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Indo-China ties in a multi polar world


What we need is a stable domestic political environment and a purposeful leadership to engage Beijing
MAYANK SINGH | Issue Dated: January 26, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Zorawar Daulet Singh |China |US | Russia | Japan | South East Asia | India |

Zorawar Daulet Singh
Doctoral candidate at the India Institute, King’s College London

On a recent interaction with Chinese think tanks, one interlocutor suggested that the Asian dynamic is one of a ‘simultaneous rise’ of multiple powers and not just a China story. A dominant theme that emerged from my recent interactions is China’s US-centric foreign policy has been displaced by more diversified ‘major power’ diplomacy and a stronger focus on China’s neighbours. Another scholar remarked that India and China’s rise should be managed by the logic of ‘power sharing’ and respect for each other’s core interests.
Few Indian strategists would disagree with such propositions. A multi-polar Asia Pacific is emerging. The US, Russia, Japan, South East Asia and India all have vital stakes in the evolution of the wider Asian order. China’s geopolitical location at the heart of Asia provides it an opportunity to influence several sub-regions such as Central Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and Northeast Asia.
Simultaneously, however, Beijing must contend with major powers in these sub-regions. The more overt geopolitical friction has been witnessed in the maritime and airspace of the western Pacific over the past year, largely on account of a renewed rivalry between China and Japan. But Sino-Indian relations too are undergoing a flux on several fronts.
Perhaps it is useful to step back and look at the framework that has been guiding India-China relations since the 1970s.
After the 1979 China visit of Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a three-point formula was established. Both sides agreed to pursue a resolution of the boundary dispute; both agreed to maintain peace and tranquility during that process; both agreed that there should be no impediment to the development of bilateral relations in various fields. During the closing stages of the Cold War this framework was reaffirmed at the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping summit.
Essentially, this framework has been guiding bilateral relations for over two decades. How can we assess the three facets of this framework?
Dispute resolution has been a glacial process with one important milestone, namely in 2005 when China and India closed the gap in identifying the principles for a settlement. The 2005 ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles’ agreement declared that a ‘package settlement’ is the only way forward along with a mutual recognition that this would involve minor territorial adjustments by both sides. A final resolution, however, is closely entwined with geopolitical and domestic political factors, and, both countries share a responsibility for skirting a settlement.
This leads directly to the second point – the maintenance of a stable line of actual control (LoAC). Since 2007, India has in fits and starts been reacting to China’s logistical and military superiority in Tibet. As both sides have expanded their lines of communication and patrolling capabilities, the LoAC is being probed more enthusiastically. Recent events on the frontier and the frequency of face-offs between the two militaries underscore a pattern of both sides closing in on disputed sections of the border. This is also the context around Indian defence minister A.K. Antony’s statement in Parliament that “China fears that India is catching up” on the border.
While Beijing had apparently been urging Delhi to negotiate new protocols to supplement existing norms that have been established in the agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005, and, the Border Mechanism of 2011, it was the April 2013 Depsang valley face-off that impelled both sides to re-visit the management of the undefined LoAC. Thus, in October 2013, both sides negotiated a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA).
What this agreement hopes to produce is a culture of transparency, more self-restraint in patrolling activities, and, more points for communication at the local military level. The idea being that there should be clear mutually accepted rules to diffuse a potential border crisis locally. India’s joint secretary in charge of China, Gautam Bambawale, has stated, “The BDCA is a signal by the PLA reaching out to India. It was they who thought that the agreement would be good. It was they who negotiated the agreement with us and not the ministry of foreign affairs of China.”
Confidence-building Measures (CBMs), however, do not imply, as India’s Defence minister qualifies, “That there would not be any issues as long as the India-China border issue is unsettled, there can always be a possibility.” Historically, the main reason for an ambiguous LoAC seems to lie with the Chinese side, which has been unwilling to legitimise a transparent LoAC alignment (through an exchange of maps) that outlines the precise nature of the disputed areas.
There could be a couple of explanations. For one, China might perceive its geostrategic and military advantages on the frontier sufficient to sustain an ambiguous but manageable LoAC. For another, China might find a certain strategic utility in keeping the LoAC ambiguous in order to preserve a potential pressure point on India.
Regardless, recurring face-offs on the border and an ongoing Indian military modernisation effort suggest this assumption is perhaps becoming outdated. In recent interactions, some Chinese scholars recognise the instability inherent in an undefined LoAC though it is unclear if Beijing is prepared to explore a new approach.
It is the third point of the 1979 three-point formula that has witnessed extraordinary change. While India and China agreed to disagree on their border dispute, relations in other spheres have evolved considerably. This is producing new opportunities but also frictions that come with greater interdependence.
In the political economy sphere, structural asymmetries have become stark. China accounts for over a fifth of India’s trade deficit and nearly half of India’s non-oil trade deficit. India cannot engage China’s state-dominated industrial and manufacturing system in a frontal competition without a robust policy framework within India. Indian policymakers have simply not stepped up to the plate. China’s tepid response in ensuring market access for Indian exports has further exacerbated the imbalance.
Beyond the bilateral, both countries have recognised and pursued common goals. These ‘common interests’ include reforms of the Bretton Woods system with BRICS as a multilateral network to project new norms and institutions to advance the interests of emerging economies. On norms of sovereignty and non-intervention too, India and China view the Westphalian order through similar lens.
On all three aspects, the original framework for bilateral relations is being tested because each element – dispute resolution, LoAC stability, and, economic interdependence - is posing new challenges and opportunities. Further, de-linking the three aspects of bilateral relations is getting increasingly difficult.
What India needs is a stable domestic political and economic environment and a purposeful leadership to engage Beijing on these core issues. The next Indian leadership after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will inherit a menu of neglected challenges and untapped opportunities.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017