents has traditionally been hard-nosed about China; but they realize the international system is in such flux that he will not want to blindly follow the US and its allies into a neo-containment strategy either.
If his “swing state” reading is correct, Xi’s visit is aimed at increasing the payoff for India from playing ball with China.
According to reports, he is bringing with him the promise of an investible sum that will trump the $35 billion Shinzo Abe offered. He will also offer an investment-cum-technology deal for high-speed rail, a cheaper and more easily implementable alternative to the bullet trains the Japanese have. From the Chinese point of view, good political, economic and even military relations with India are essential for Beijing to pursue its broad strategic objectives in Asia and the world.
Besides being an attractive destination for Chinese foreign direct investment, India is a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region and will play a crucial role in developing and protecting the sea lanes that Xi calls the “Maritime Silk Route”. At the multilateral level, India and China are potential partners in virtually every field where battles are taking place over emerging norms such as trade, environment, Internet governance, the financial system and international law. Finally, treating India with the respect and consideration it deserves also helps prevent the emergence of Cold War-type partnerships in Asia.
From India’s perspective, Xi needs to assure Modi about his determination to ensure the preservation of peace and tranquillity along the India-China boundary. If a mutually acceptable boundary settlement is within grasp, such an agreement will be a shot in the arm for the bilateral relationship. But even if it isn’t, it is essential that tactical-level disputes, not to speak of provocations like the Depsang Plains incident of 2013, be kept to a minimum if not avoided altogether.
On its part, India must stop lamenting the Chinese economic presence in its neighbourhood, especially Sri Lanka and Myanmar but also Nepal and Bangladesh. While New Delhi should be wary of any military implications, smaller sovereign nations in South Asia can hardly be faulted for enlisting Chinese help for developing physical infrastructure when India itself is trying to do the same. In some of these countries, especially Nepal, perhaps the time has come to even look at joint India-China projects, especially in the power sector.
As for the Maritime Silk Route concept, which has made some Indian analysts anxious, there is no sense in tilting at windmills. Sea routes follow the dictates of commerce and geography and are not the exclusive domain of individual countries. Geography has already placed India in a commanding position; the development of its own commercial and manufacturing capabilities will take care of the rest.