A strategic thought on improving Indian-Chinese relations

AVINASH GODBOLE
Published

Indian-Chinese relations are complex and will be getting even more complex as time passes. For successful engagement, a nuanced and coolheaded handling of this relationship is needed. This is primarily because the nature of the relationship will determine the future of Asian security and the architecture of the Indo-Pacific region. In one of the last meetings between the two heads of state in Astana on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference, the two sides agreed that Indian-Chinese relations could be a factor of stability and a beacon of hope for other large and small developing countries in Asia and beyond. This is especially true given the global uncertainties and the developmental requirements of India as well as those of China.

The present tensions between the two countries emerged due to China's unilateral actions that aim to change the status quo concerning territory historically part of Bhutan, but claimed by China. The two countries have adequate amount of agreements — signed in 1988 and 1998 — and processes for the settlement of disputes through peaceful means and solving the outstanding issues through mutual dialogue and consultations. Therefore, China's actions are seen as contravening the letter and spirit of the concerned agreements and provocative — creating instability.

On the request of the Bhutanese government, and in accordance with the bilateral Friendship Treaty agreement of 2007 between India and Bhutan, the training unit of the Indian army present in Bhutan stood in the way of the construction of a permanent road by China. From the Indian perspective, construction of a permanent road would change the military balance in the region and would add to Indian strategic uncertainty pending the final border settlement between India and China, as well. As per the statement on the External Affairs Ministry, the Indian government has said: "[T]he Indian side has underlined that the two Governments had in 2012 reached agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding." This statement makes the Indian position on the issue crystal clear.

Since then, various Chinese government agencies have taken an unprecedented and aggressive stance on the standoff. Various Chinese media have called India a hegemon, and even official statements have warned about the dire consequence in case war were to break out between the two countries. India and China have a border dispute of their own, and the 2003, 2005 and 2012 agreements between the two have been the bedrock of the process toward its resolution. Based on the 2005 agreement, 19 rounds of special representative level talks have been held so far, and in both countries, there is optimism for the utility of the process as such.

It is important to begin any analysis of the bilateral relations between China and India by pointing out the strategic mistrust between the two countries. This has been created and sustained by various factors and some recent developments have confirmed a long-held belief in India in regard to the nature of Chinese-Pakistani relation. Other examples include China's position on the challenge of cross-border terrorism facing India and on India's membership in global nuclear energy networks.

China has undergone a long period of transition in which it has amassed enormous strategic capital. However, it does not really know what it will do with it. This is really the challenge to the notion of China's peaceful rise and development. Will China's rise indeed be peaceful or does it expect its neighbors, small and big, to acknowledge its power status much sooner than they otherwise would have? Equally important is the idea that China's self-perception — its idea of what it is and what it can do in the world order — has undergone tremendous upgradation in the past decade. Is China seeking ultimate preponderance in Asia? Even if there are no definitive answers to this question, what China's neighbors' think on this issue matters equally as much. Many in Asia are certainly worried whether China's rise is indeed going to be peaceful.

Many are faced with and worried by the question of whether the present situation between India and China may lead to war. While to assume a definitive answer on this would be foolish, an Indian-Chinese war on the Doklam standoff is unlikely. In the first place, India is not a claimant at the territory where the road construction was underway. China perhaps did not anticipate India to act on behalf of Bhutan. The restoration of the status quo as of June 16 was important. Since creating new facts on the ground goes against the letter and spirit of various agreements, it is important to note that these agreements have worked quite well so far.

India believes that a diplomatic solution to border disputes is the way forward. At this moment, the tone of some of the nationalist Chinese media is worrisome, but the mandarins in Delhi are well aware that media is driven by market and, thus, hypes the present situation unreasonably. What this does, however, is reduce China's soft power in India. This undermines the constructive tone set by the highest leadership in all of the recent meetings — both bilateral or on the sidelines of multilateral summits. India accords a high level of significance to relations with China and has actively encouraged broad-basing it for a deeper understanding; and will continue to work in that direction.

* Research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the organizations.

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