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Can China and India agree on new ways to solve old problems?

Can China and India agree on new ways to solve old problems?

Date: July 25, 2019

Author: Ananth Krishnan, 2019 AsiaGlobal Fellow

Ananth Krishnan, 2019 AsiaGlobal Fellow, argues the challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to set a higher bar for dialogue.

Following his emphatic re-election in May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a renewed mandate to explore the opportunities presented by India’s seesawing relationship with China. However, both countries must devise new approaches to tackle long-standing problems. India and China have been seeking common ground on a number of issues where they see eye to eye, such as standing together against rising trade protectionism. At the same time, legacy issues that remain unresolved, from the disputed border to an increasingly unbalanced trade relationship, have continued to stress ties, limiting the scope for exploring new avenues of cooperation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expected visit to India this October for his second “informal summit” with Modi will present both sides an opportunity to assess the state of relations. More immediately, India’s newly appointed foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, who also happens to be the longest-serving envoy to China in India’s history, will visit Beijing to take stock of the relationship.

China, for its part, has dispatched a new envoy to New Delhi to begin overseeing preparations for Xi’s visit. Luo Zhaohui has been succeeded by Sun Weidong, one of the most seasoned South Asia experts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was most recently the Chinese envoy to Pakistan and earlier served as the “point man” on India as the deputy director general of the ministry’s Asia Department.

This is Sun’s second stint in India, following a three-year term as counsellor in the Chinese embassy in Delhi. Suffice to say, there are few better candidates for the job.

Luo and Sun have in recent days sent carefully calibrated signals on the state of relations. At his farewell reception in New Delhi in May, Luo highlighted the need to “break the circle of ups and downs” that has plagued the relationship.

During his term, the border stand-off in Doklam – Donglang, as China calls it – marked the recent low point in relations before the rapprochement that led to the first “informal summit” between Xi and Modi at Wuhan in April 2018.

Luo also outlined several measures to upgrade ties, urging both countries to narrow their differences and take concrete steps. Specifically, Luo called for a bilateral friendship and cooperation treaty, a free-trade arrangement, “early harvests” in boundary talks and “synergising” China’s Belt and Road Initiative with India’s development strategies. He also urged both countries to work more closely together on global issues while resisting United States pressure over trade.

“We have common interests in upholding the process of globalisation, and against the trade bullying,” he said, in thinly veiled criticism of US President Donald Trump.

Days later, shortly before his departure for New Delhi, Sun echoed the points raised by Luo. “We have to do more than just managing differences and take more initiative in shaping our relationship,” Sun told journalists in Beijing. “That’s why we need to focus on cooperation, make it a bigger pie and to narrow down the list of our problems and issues and not allow any individual case at a certain time to disrupt the development of our bilateral relations.”

Ties between the two countries were normalised in 1988, 26 years after the Sino-Indian war. In the years since, both countries have more or less followed the formula established by Deng Xiaoping and Rajiv Gandhi, shelving differences and seeking areas for cooperation.

This approach has underpinned thriving trade, which was worth US$2 billion in 2000 but ballooned to be worth US$95.5 billion last year, making China India’s biggest trading partner.

Aside from trade, the countries have dialogue mechanisms in science and technology, while jointly managing transborder rivers and continuing to negotiate the boundary dispute. There are almost 20,000 Indian students in China, most studying medicine. It would all have been unthinkable a few years ago.

However, this model may be reaching its expiry date as new stresses take their toll.As the breadth of engagement has grown, so has the scope for new differences. Trade has become unbalanced in China’s favour but it is by no means the only source of tension, which now transcends bilateral issues.

Other sore points in the relationship include India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – which China has stonewalled – and India’s blacklisting of terrorists such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar at the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee, which China blocked for nine years before finally relenting in May.

India’s former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, who also served as the special representative on the boundary talks, told The Wire that “the old modus vivendi, which for 30 years kept the peace and helped us to arrive at where we are, I think it is under stress now”.

“The signs are clear: the NSG membership, the Masood Azhar listing, these various little instances, China’s sensitivity to what we do in the South China Sea, our sensitivity to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and so on,” he said.

“That’s because China has changed, we have changed, and our interests have grown, both of us. And, therefore, it’s natural that we rub up against each other. I think it’s time that we actually evolved, or we actually grew that modus vivendi, that framework within which we operate. And we need a proper strategic dialogue between the two of us to actually sort that out.”

If this appears to suggest moving beyond “managing differences” to addressing them, it will be easier said than done. And the border dispute would hardly be the best place to start. Luo suggested “early harvest” outcomes to build confidence, most likely in the middle sector, where Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand border Tibet.

That would, however, contravene the agreed approach of a “package” settlement in all sectors – western, middle and eastern – and would probably end up complicating rather than resolving the countries’ differences. India, for its part, has sought to clarify the Line of Actual Control, where differing interpretations have led to stand-offs between patrolling troops on the border.

China, however, sees that approach as complicating the dispute, and would prefer to talk directly about solving the border instead.

A more realistic starting point for a new model could perhaps involve revisiting and reimagining the 30 or so dialogue mechanisms in which India and China are engaged. Both countries enthusiastically refer to these as evidence of their wide-ranging engagement. Yet in reality, many of the dialogues haven’t kept pace with the changing nature of the relationship.

The Strategic Economic Dialogue, for instance, has not translated into reconceptualising and broadening the nature of economic engagement between the two countries, which was its original intention. It has been overtaken by more recent developments, such as the influx of Chinese investment into India that has taken place largely without the involvement of either government.

Maritime issues still remain low on the agenda with the continued focus on the land boundary, despite the rapidly growing importance of maritime security and freedom of navigation as a core interest for both countries.

Previously, talking for the sake of talking may have been regarded as worthwhile for two neighbours estranged for decades. But when Xi visits India in October, both countries must begin setting the bar higher if they want to avoid falling back into the familiar cycle of ups and downs that has bedevilled the relationship.



This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on July 25, 2019.

The views expressed in the reports featured are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute’s editorial policy.