In assessing the restructured strategic dialogue between India and China, which concluded on Wednesday, the key question is: What does a strategic relationship between the two countries look like? What are its driving factors and core objectives? On paper, India and China have had a strategic partnership—specifically, a strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity—since 2005. But scratch the surface of that agreement’s rhetoric and diplomatic language and this much becomes apparent: There are, as of now, no true areas of strategic convergence.
The bilateral focus has largely been on the settlement of the boundary question, followed by the strengthening of economic and trade ties. This was carried through into the 2013 vision for the future development of the India-China strategic and cooperative partnership, signed during Premier Li Keqiang’s India trip. It was only somewhat expanded in 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China. Notably, the joint statement issued in the latter case outlines how and where the two countries seek to coordinate their positions and work together to shape the “regional and global agenda and outcomes”.
Besides, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, who led the strategic dialogue from India, has chosen to frame the consultation within the global actors paradigm. He said, “The international situation is in flux...one thing that we could do together was a more stable, substantive, forward-looking India-China relationship which would inject a greater amount of predictability into the international system”. But this vision is more aspirational than tangible—the possibility of a US that draws down its role in the Asia-Pacific region under Donald Trump notwithstanding.
Instead, there are several areas of strategic competition (the Indo-Pacific region) as well as some of outright hostility (particularly with regard to the border issue). And Afghanistan is increasingly proving to be a fault line. Last week, Russia hosted a conference on Afghanistan’s future that had India, Iran, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan as attendees. But this came after a similar conference in December last year that had only China, Pakistan and Russia. Neither Kabul nor New Delhi were pleased—and even less so when the conference’s outcome was a statement explicitly endorsing the Taliban as a bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State’s Afghan branch. This runs counter to Kabul and New Delhi’s stance; they have repeatedly warned about the dangers of the “Good Taliban, Bad Taliban” approach.
That said, the evolution of Beijing’s stance on terrorism in and emanating from Pakistan—obviously, an area of prime concern to India—is interesting. There are two factors shaping Beijing’s outlook here. The first is that it is investing around $50 billion to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Cpec), starting in Xinjiang province and winding its way south through Pakistan to terminate in Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea coast. The security of Chinese investments and personnel in Pakistan is of utmost importance to Beijing—and it is of immense strategic value, giving it an alternative to the vulnerable Strait of Malacca for energy and trade shipping. Secondly, Cpec is an integral part of Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” vision—important for the economic integration of the restive Xinjiang province. And some of the terror groups in Pakistan have links with separatist outfits in Xinjiang.
China’s reaction to the 2007 Lal Masjid siege showed that when its interests are threatened, it has no compunctions about publicly exerting pressure on Pakistan. Little wonder that it is again believed to be pressuring the Pakistani establishment to crack down on terror groups, if behind the scenes this time. Reportedly, Pakistan’s new spy chief visited China soon after he took office so as to allay Beijing’s concerns. Weeks later, the Chinese state commissioner for counter-terrorism visited Pakistan to review the security of the Cpec project. Incidentally, the latter visit came days after Pakistan placed Hafiz Saeed under house arrest—supposedly under American and Chinese pressure.
Still, the question from New Delhi’s perspective is whether such a crackdown would extend to anti-India groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. The answer is in the negative. As of now, China has no strategic rationale to push for a crackdown on these groups. It could, hypothetically, find itself compelled to pressure Pakistan here too if these groups create trouble on a scale that threatens regional stability—something on the 26/11 scale, for instance. This would, again, threaten its economic interests. But this is hypothetical at best—thin gruel indeed.
In Dragon On Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power, Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab lay out in depressing detail the many failures of India’s strategic vision, political leadership and diplomacy that have allowed China to dictate the terms of its engagement with India on the border dispute and in the region at large. It is a history worth keeping in mind during future engagement with China. The realities of the rivalry will make the prospect of strategic convergence a chimera for the foreseeable future—at least until India is on more even footing.
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