x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Giant ambitions set a collision course for China and India

There is little reason for optimism that the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi can be stabilised.


Harsh V Pant

Calling on the party workers to fight corruption and promising to continue China's "rejuvenation", China's new leader Xi Jinping took over the mantle of the general secretary of the Communist Party from Hu Jintao last week. He will be effectively running the country with the six other members of the party's Politburo Standing Committee. This is China's "fifth generation" of political leadership and there are a number of challenges - economic stagnation, political turmoil and environmental degradation - that confront the new leadership.

But the world will be particularly interested in how this new set of Chinese leaders deals with thorny foreign-policy challenges. While a lot of attention has been paid in recent times to China's growing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, Sino-Indian relations have also been worsening for quite some time now.

China and India are engaging at multiple levels. Sino-Indian economic ties are at an all-time high with annual bilateral trade expected to reach around $100 billion (Dh367 billion) over the next three years. Despite that pretence of a sustained engagement, suspicions of each other are at an all-time high with the two states sharing one of the world's most heavily militarised border areas.

Alarmed by China's reiteration of its claims over the whole of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, India is expanding its military deployments in its north-eastern region. China has deployed around 300,000 troops across the Tibetan plateau, with India responding by raising its deployment in the region from 120,000 to 180,000 along with two Sukhoi 30 fighter squadrons.

And the issue is not merely about the border and Tibet anymore. The two states do not fully comprehend the complexities of each other's domestic politics either. China's political system lacks transparency, which can only be dangerous over the long term. India's often cacophonous domestic political system seems perpetually unable to set serious policy related to China. As if this were not enough, popular opinion in both countries is rapidly turning against the other.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds of Chinese respondents viewed India unfavourably. The feeling is mutual with only 23 per cent of Indians describing their relationship with China as one of cooperation, and only 24 per cent viewing China's growing economy as a good thing. So much for the "trade leads to greater understanding" thesis.

China's comprehensive programme of naval development is ringing alarm bells across the region with some warning of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine. Last month, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier - the Liaoning - with five more reportedly under development. China is busy developing an extensive near-seas capability allowing it to pursue its ambitions in defiance of the United States.

Yet India has found it difficult to articulate a China policy that can go beyond clichés. It's not about matching China weapon for weapon. It is about managing China's rise in a manner that does not force India to give up vital interests. Rising nationalism and the increasing sway of China's military in policymaking will make it even more difficult for the two sides to reach a diplomatic solution on border issues.

As China and India have risen in the global hierarchy, their bilateral relationship has become uneasy. The distrust between the two is growing at an alarming rate, notwithstanding the rhetoric of official pronouncements. Growing economic cooperation as well as bilateral political and socio-cultural exchanges have done little to assuage each country's concerns about the other's intentions.

Indian policy is trying to fashion an effective response to the rise of China at a time of great regional and global turbulence. Although it is not entirely clear if there is a larger strategic framework shaping New Delhi's China policy, its approach is indeed undergoing a transformation, the full consequences of which will only be visible a few years down the line.

With Sino-Indian friction growing and the potential for conflict remaining high, the challenge to India is formidable. India is increasingly bracketed with China as a rising or emerging power - or even a global superpower - although it has yet to achieve the economic and political profile that China enjoys regionally and globally. India's main security concern today is not the increasingly decrepit state of Pakistan, but rather an evermore assertive China, whose ambitions are likely to reshape the contours of the regional and global balances of power with deleterious consequences for Indian interests.

India's ties with China are thus gradually becoming competitive, with a sentiment gaining ground among Indian policy elites that China is not sensitive to India's core security interests and does not acknowledge its status as a global player. As a consequence, India is belatedly gearing up to respond to China's rise with a mix of internal consolidation and international partnerships.

High-level political contacts are scheduled to resume between New Delhi and Beijing with India's national security adviser Shivshankar Menon visiting China later this month. It remains to be seen if these initiatives can restore some semblance of stability to the Sino-Indian relationship. If the past is any guide, there is little reason to be optimistic.


Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College London