9 October 2014



The dynamics of the India-China relationship will dictate the future shifts in the balance of power in Asia, writes Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

The world watched with hawk eyes the first ever visit of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to India for three days from September 17, at a time of great flux in the shifting balance of power in the world. President Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi cast aside diplomatic protocol and decided to begin the visit from Gujarat. Both belong to a new generation of leaders. President Xi has been at the helm for about two years and Prime Minister Modi has just finished 100 days in office. Modi decided to receive the Chinese president at Ahmedabad in person. As the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had made his mark in Indian politics and gained fame for his no-nonsense approach to governance. He visited China four times and got to know the Chinese leadership, at a time when Western countries, in a fit of sanctimonious rage, treated him as persona non grata. Gujarat has benefited enormously from Chief Minister Modi’s determined push for development and has received considerable investments from China. As the prime minister, Modi aspires to bring in the same ethos and energize the race for development at an all-India level.

The symbolism of Xi beginning his India visit from Ahmedabad, on the day Modi celebrated his 64th birthday, was not lost on discerning observers. It marked a historic shift in the way both India and China, known for being sticklers for diplomatic protocol, have decided to break out of the rigidities of their respective protocol traditions. The protocol departments of both foreign offices must have done quite a lot of cogitation to break the bounds of well-laid protocol norms that would, normally, schedule an important visit to begin in the capital city of Delhi.

While the world watched, India’s neighbours watched and interpreted this visit much more avidly than others. Pakistan, China’s all-weather friend, was already feeling neglected since Xi had decided to skip that country during his current swing through South Asia. Pakistan’s television channels went hysterical and read all kinds of meaning into China’s decision to cancel or postpone Xi’s visit. Pakistan’s internal political situation is clearly the reason behind this postponement, and no one, least of all Pakistan’s time-tested friend, China, would have found the situation in Islamabad conducive for a visit.

Pakistan should not lose any sleep over this though. It is unlikely that China will abandon Pakistan since the latter remains pivotal to China’s geo-strategic plans for the future. The economic corridor that China wants to build to connect China’s Muslim-dominated and restive Xinjiang province via the Karakoram highway into Pakistan and then onwards to the Chinese-built Arabian Sea port of Gwader, is strategically of such great significance that China will stick to its all-weather friend, Pakistan, in spite of the internal political turmoil in that country. Nor will the United States of America abandon its non-Nato ally, Pakistan, in spite of the bitterness in their bilateral relationship over terrorism, Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan. India must recognize this reality while crafting its future relations with China.

It is also significant that Xi’s visit to India followed on the heels of the Indian president’s visit to Vietnam. China and Vietnam have had testy relations and there has been a series of confrontations over contesting claims of sovereignty regarding disputed islands in the South China Sea. China’s egregious claims of sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea have been the cause of tension with several countries in Southeast Asia and also Japan. Hence China cannot but be worried about these countries, which all have disputes with China, willy-nilly coordinating security and defence policies vis-à-vis China. India too has a long-standing border dispute with China that continued unabated even as Xi undertook his visit to India. This gives India options of coordinating its policies with these countries. The seeds of an anti-China front have been planted and China will certainly like to avoid this eventuality.

It is in Myanmar on India’s eastern flank that Xi’s visit seems to be examined threadbare. Myanmar is emerging out of decades of isolation that had pushed the country into a suffocating embrace with China. Myanmar has sought to balance its relationship with China with growing engagement with the rest of the world and with India, in particular. The recent visit of India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, for the regional forum meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Naypyidaw, has set the stage for Modi’s visit to Myanmar later this year in November.

The opposition of the public and the government to China’s vice-like grip on infrastructure projects has reached a tipping point in Myanmar even as China remains Myanmar’s most important trading partner and supplier of arms. Yet this has not prevented Myanmar from cancelling an agreement under which China was to build the railway line connecting Kunming in China to Kyaukpyu on the western coastline of Myanmar. The railway was to be built alongside the $1 billion gas pipeline project, fully funded by the Chinese government, for supplying gas to China from Myanmar’s offshore fields in the Andaman Sea. Growing public opposition to Chinese mega projects began with the cancellation of the multi-billion dollar Myitsone Dam that left China stunned and speechless. China’s push into Myanmar is mirrored by China’s activity in promoting the economic corridor through Pakistan. In the East, China also wants to develop an economic corridor through Myanmar to access the Bay of Bengal. The gas pipeline and the railway line are stepping stones for China’s geo-economic-strategic plan. The cancellation of the railway project dents this plan to some extent. China has scrambled to renegotiate all these mega infrastructure projects, giving Myanmar additional leverage as well as opening a window for India to ramp up its involvement in Myanmar’s infrastructure development and to fill a gap in its Look East Policy.

Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are all wooing China for financing their infrastructure projects. China is sitting on a kitty of over $3 trillion in reserves and needs to invest its surplus funds. Hence India too is not averse now to utilizing such funds. During Xi’s visit, agreements were signed for inviting Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, including the building of industrial parks and the modernization of railways. There is little doubt that India has the size and capacity to absorb large investments. Money buys influence and geo-strategic advantages and China is keen that India does not gang up with the US, Japan, Australia and other Asian countries in any formal or informal alliance which smacks of the ‘containment’ of China that the US’s policy of “pivot to Asia”, later labelled as “rebalancing”, sought to convey to the world. Thus, developments in India-China relations will impact the so-called “China card” that India’s neighbours like to play to leverage their relations with both India and China.

Asia has entered a new phase in the great game of balance of power. A resolution of the India-China border dispute could have a huge impact on India-China relations. Xi’s visit has not produced any new initiative on this matter. In fact, Chinese intrusions in Ladakh have not been stopped and indicate that China is not ready to go further down the road to resolve the border issue. The visit has seen only reiteration and willingness to sort out the dispute. No concrete movement is visible. Agreements signed during the visit deal with economic issues, investment, trade, culture, narcotics and education. The demonstrations by Tibetan refugees in Delhi were also a reminder to China that the issue of Tibet remains alive and China has to deal with it in a more innovative manner. China has promised to invest $20 billion in India over the next five years. Meanwhile, India has a foreign policy challenge in the decades to come that will require the country to tango with major powers and squeeze out the best deal for the country. Modi may well be the Indian leader who will meet this challenge, poised as he is at a delicate and crucial moment in India’s history.

The author, a retired diplomat, is former secretary in the ministry of external affairs

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