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Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP

India should not get strangled by China’s bear hug

Narendra Modi's challenge would be to clasp China's extended hand to the extent it serves India's purpose

Several highest-level visits have been exchanged between India and China in recent years. Of all world leaders, former prime minister Manmohan Singh had the maximum number of meetings with the Chinese leadership. All these contacts, intended to bridge differences and create a dynamic of improved relations, have not, however, reduced the trust deficit between the two countries, lessened incidents on the border, diluted Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh, deterred China from bolstering Pakistan’s capacities to confront India or diminished interference in our broader neighbourhood at our cost. China has done little to redress the huge trade imbalance in our trade ties, either.

President Xi Jinping’s visit can either be seen as one more high-level exchange intended to maintain channels of communication open with a view to keeping mutual differences under control and conserving the possibility of cooperation on some multilateral issues where our interests coincide, or a breakthrough visit that will change the character of India-China ties at the bilateral, regional and international levels.

The only reason for imagining the second possibility is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hand is now at India’s helm. Because China courted him when the West was boycotting him, it may want to capitalize on that to push its economic agenda, but without making political concessions. But then a pragmatic Modi may chart his course towards China on the basis of what Xi can deliver to advance India’s interests, not past gestures.

On the political front, it is hard to imagine what Xi can offer that will change the fundamentals of what divides us at present. On territorial issues, Xi has actually adopted a very hard line, rejecting any compromises. If China can take a hard posture over its maritime claims in the East China and South China Seas despite the dangers of a confrontation with the US, which has a defence treaty with Japan, it is unlikely to soften on border differences with India, as the cost of maintaining a hard position is manageable from its point of view, given the widening disparities in the economic and military power of the two countries.

No wonder the 17 rounds of talks between the Special Representatives have produced no worthwhile result. The Chinese have diverted the mechanism away from its initial purpose to exclusively deal with the resolution of the border problem to discussing the relationship in its entirety, thus diluting the centrality of the border issue in building a “strategic and cooperative partnership" between us. We would be wise to get out of the unproductive groove of this mechanism and reopen the question of clarifying the Line of Actual Control on the map so that repeated incidents on the border are avoided. Through additional border management agreements we are treating the symptoms and not the disease.

China will not change its Pakistan policy in response to Indian concerns about its involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear sector, its military ties with that country, its presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or the strategic connectivity projects it is planning there. Since it itself occupies a part of Jammu and Kashmir, it has no interest in easing India’s problems with Pakistan over Kashmir, including over Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Similarly, it will continue to reinforce its presence, and hence its political influence, in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

We have also to contend with China’s artful diplomacy. To finesse Indian and wider concerns about China’s rising naval capabilities and expansion of its presence in the Indian Ocean, Xi has proposed the concept of the Maritime Silk Route, which gives a peaceable colour to China’s Indian Ocean activities that target key countries for provision of physical infrastructure to maintain its maritime—and eventually naval—presence in the Indian Ocean. Similarly, to allay concerns about its penetration into our strategic space south of the Himalayas, it is pushing the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor as trade connectivity, but which will bring this area increasingly into the Chinese political orbit as a consequence. Our inadequate answer to the strategic design behind these proposals is to appear to be receptive.

On the economic front, we have the contrast between countries like Japan, already committed to major infrastructural projects in India, and promising more, and China, which has invested very little so far, but has already penetrated strategic sectors of our economy even as it has blocked our entry into its market in areas where we are internationally competitive. This may not materially change, if the frustrations of China’s major Western partners is any guide. Japanese investment in India comes without any political cost, whereas China’s has political consequences for us, in that we might become even more cautious than at present to challenge China’s objectionable policies.

It is no doubt tempting to draw into China’s huge financial resources and impressive capabilities in building highways, railway, ports, etc. to upgrade our own infrastructure, but doing projects on a contractual basis or supplying equipment only gives more business to China, even if we gain through reduced costs. Chinese companies setting up on any meaningful scale manufacturing units in India to supply the Indian market, or using cheaper Indian labour costs to set up units for exports, seems unlikely in view of Chinese work methods and labour practices, if nothing else.

Modi is making the kind of exceptional personal gestures to Xi that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made to him in Japan. Abe’s cordiality towards India, however, has long roots and is not animated by political opportunism. Just as the US as a global power wants to fit India into its global strategy, Xi wants to fit India into China’s international strategy. He wants to drive a wedge between India and Japan, and hobble India’s strategic engagement with the US.

Modi’s challenge would be to clasp China’s extended hand to the extent it serves India’s purpose, but keep our options free and resist any embrace that seeks to suffocate our strategic choices.

The author is a former foreign secretary.

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