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India and China Need to Move Past Tensions

Dr M.S. Prathibha is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 29, 2017

    The ritual bickering between India and China has once again been brought to the fore, this time over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. The March 10 dismissal by the Ministry of External Affairs of the visit’s political significance was an attempt to signal India’s non-attention to China’s core concerns. This is symptomatic of the contradictions in the way India and China practice diplomacy — a conflict of presuppositions and expectations. This accentuates the way each perceives the divergences in the other’s strategic thinking and how they respond to it. Not surprisingly, the first Strategic Dialogue between the two countries held on 22 February aimed at forging an understanding over a variety of issues failed. To take the example of India’s application to list Masood Azhar under the 1267 Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council, China has refused to vote in favour of this measure despite India conveying its concerns about terrorism. China’s repeated blocking of this UN vote has caused domestic outrage in India, especially when it had used considerable diplomatic resources to campaign for this cause in the UN. Clearly, the inability to rectify the situation has further eroded trust in the relationship.

    How has this situation come about, wherein high-level political consultations have helped in expanding economic cooperation but failed to reduce political irritants? Nor have emergency talks to manage crises been effective. Recent standoffs are symptoms of an institutional mechanism that has outlived its efficacy in managing bilateral relations. Such divergences are only likely to grow because differences are not confined to bilateral issues, and neither side is willing to make a compromise.


    Take the case of terrorism. India’s dialogue with China on counter-terrorism is filled with disproportionate expectations and preconceptions. For instance, India’s expectation that China will be more than willing to support its counter-terror initiatives because China too is a victim of terrorism is a wrong assumption. Firstly, China’s response to terrorism is based on the aggressive “Strike Hard” campaign against Uighurs. Chinese measures, which include restrictions on religious teaching, fasting and attire, frequent raids to retrieve religious materials, travel ban, and confiscation of passports would all be considered unconstitutional if applied in India. Thus, Chinese thinking that unilateral hard measures are justified to counter terrorism makes China’s approach distinct from that of India and, in turn, its expectations that India deal with terrorism unilaterally.

    Secondly, China views terror attacks and local tensions in Kashmir, and the ongoing counter-terror operations in the Valley, through the prism of its Pakistani interlocutors. This makes it more sympathetic towards Pakistani concerns. Thirdly, China prefers that India deal with the terrorism problem through bilateral means either through negotiations or security actions rather than involving multilateral institutions such as the UN. For China, a public and diplomatic stance of indirectly having to choose between Pakistan and India would be difficult to justify given its all-weather relationship with Pakistan. Thus, China refused any comment on India’s surgical strikes across the border in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) on the basis that it was a bilateral issue. Another seldom conveyed Chinese argument is that the listing of individuals in the 1267 list in the past has not resulted in curbing terror activities as evident in the free movement of Hafiz Saeed and Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi. Thus, China sees no point in supporting India at the expense of weakening its partnership with Pakistan on a policy, which, in any case, it considers as ineffectual.

    Furthermore, Pakistan and its terror groups have, in recent years, conveyed that undue Chinese meddling would be detrimental to domestic stability and, in turn, would affect goodwill and jeopardise the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. For its part, China has also become sensitive about threats to CPEC due to continued internal squabbling in Pakistan. For example, in October 2016, the Chinese envoy, Sun Weidong, met with Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chairman, Imran Khan, to seek assurance of his party’s support for CPEC after he had called for a siege of Islamabad. In the wake of inter-provincial tensions over CPEC, Chinese embassy officials were constantly issuing press statements and tweeting information about ongoing projects and province-wise contributions in order to manage perceptions. Thus, China has become more attuned to Pakistan’s anxieties because of the nature and extent of its growing investment in Pakistan, and does not want to be seen as coming under Indian pressure that could complicate an already-sensitive political environment.

    Nevertheless, despite these divergences, there are encouraging signs that India and China still can cooperate on this difficult issue. Given that the Chinese public and intelligentsia are concerned about terrorism in Xinjiang, India has numerous opportunities to influence opinion in China. This requires sustained engagement with various stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, the military apparatus, legal experts, and academic communities to help bridge the gap in understanding. Such interactions would not only inform them about the level of the terrorist threat faced by India but also the compulsions that determine India’s responses to terrorism. These interactions would be helpful, as stakeholders play a significant role in using public forums in mass media to engage and influence the public debate and provide inputs to policy-making. Moreover, it would help foster a crop of experts who could offer an effective counter-narrative to the views espoused by dominant Pakistan-influenced South Asia counter-terrorism experts. Further, the fact that some have expressed concerns and doubts over China’s policy approach towards the UN vote on Azhar gives India space to influence such views further. For instance, Mao Siwei, the former Consul-General in Kolkata, recently questioned, in his blog titled “Facing India-Pakistan Anti-Terror Disputes, China should take the Moral High ground”, the logic of China protecting Azhar at the expense of India-China relations, and urged China to rethink its policy. Further, China has not explicitly explained to the domestic audience its reasons for protecting Azhar despite India pressing it to do so, in contrast to the elaborate reasoning that is generally disseminated among the Chinese public and academic community relating to other contentious political issues. Because this is not an emotive issue at the domestic level, it offers a small window of opportunity for both sides to negotiate a solution.

    Dangerous Trends

    While opportunities exist for India and China to build trust, certain factors exacerbate the mistrust. On the one hand, China wants to assuage Pakistan’s insecurities by extending it financial, military and diplomatic support. On the other, it views Pakistan’s role in South Asia as helping to maintain the regional balance. This desire to maintain the regional balance through Pakistan contradicts China’s official foreign policy pronouncements that accord India major power status in the international system. For instance, a 2017 White Paper titled “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation” placed India as the third major power relationship after the US and Russia. This mismatch between wanting to maintain a power balance in the region, which requires China to keep Pakistan on an equal footing with India to some extent, and treating India as a major power that would include acknowledging its potential for contribution to global issues and attention to core concerns has created contradictions in Chinese diplomacy. Clearly, this incongruity reduces China’s chances of inducing favourable policies from India. While India may recognise China’s attempt to provide economic stability to Pakistan, it finds it unacceptable that China is trying to use Pakistan as a regional balancer.

    Compounding this is the Chinese ambiguity in concurrently treating India both as a rising power and a developing country. China labels India as a country with overwhelming economic and social challenges where China could play a role in investment in infrastructure. However, an international environment that has apparently been favourable to India had led China to term India as a rising power in the international system. Though India does not view such a categorisation negatively, it helps China to maintain an economically cooperative approach while being politically assertive. This approach helps China to limit India’s overall geo-political outreach, especially forging closer strategic cooperation with US or limiting Pakistan’s international space.

    For its part, India’s responses to Chinese actions are often disproportionate. For instance, India tends to view economic countermeasures such as reviewing visa norms for Chinese entrepreneurs as an appropriate response to disruptions in the political sphere. However, such measures are premature since India is yet to bear the fruits of Chinese investment. Instead, India should seek more relative gains in economic cooperation in the spirit of fostering trust and stability.

    Continued Economic Cooperation

    Nevertheless, in spite of political tensions, economic cooperation has continued to expand. China established the India-Business Council Liaison office in Changsha in November 2016. Also, engagements are underway between the Chinese Council for the Promotion of International Trade and its Hunan Sub-council with the Consulate-General of India in Guangzhou to accelerate collaborations for formulating long-term development plans. More Chinese entrepreneurs are also being encouraged to invest in the Indian market. Another area unaffected by political tensions is cooperation in the railways sector. Last year, China CRRC (China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation) started operations in a joint venture plant with Pioneer (India) Electric Co. Ltd. Sustained efforts to establish cooperative mechanisms and negotiations have put economic cooperation on auto-pilot. Undoing economic cooperation is neither desirable nor proportionate. Both countries have far too much to lose from a downward spiral in bilateral relations.

    Need for Clear Signalling

    It is in China’s interest to reformulate its thinking on the nature of India’s rise in the international system. On its part, India needs to differentiate its mode of diplomacy and interactions with China, i.e., avoid ad-hoc and conflicting signals. India uses political signals to convey information to China in order to influence its behaviour. Typically, this information reveals India’s options for a policy shift. However, signalling must also reveal information about India’s grasp of the historic and strategic contexts. In addition, India should be aware of the fact that China is likely to ignore the signals if it perceives the information revealed to be misleading. In fact, ambiguous signals have generally effected a more aggressive Chinese reaction because of the Chinese perception that India would either not be able to carry out a change in policy or that historic and strategic circumstances would prevent India from changing its policy. Therefore, India should only convey political signals that are believable by China and doable by India. Only thus can China be persuaded to take such signals seriously.

    Finally, India should aim for a strategic dialogue that focuses on the fundamentals of shared beliefs and political culture, and is supported by widespread engagement at the provincial, governmental and academic levels. In the case of counter-terrorism, cultivating a relationship with provinces and associated agencies directly affected by terrorism is imperative. India’s responses should be proportionate, i.e., not treat all issues of contention as of equal importance. Unless India and China’s ability to differentiate the nature of disagreements in the bilateral relationship improves, foreign policy decision-making would be swayed by disproportionate expectations.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.