Home / Opinion / Engaging with an assertive China

This week (20-21 December), New Delhi will host the 20th round of China-India Special Representatives’ talks. The interlocutors will be India’s national security adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval, and China’s state councillor, Yang Jiechi. This mechanism was created during then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s China visit in 2003. At that time, border talks were elevated from the official-level joint working group on the boundary question to the ‘confidants’ of the two countries’ leaders, who were tasked with evolving a “political perspective" for resolving the border dispute.

However, just like its predecessors from 1981, this mechanism too became just another generic forum with little to show on border negotiations—though it has earned some fame for being the forum for addressing all aspects of the China-India equation and for ensuring peace and tranquillity in border regions. Thus, while no breakthrough on the border issue is expected from this week’s meeting, there may be some symbolic bonhomie, showcasing joint positions on various regional and global issues, from North Korea to climate change mitigation. The meeting may also showcase some critical deviations in China’s approach to India’s claim for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a permanent seat on the UN security council or India’s approach to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Hope for a good meeting this week has been triggered partly by the successful conclusion of the 10th round of their working mechanism for consultation and coordination on border affairs in Beijing last month, followed by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s meetings with Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Doval during his Delhi visit on 11 December. As regards the special representatives (SRs), they had signed an agreement on general guidelines and political parameters in 2005 and almost finalized a framework agreement in 2008. The latter has since been in deep freeze. Even the understanding on the 2005 agreement, committing both sides to “safeguard due interests of their settled population in the border areas", has since been contested by Beijing. Yet, both sides celebrate the fact that the SRs have held 20 rounds of talks in 15 years. That’s called creating atmospherics!

To their credit, however, it is important to underline that they have emerged as the most critical troubleshooters from both sides. The personal chemistry between India’s four and China’s two successive nominees for this mechanism has contributed enormously. For example, in spite of venomous rhetoric in the Chinese media, the de-escalation of the Dokalam standoff is credited to a brief informal meeting between the two SRs during Doval’s 28 July Beijing visit.

It’s not clear, however, if these methods and mechanisms will continue to deliver. India’s interlocutors face rapidly increasing asymmetry between the economic, political and strategic profiles of these two countries. The recent past has witnessed China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN security council, building an economy that is five times bigger than India’s. Its foreign exchange reserves are 10 times larger than India’s and are now financing the BRI that India seeks to question and compete with. Not for nothing are India’s neighbours lining up for the goodies that the BRI promises.

Finally, what about the men at this meeting? Doval will have to look to a prime minister at least partly bounded by the multi-party system, federal polity and the Bharatiya Janata Party gearing up for general elections in 15 months. Meanwhile, Yang arrives here after elevation to the politburo of the central committee of China’s Communist Party. China’s 19th Party Congress in October put its stamp on the unprecedented rise of President Xi Jinping, who is expected to rule China till 2022. This inspires scholars like Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig to take Joseph Nye’s ‘soft’ and ‘smart’ power paradigm forward to explain the “sharp power" of authoritarian states. China bars external influence in its domestic politics while influencing the politics of other, especially democratic, nations. The recent resignation of Australian senator Sam Dastyari reinforces this thesis. This also explains why Moscow is drifting towards Beijing and why Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was pushing for India’s participation in the BRI last week.

China’s changing national narratives are no longer about the ‘century of humiliation’. It is the ‘rejuvenation of Eurasia’ which guides its diplomacy. Speaking in Beijing on the eve of his India visit last week, Wang Yi put forward the Chinese version of the Dokalam disengagement of 28 August. While praising the “sincerity" demonstrated by Beijing and New Delhi, he underlined how the two sides “handled the issue of cross-border incursions by the Indian border troops into China’s Donglang (Dokalam) area... the Indian side withdrew its equipment and personnel". This is not how New Delhi projected it. Wang spoke of the two sides having “far greater shared strategic interests than differences", which is distinct from earlier formulations about the world having enough space for both China and India to grow, or that their history has seen 99% convergence and only 1% divergence. This new version not only underlines the expanded space of their differences but also asserts that India must make correct choices to avail of the opportunities that await it in BRI. Is India drifting towards becoming an outlier or is its balancing act of joining both quads and triangles making it a partner for both sides?

Swaran Singh is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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