Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the BRICS Summit in Xiamen on September 4, 2017. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour
Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the BRICS Summit in Xiamen on September 4, 2017. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour

The equation between countries in international relations does not remain static forever but keeps on changing as per the demands of time and situation. The relationship between China and India has seen many ups and downs in history, which even led to a war in 1962.

In recent decades, both these countries have been experiencing high rates of economic growth. Their bilateral economic cooperation is also on the rise. It has often been said that the 21st century could very well be the “Asian Century.” If it is to be realized, then China and India will  have to cooperate with each other rather than act as rivals.

Regional geopolitical scenario

India is undoubtedly the biggest power in South Asia. However, many of the other South Asian nations do not view it as a benevolent neighbor but rather as a hegemonic one.

India has never been comfortable with the idea of China spreading its footprints in South Asia, which has been increasing over the years. India has decided not to join the Chinese global venture the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), citing that the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through the Pakistan side of the disputed Kashmir region, infringes on its sovereignty.

India has also not been able to contain China’s increased investments and partnerships in almost all of the South Asian nations barring Bhutan. India’s “string of pearls” theory is a realist perception that might be considered outdated as China has already marked its presence in South Asia, which appears to be quite irreversible.

A liberalist approach that emphasizes mutual cooperation and interdependence would benefit both nations as well as the entire South Asian region. 

A new beginning in Sino-Indian ties?

China and India have traditionally shared a relationship that lacks mutual trust. Any sort of military skirmish between these two nuclear powers would not only threaten each other’s national security but the security of the region and the world in general.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seem to have begun efforts in earnest to enhance cooperation between the two countries, taking lessons from last year’s border standoff in the Doklam region. Their informal meeting in the Chinese city of Wuhan in April allowed them to reflect on how their ties can move forward for mutual benefit.

Further warming of relations was observed after their recent meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao, which led to the signing of an agreement to settle the Brahmaputra River dispute.

One of the major foreign-policy concerns of China is related to Tibet and it expects its friends to stick with the “one China” policy. China has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of orchestrating the free-Tibet movement from Dharmashala in India. As India has given asylum to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile, the bilateral relationship will continue to be shrouded with suspicion if India continues to support the anti-China activities of the Tibetans in India.

Similarly, the frequent border disputes prevailing between the two countries should also be tackled in a logical manner to avoid a Doklam-like situation in the future.

China and India are members of several multilateral forums including BRICS and the SCO. Therefore, they both stand to benefit if they can build trust and start cooperating with each other, not only in economic matters but encompassing toward fulfilling their desired goals.

Although it is too early to predict the sustainability of a continued camaraderie between China and India, it can certainly be deduced from the recent events that the leaders of both countries have felt the need to have sincere mutual cooperation in the future for shared prosperity.

Geopolitics beyond the neighborhood

On one hand, India is considered to be an intimidating neighbor in South Asia, whereas China seems to be viewed more favorably. On the other hand, because China’s assertive posturing in the South China Sea, it is viewed by Southeast Asian nations as a hegemonic power threatening their sovereignty.

China’s ultimate competition for global supremacy is with the US, and therefore it is cozying up with India’s traditional ally Russia in its quest to establish a new world order. Its historically troubled relationship with Russia is a thing of the past, and their bilateral relationship is getting stronger by the day.

Considering its strategic location for maritime navigation and availability of a huge amount of natural resources, control over the South China Sea region has become a major foreign-policy objective for China. Similarly, India’s “Act East” policy of engaging with Southeast Asian countries has economic as well as strategic maritime objectives. Modi’s recent visit to a couple of countries in the region highlighted their growing cooperation in this regard as well as implicitly exploring means to counter China’s maneuvers in the South China Sea.

The often aggressive moves of Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea have prompted the United States and India to cash in on the opportunity and become sympathetic to the plight of Southeast Asian countries toward countering China. The US and India have advocated for the right of free navigation in the South China Sea, much to the displeasure of China.

The recent move by Washington to change the name of US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command signals its desire to expand maritime cooperation with its allies encompassing the whole of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Despite pressure from the US, India has shown reluctance toward the Quadrilateral Alliance also comprising Japan and Australia, bearing in mind the probable diplomatic fallout from China.

Creating a win-win situation

India appears to have adopted the strategy of maintaining a fine balance in its relations in such myriad scenarios in its international relations. Despite Russia being an old and trusted ally, the relationship is not as strong as it was during the Cold War era. While India wants to increase economic cooperation with China, it also desires to engage with the US and Southeast Asian countries to assert its role in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Chinese leadership is aware that although India is not its competitor at this point in time, it definitely possesses the capacity to act as a deterrent in China’s ambitions to challenge the US dominance in the international arena. Realizing this possibility, Xi has been trying to convince Modi of deeper collaboration during their meetings in Wuhan and Qingdao even if China has to give certain concessions in favor of India.

As the next step, he would be courting Modi so as to ensure India joins the BRI. China seems to be clear in its ultimate objective and the onus is now on India whether it wants to remain engaged in geopolitical games in conjunction with the US or forge a conducive partnership with its neighbor for creating a win-win situation not only for both of those countries but the region and the world in general.

The dream of an “Asian Century” will remain a distant one if China and India fail to cooperate with each other for the long term and have a divergent worldview.

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa is an analyst and writer on topics related to international relations. He is the president and managing director of the Nepal Forum of International Relations Studies (NEPAL FIRST).

5 replies on “Assessing the need for deeper China-India cooperation”

Comments are closed.