India’s Strategic Choices to Engage China

Amb. Biren Nanda, former High Commissioner/Ambassador to Australia , Indonesia & ASEAN

What are the Key elements of the Chinese world view at this Juncture?

China perceives the current phase as demonstrating increasing multi-polarity and a decline in US power after the Global Financial crisis of 2007-08. This is seen as giving rise to a period of ‘great strategic opportunity’ to seek the realization of China’s key goals, including challenging the dominant position of US power in Asia, aggressively pursuing maritime and continental territorial claims, pursuing a rapid expansion of maritime power, seeking to dominate its periphery through the BRI and pushing a new Asian Security Architecture that seeks to diminish the role of outside powers. China’s assertiveness has resulted in a pushback from the United States and some regional powers.

How is India reacting to these developments?

First, from a strategic perspective India has moved closer to the United States. Second, India has pursued comprehensive engagement with China based on the belief that there is enough strategic space in Asia to support to support the phenomenal rise of China and the accelerating rise of India. The two countries can emerge without becoming adversaries if they are aware of each other’s’ red lines and make sure that these red lines are never crossed.

Third, India has actively sought to counter Chinese actions in our South Asian and India Ocean neighborhoods, particularly those that have adversely affected India’s national security. Fourth, India has developed closer strategic ties with other powers in the region including Japan, Vietnam and Australia. These growing relationships are based on a convergence of views on the prevailing threats and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific. Fifth, with its “Act East Policy” India is working vigorously to strengthen relations with ASEAN countries bilaterally, and through active participation in ASEAN dialogue forums.

What are the broad trends that characterize the present phase of India China Relations?

Within the emerging US-China bipolar system China is aggressively diminishing India’s Strategic space in its neighborhood and shaping India’s strategic choices in engaging with China. India’s strategic tilt towards the United States is a response to aggressive Chinese actions inimical to Indian interests and a source of growing concern for Beijing. The United States has characterized China as a ‘revisionist power.’  which seeks to challenge the United States’ dominant position in Asia. As long as there are continuing tensions in Sino-US relations, China will make positive overtures towards India, without any assurances that it will not revert to a confrontationist posture under different circumstances in the future. The two summits embodying “the Wuhan Spirit” and the “Chennai Connect” are an attempt to reinvent bilateral relations in order to bring stability to the relationship. They rest on the foundation of maintaining respect for each other’s’ core interests and aspirations.

Closer Strategic Communication between the two leaders has been an overarching objective. Understanding each other’s national visions, developmental priorities, aspirations and red lines that must be respected in order to maintain stability in the relationship has been the priority. The India China trade deficit has continued to grow despite years of discussions between the two sides. While the Chinese side views it as a ‘structural problem’ that cannot be resolved in the short term, we regard it as an issue of ‘market access’ requiring Beijing to address non tariff barriers.

On the RCEP India’s core concern is the same – the impact of the agreement on the bilateral trade deficit. The decision to elevate the trade dialogue to the ministerial level signals the resolve of both sides to find some common ground to address the issue. An important issue for China is the US targeting of major Chinese technology firms to prevent them from getting global business in the 5G roll out. China is keen that India resist US pressure. The Indian government is caught between competing demands. Telecom companies want Huawei to bid because it keeps prices down. But the Government must address the security risks of exposure to cyber threats in the future and the ‘potential US sanctions risk’ of being caught up in increasingly fractious US-China trade tensions.

While China seeks to move towards a Sino-centric Asian Order, India’s vision is that of a multipolar Asia. Within a Sino-centric order China would regard cooperation with India as a priority. India’s growing economy, its importance to China as a trading partner, its role in Asia centric governance institutions like the AIIB and the BRICS Bank and its accretion of strategic capital through its strategic partnerships make it an important Asian interlocutor from China’s point of view.  The Indian Ocean is witnessing a rapid rise of Chinese naval presence on the high seas and in bases and places along the littoral. India’s challenge is to counter the expansion of Chinese presence and influence without appearing too provocative. At Mamallapuram Xi continued to urge Prime Minister Modi to cooperate in China-India Plus projects and connectivity networks in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and the BRI. Beijing may regard India’s participation in BRI essential for its characterization and success as an Asian project but India remains cautious because of BRI’s strategic intent which to create a Sino-centric Asian order. China seeks to diminish the strategic space for India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. India is concerned at China’s growing investments and influence in South Asian countries and the IOR. The strategic collusion between China and Pakistan exacerbates security challenges for India in the region. China is unlikely to be flexible on key issues affecting India’s National Security including the boundary dispute or its expanding footprint in South Asia and its growing strategic ownership of Pakistan. Nor will it cooperate on issues India regards as key milestones in India’s rise as a great power – as for example our quest for permanent membership of the UNSC or membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While a combination of external circumstances and summit level diplomacy appear to have stabilized India-China relations, it remains to be seen how long India and China can sustain the process without substantial progress on the core issues that divide them.

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