India-China Ties Need Fresh Initiatives

By Shastri Ramachandaran* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) – Although he was frustrated in sealing a long-term India-US strategic partnership – with the nuclear deal not gaining India a seat in the N-technology regimes — keeping that priority at the centre of foreign policy enabled Singh to upscale and deepen India-China relations like never before.

This is no mean achievement considering that there is much wider support – among the public, media, policy-shaping elite, think tanks, industry and business, and powerful sections in the political, military and official establishment – for India embracing the US (and its interests) than engaging with China in India’s interests.

For an “accidental” politician, who became Prime Minister for his presumed lack of political savvy, Manmohan Singh showed a canny appreciation of the dynamics of global power play: as long as he rooted for the US as India’s primary partner for all seasons and reasons, he would not be hindered in seeking cooperation and friendship with other countries, including those perceived to be “threats”, “rivals” or “enemies”.

In a globalised, de-ideologised world where international relations are driven primarily by business (trade) and profit motives, power is the sole currency. Despite the US-China rivalry, the two are friends and partners, often working in tandem even while carving out their respective spheres of influence.

Given this scenario – and the global financial crisis of 2008, which saw the emergence of the US and China as virtually G-2 – the challenge for India was to “Americanize” (have business) relations with China without affecting its goal of a strategic partnership with the US. In short, New Delhi had to build parallel tracks to Washington and Beijing. And, for a while, Manmohan Singh did this – creating conditions for India-China trade and business regardless of the boundary dispute – with aplomb.

His excellent rapport with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao strengthened ties, enriched cooperation, and saw India-China trade grow by leaps and bounds particularly in the five years since their Beijing summit in 2008. India-China relations flourished even though the two were seen as racing against each other toward faster growth.

Singh seemed to realise that India’s ability and strength to negotiate with China, and hasten the process of normalisation, could be leveraged against the India-US strategic relationship. China respects power and strength, and India’s strategic ties with the US coupled with China-US rivalry, made Beijing wary but, at the same time, eager to seize every opportunity for cooperation with India.

There was no explicit quid pro quo between India and China in so far as the US was concerned. Yet India declining to be drawn in to US-led schemes for containment of China and New Delhi’s calculated ambivalence to Washington’s strategic options such as its “Asia pivot” may be counted, in the Chinese view, among the benefits of enhanced cooperation. New Delhi, for its part, knows that China would have been less respectful of an India not rooted in a strategic partnership with the US. Singh deserves credit for this although his overall report card on foreign affairs is far from flattering.

However, this avowedly “great progress in friendship and fruitful cooperation” did not prevent China’s Ladakh incursion in April 2013, which took India by surprise and gave rise to tensions that revived memories of the 1962 conflict. The unprovoked military intrusion, coming soon after a new leadership had assumed office in China – on the eve of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit to Beijing and shortly before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi on his first foreign tour after taking charge – was decried as a gross violation of trust.

The incursion underscored that peace and tranquility on the border, normalisation, booming trade and cooperation across multiple tracks did not mean that “incidents” could be ruled out. It was a grim reminder that India-China ties could turn volatile. Singh rode out the storm and did not let powerful sections, vested interests and lobbies vitiate the atmosphere to a point where they could force the government to cancel the visit of Khurshid or Premier Li.

There are no clear and convincing answers to why the Ladakh incident occurred, but it seemed to be business as usual with more joint statements and agreements being signed during Li’s visit. This was followed by the 16th meeting on the India-China Boundary Question and the 5th China-India Strategic Dialogue. Manmohan Singh’s last major foreign policy excursion was to China in October.

For all the friendly outpourings, agreements and exchanges in various channels, India-China relations have not recovered the comfort and equilibrium that prevailed before the Ladakh incident. Besides the bitter aftertaste, there is an erosion of trust, apprehensions over the imponderables in the relationship and new questions about how old differences need to be handled.

More than tangibles, what is missing about China in India is a buzz. It is no longer the big topic of talk in political corridors, business circles or diplomatic quarters. There is a palpable absence of excitement about opportunities, especially economic, entrepreneurial, educational and cultural. India-China ties have become dull, routine. So much so that even new initiatives such as the first China-India Media Forum, exchange visits of youth delegations, sister-city agreements or cultural shows do not attract the attention they did.

All these make 2014 an important year. One year is too short a time to reverse the damage suffered in 2013 – which undid much of Manmohan Singh’s accomplishments in bilateral relations. 2014 is the 60th anniversary of Panchsheel (Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence) and designated as the “Year of Friendly Exchanges” between India and China.

This is an opportunity for India-China relations to regain visibility through a variety of activities and exchanges. Both sides need to take bold and imaginative steps to recover the lost robustness of a relationship that was blossoming but far from achieving even a small part of its potential.

*Shastri Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. A version of this article first appeared on January 29, 2014 on The Citizen under the headline India-China relations in dire need of new triggers and is being published by arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 30, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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