New realities confront New Delhi and Beijing.
In more ways than one, 2017 marked a turning point in India-China relations. If it began with India taking a strong stance against China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it ended with China tightening its grip on South Asia. And in between was the Doklam standoff which underscored the challenges in this bilateral relationship in ways that few would have anticipated in recent years.
A flash point
Beijing is peeved at what it sees as New Delhi’s intransigence on the BRI as India is perhaps the only major power frontally challenging China’s attempt to redraw the global economic landscape. And this challenge is framed around a principle which China holds very dear: the foundational principle of “sovereignty”. After all, the basis of the India-China partnership at one point was premised on them being the so-called “sovereignty hawks” in the global order. This was reiterated in platforms such as the Russia-India-China trilateral and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
India used this to counter the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an important element of the BRI, even at the cost of getting regionally and globally isolated when it decided not to attend the BRI summit in May 2017. India said: “No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar articulated this position at the 2017 Raisina Dialogue: “China is very sensitive about its sovereignty. The economic corridor passes through an illegal territory, an area that we call Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. You can imagine India’s reaction at the fact that such a project has been initiated without consulting us.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi too reinforced this point.
India was clear that China cannot expect to evolve a India-China global partnership on the basis of sovereignty-related concerns vis-à-vis the West and at the same time disregard Indian concerns on sovereignty with impunity at the bilateral level. China got the message and, in some ways, the result was the over 70-day-long standoff at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction.Tensions continued to rise till an understanding was reached pertaining to disengagement.
Despite this resolution, the underlying reality of India-China relations continues to be as complicated as ever. As the year came to an end, China’s engagement in India’s neighbourhood seemed to be growing with the Left Alliance winning in Nepal and the signing of a Free Trade Agreement between China and the Maldives. China’s relationship with Pakistan has become stronger with Beijing now openly batting for Islamabad, whether it is in scuttling Indian attempts to get Pakistan-based terror outfits banned by the United Nations Security Council or preventing India from joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
India is pushing back in the wider Indo-Pacific. In November, on the margins of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, India participated in the first formal official-level discussions of the ‘Quad’, the quadrilateral formation that also includes Japan, the US, and Australia. The idea has had a second coming. India’s ‘Act East Policy’ too has been in full gear with all 10 heads of state/ government of the ASEAN participating in this month’s Republic Day celebrations.
As the two nations look to repair the damage done to their bilateral ties over the last few years, mere rhetoric of the past is unlikely to work. They need to find common ground to work seriously so that some tangible outcomes can be achieved. New realities confront New Delhi and Beijing. For India, China’s rise as a great power in its own vicinity presents a challenge that it has not encountered in the past. Beijing, for its part, is facing a New Delhi which, unlike before, is willing to challenge China. The Doklam crisis was as much about China asserting itself vis-à-vis India as it was about New Delhi’s determination not to cede any more ground to China.
Old formulations and principles seem to have outlived their usefulness. Otherwise, as China continues to strengthen its forces in Doklam and India seems determined to resist it, another Doklam-like episode may be just around the corner.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.