An Indian View on the Sino-Indian Dynamic


2014-11-23 By General Deepak Kapoor (Retd)

AUGUST AND September had been rather busy for the Indian foreign policy establishment, with a large number of high profile visits taking place to and from the country.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan and the US, President Parnab Mukherjee’s tour of Vietnam and Australian Prime Minister’s visit followed by the Chinese presidential visit to India were noteworthy besides a host of others undertaken by Mr Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

One clear message that comes across is that Indian foreign policy is no longer suffering from the stasis and drift witnessed during the UPA-II regime. The tentativeness of that period has been happily replaced by a more focused and goal oriented approach to regional and global issues.

The perception of our neighbors and others, that India is poised to play a more active role with a stable Government firmly in control at the Centre, is gradually gaining ground.

There is no denying the fact that with the dramatic rise of China, the global focus has shifted to the Asia Pacific region.

As China flexes its economic and military muscle, reverberations are being felt both at the regional and global levels. Even though there has been a marginal decline in the Chinese rate of growth, its military spending has continued to increase. Proclamations by China of a peaceful rise notwithstanding, apprehensions among its neighbors about its real intentions are gradually increasing.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan, left wave to the media after Modi received them upon arrival at a hotel in Ahmadabad, India, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Credit Photo: AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan, left wave to the media after Modi received them upon arrival at a hotel in Ahmadabad, India, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Credit Photo: AFP

Astute observers have also noted China no longer follows Deng Xiao Ping’s maxim of ‘hiding intentions and biding time’. With continuous high rate of growth leading to increased clout, it is breaking out of the mold of feeling apologetic about its rise. In fact, its strategic doctrines and concepts display an evolving trend to suit its national interest and growth as a global power.

As the Chinese power grows both economically and militarily, there is a clear evidence of greater assertiveness in its territorial disputes with its neighbors whether in the South China Sea, East China Sea or in the Himalayas. Specifically when the cloak of a ‘peaceful rise’ would be totally shed, depends on how soon it perceives itself capable of handling its consequences.

India has a unique role to play as the Asia Pacific region emerges as the global center of gravity.

Its geographic location, size, economy, markets and population make it an attractive partner for potential adversaries. India’s accelerated rate of growth in the past decade has projected it as a rising power in regional and global affairs. Though there has been a relative decline in its growth in the last couple of years, it has the potential to reverse that trend and regain its standing in the coming years.

The US and its allies view India, the largest democracy, as a natural partner against communist Chinese expansionism. They expect India to take the lead in checking aggressive Chinese moves and posturing in South China Sea as well along its land borders.

Chinese efforts, on the other hand, have focused on keeping India away from being part of an anti China alliance by enhancing economic cooperation on one hand and stressing on historical and traditional linkages on the other.

India has a dilemma of its own. Since independence it has maintained a non-aligned stance, has never been part of any grouping and has retained its autonomy in decision making in global affairs. This militates against joining a Western led alliance.

The Chinese, on the other hand, seek to improve Sino-Indian relations by enhanced economic cooperation between the two.

However, with threat to Indian territorial integrity looming large due to non settlement of the boundary dispute with China for half a century now, the possibility of economic cooperation being successful as a tool for improving long term relations between the two seems to have limited chances of success.

Chinese President Mr Xi Jinping’s India visit has to be viewed in the context of a desire by both nations to improve relations. From the Chinese perspective, with the possible exception of Pakistan, there is a degree of apprehension and unease among its neighbors despite massive doses of economic aid to a number of them, as to the real Chinese intentions.

India, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and Japan have unresolved boundary issues in view of the Chinese claims both on land as well as South and East China Sea Islands. Even where such territorial disputes are nonexistent, the fear of Chinese expansionism and eventual domination is a major concern with neighbors like Myanmar, Mongolia, Nepal, Thailand and South Korea.

The presence of large Chinese Diasporas in most South East Asian countries further fuels these apprehensions. Chinese attempts to reach out to a number of these countries through economic packages have not succeeded due to their security concerns.

From an Indian perspective, it makes logical sense to enhance economic relations with a rising global powerhouse like China since it would assist in improving Indian growth and development in the long run.

Chinese investments in the infrastructure, power, communications and other sectors would open avenues for Indian industrial growth besides providing employment and self -sufficiency in crucial areas.

Secondly, better economic relations may lead to softening of attitudes and final resolution of boundary issues between the two.

Thirdly, the strong nexus between China and Pakistan vis-a-vis India, which has been existent for almost half a century now would, it is hoped, stand diluted with the development of better relations between India and China.

A major problem with economic cooperation has been the massive Indian trade deficit which is gradually increasing to India’s disadvantage. Raw materials exported from India at low prices and expensive finished goods imported into the country from China increase the trade deficit besides closing avenues for domestic manufacturing sector. Unless a solution is found to this vexatious issue, economic cooperation between the two is likely to become increasingly one sided.

A second aspect, which is of concern, is that both China and India are emerging economies, and at times would be competing for the same markets globally. The possibility of this healthy competition turning into confrontation at some stage cannot be ruled out.

Post Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan, where agreements worth approximately $35 billion Japanese investment into India were signed, the Indian media speculated on the possibility of China outdoing Japan and investing up to $100 billion in India in the next five years.

These expectations were, however, belied with China pledging a disappointingly low figure of just $20 billion investments in the next five years.

On the security front, results of the Xi visit have been more dismal.

Chinese incursions into Chumar and Demchok sectors of the Ladakh region took place just a few days before President Jinping was to arrive in Delhi. Indian Army reacted firmly to these transgressions resulting in a serious face off with both sides sticking to their positions. Surprisingly, the standoff continued even while the presidential visit was in progress, leaving a distinct impression that the Chinese transgressions had the approval of the country’s highest political levels.

The resultant hype in the Indian media undermined the significance of the visit and left a question mark over Chinese intentions.

The Chinese intent to convey that economic cooperation and strategic issues are at two different and separate levels seem to have missed the point that an overall improvement in relations is only possible when all aspects are taken care of.

There is a basic trust deficit between India and China. If one of the aims of the Chinese President’s visit was to reduce that trust deficit, it stands negated due to events on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Secondly, the non-resolution of the boundary issue weighs heavily on the Indian mind. This appears to have been conveyed by Mr. Modi emphatically during their interaction.

Till it gets resolved to mutual satisfaction, improvement in Sino-Indian relations cannot go beyond a certain level. Even economic cooperation would be constrained by this limitation. The joint communiqué, issued at the end of President Xi’s visit underlined the need to settle strategic issues, thereby signaling China’s acceptance of this stance. The camaraderie and bonhomie displayed by both the leaders during the visit will have to be matched by concrete actions by both sides to indicate the contours of future relationship between the two.

While China and India share similar views on a host of global issues like climate change, global commons, terrorism, drug trafficking, trade barriers etc., there are major differences on a number of strategic issues. The impression that India is a second rung state vis-a-vis China tends to be subtly conveyed by the Chinese leadership in all interactions. President Xi Jinping’s visit was no exception in this regard.

Clandestine Chinese attempts to undermine India at various international forums continue unabated from time to time, leading to an increase of trust deficit.

If China is sincere in maintaining good relations with India and ensuring India’s neutral stance in the Asia Pacific region, its actions must aim at eliminating the trust deficit altogether. From the Indian viewpoint, resolution of strategic issues with China will enable it to concentrate on its internal growth and development in a focused manner

General Deepak Kapoor PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, ADC (b. 1948) was the 23rd  Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army, appointed on 30 September 2007 and Chairman, Chiefs of Staffs Committee(COSC) appointed on 31 August 2009.[2]

He retired on 31 March 2010 and was succeeded by General V K Singh, PVSM, AVSM, YSM, ADC.

This piece was republished with permission of our partner India Strategic.