A Winding Path Ahead?
China and India need more dialogue to strengthen trust after the BRICS Xiamen Summit
By Lou Chunhao  ·  2017-09-15  ·   Source: | NO. 38 SEPTEMBER 21, 2017

An Indian businessman sells Indian style handicrafts at the fourth China-South Asia Expo in Kunming, capital of south China's Yunnan Province on June 13, 2017(XINHUA)

Is the reference of Pakistan-based terror groups in the Xiamen Declaration, the first such statement at a BRICS summit, a sign of an ease of tensions in China-India relations after the 73-day border standoff? The answer is yes in some people's opinions, while others disagree.

In fact, China-India relations are too complicated to be judged by a single event; they should be characterized from an overall, strategic and structural perspective. Assessment of potential challenges and risks contributes to preventing fluctuations in, or even derailment of, the bilateral ties.

Structural difference

Since the establishment of the diplomatic ties on April 1, 1950, China-India relations can be divided into six stages: honeymoon period (1950-59), clash of interests (1959-62), Cold War (1962-88), tortuous path (1988-98), rapid development (1999-2014), and now frequent interactions during Narendra Modi's tenure. Compared to the confrontational or friendly relations seen previously, the current ties are characterized by the coexistence of competition and cooperation.

Since Modi took power in 2014, India has emphasized competition on many issues including economic, military and diplomatic affairs. In the foreseeable future, cooperation and competition will coexist in bilateral relations, while competition will become prominent.

On one side, both China and India need to cooperate with each other as they share common interests in many regards including pushing for the reform of the international order to better protect the interests of developing countries, maintaining regional and global stability and peace, and combating climate change.

As emerging markets, development is at the core of domestic and foreign policy in both China and India, thus close economic ties and continuous growth of trade conform to both countries' interests and is also the highlight of the bilateral ties.

China and India, each with a large population and military strength, are striving for the great rejuvenation of their ancient civilizations. Neither of them can afford the price of turning against the other.

Furthermore, despite India's reservations on the Belt and Road Initiative due to its own security and political concerns, from the economic perspective, India could attract Chinese capital, gain Chinese technology and experience, and use platforms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to push forward its development initiatives, such as Made in India, Smart City and Clean India.

On the other hand, competition between China and India will be stronger following Modi's adjustment of India's diplomatic strategy, and the structural conflict is expected to intensify. Four problems have stonewalled the development of Sino-Indian relations: territorial disputes, the Tibet question, strategic distrust and third-party intervention.

Polls show that many Indians are still frustrated by its defeat in the 1962 border war with China and view the border issue as the biggest obstacle hindering the two nations' cooperation. This also explains why India is suspicious about China's diplomatic ties with other south Asian countries.

These four problems are highly sensitive, as they are closely related to national sovereignty and public sentiment in both countries. Even though these issues cannot be resolved in the short term, considering the complex historical issues, both governments have handled them properly and reduced their negative impact on the overall bilateral relations since the 1990s.

However, the positive trend started to change after Modi's taking power. India has openly opposed to the Belt and Road Initiative by claiming that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through the Pakistani-administered Kashmir (PaK) has "violated" India's sovereignty, which is unreasonable as PaK has been with Pakistan ever since the partition of India and Pakistan in1947.

In the meantime, to safeguard sea transportation security, China has established several logistics bases in main ports on the Indian Ocean, which is hyped up by India as a "string of pearls" as a means to contest India's influence in this region. To counter the so-called string of pearls, India has deepened its involvement in the South China Sea issue and has interfered with China's cooperation with other South Asian countries.

Moreover, India has strengthened its defense cooperation in the Indian and Pacific oceans with the U.S. and Japan to counterbalance China, which also undermines Sino-Indian relations.

Potential risks

The end of the border standoff and the meeting of President Xi Jinping and Modi during the BRICS Xiamen Summit show the mutual intention for cooperation. Xi said healthy and stable relations between China and India are in line with the fundamental interests of their peoples, and peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation are the only right choice for the two nations. Modi agreed that India and China should not see each other as rivals and should instead make cooperation the focus of their bilateral relations. This orientation of bilateral ties has set the tone for their stable development in the long-term. But in specific aspects, there are still many challenges ahead.

First, the danger of strategic miscalculation. Cognitive dissonance has existed in Sino-Indian relations, in which India has viewed China as its main rival, while China has focused on challenges posed by the U.S. and Japan as well its security at sea. The recent border stalemate is a clear example of India's overreaction toward the rise of China. If the mutual trust is not enhanced in the future, security dilemmas may continue occurring, and the risk of strategic miscalculation will be raised.

Second, the interference of third parties. Pursuing an independent diplomatic strategy and nonalignment policy could protect the bilateral relations from the interference of a third party. However, after Modi assumed power, India abandoned this diplomatic tradition and instead boosts defense and security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan, becoming the quasi ally of these nations to increase its leverage with China. India's strategic shift will undoubtedly raise China's security concerns and have a negative impact on bilateral ties.

Third, waves of nationalism. National pride and confidence have greatly increased in both China and India along with their huge progress toward revitalization. But in circumstances where interests are confronted, such as the recent border standoff, this positive energy always turns into irrational nationalist sentiment, which is magnified through easily accessible social media, which then puts pressure on the policy-making processes of both governments.

Last, the rising possibility of failure of risk-management. Unexpected clashes of interests are likely to occur more often with the increasing interactions between China and India, including border conflicts and the security of citizens and investment of each nation in the other. If not handled properly, these incidents could escalate to affect the overall stability of the bilateral ties.

Efforts for stability

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has ever said, both China and India should earnestly implement the consensus of the two leaders and guarantee the healthy and stable development of bilateral relations. The two nations should make joint efforts to ensure bilateral relations do not derail, become confrontational or get out of control.

Thus, China and India should promote strategic communication to understand each other's concerns through the current multi-level mechanisms such as high-level meetings, strategic dialogues and think tank exchanges and establish an early warning system and crisis management mechanism to prevent escalation of disputes.

Both nations should pursue independent foreign policies and avoid interference from third parties.

Closer economic and trade cooperation could strengthen the bilateral ties and promote the strategic partnership. Complementing each other's economies and realizing mutual development is a good choice for both parties.

Shelving disputes and properly managing sensitive issues contribute to stable China-India ties. The two nations should face up to the boundary disputes and other issues left over from history and continue negotiations for a final solution. Meanwhile, a crisis management mechanism needs to be developed to prevent escalation of contingencies that could affect the stability of bilateral ties.

The author is an associate researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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