India’s Expanding Power Gap with China

Commentary | November 13, 2013

Writing in The Telegraph, EWI Board Member Kanwal Sibal discusses Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to China. Sibal warns that India's eagerness to project only the positive aspects of the bilateral relationship hinders progress dealing with challenging issues. 

We have a tendency to overstate the positives of our relations with China and downplay the negatives. This creates the impression that our ties are better than they actually are, and that the problems are either not as bad as they are made out to be or are more manageable than is thought. Since our most difficult relationship is with China, we have to be very careful in how we project it. It should be as close to reality as diplomacy permits so that the public at home is not misled or encouraged to be complacent, and observers abroad are not confused about where we stand.

China is set to acquire the status of tomorrow’s Number Two power. How India, the only large Asian country that can potentially challenge China’s dominance, develops its relations with it has a bearing on international equations in the years ahead. China’s phenomenal rise is causing concern in its neighborhood and beyond. Those watchful or threatened would want to apprehend as clearly as possible what the Indian perspective is for seriously exploring the possibility of forging greater understandings in common interest. If we behave as if the threat from China is either exaggerated or that we can cope with China’s rise and the expanding economic and military gap between the two countries largely on our own, then we will be unable to work out optimal partnerships needed to handle the challenges ahead.

It is debatable whether Manmohan Singh needed to go to China so soon after the Chinese premier’s May visit to India. Barring compelling reasons, such high-level visits are normally spaced out sufficiently to extract maximum results. Intensified top-level parleying between countries with known bilateral problems ordinarily indicates rapprochement dynamics at work. With mounting China-Japan tensions, rising Southeast Asian concerns about China’s conduct and growing US-China geopolitical rivalry, India releases pressure on China by visibly boosting its own engagement with it and allowing it to tactically present a more constructive and conciliatory face, just as we have been doing this by increasingly engaging Pakistan and softening our stand on its terrorist affiliations just when it had begun to be cornered on this issue by the West.

The calendar and content of our engagement with China should, of course, be determined foremost by our national interest and not the agenda of others, consistent with our strategic autonomy. But our initiatives should strengthen our position vis-à-vis China, rather than the reverse. We have to carefully watch China’s conduct towards Japan and its assertiveness in the South China Sea, and draw lessons from it for our own differences with China. China has multiple objectives in hiking up its engagement of India. With the forthcoming visit of the Japanese royal couple and Prime Minister Abe to India in mind, it would want to pre-empt, to the extent possible, a deepening of the India-Japan strategic embrace at China’s cost. By indicating a willingness to stabilize the military situation with India in spite of enduring territorial differences, it is trying to insinuate that Japan, not China, is primarily responsible for territorial tensions over the Senkakus by choosing to activate the dispute rather than seeking stabilizing arrangements. Beyond this, China’s moves towards India are tactically aimed at unbalancing the United States of America’s “re-balancing” towards Asia in which India is being cast in a central role.

That the Chinese clubbed our prime minister’s visit with those of the prime ministers of Russia and Outer Mongolia shows the mounting hubris of China as a “great power”, which can now command the visits of world leaders to its capital in clusters. While our prime minister was received at all the required levels and some extra personal attention was undoubtedly paid to him, the subtle way in which India has also been made to accept a reduced status should not be overlooked. Professional diplomats are prone to highlight gestures made “beyond strict protocol requirements” as signals of the high regard in which a country and its leader are held by the host. Barring immediate satisfaction that such gestures bring, they are often superficial, focused on atmospherics, without necessarily denoting any change in core calculations. In this connection, it is pertinent that while Presidents Obama and Putin are our prime minister’s direct interlocutors, with China it is the Chinese premier. Apparently, the Chinese premier is the interlocutor of the German chancellor and the British premier too, which makes this anomaly less galling diplomatically.

The border defense cooperation agreement was the most significant outcome of the prime minister’s visit. As this is by no means a breakthrough agreement, the question remains whether we were right in being maneuvered into going to Beijing at this stage to boost the accord’s intrinsic importance, especially in the context of China’s provocative conduct on our own border and elsewhere. If the 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012 agreements on maintaining peace and tranquility on the border through confidence-building measures and other mechanisms have not worked as intended, a new agreement, which, in many ways, is a watered-down version of the key earlier ones, may not yield better results. The expanding power gap with China has forced us into a position where a solution to the border issue has become less pressing than ensuring that China does not use its increased muscle to make incremental territorial incursions into our side. This accords with the Chinese strategy of not resolving the core issue and maintaining status quo as China can disturb it periodically at will and keep us under pressure.

Unsurprisingly, the joint statement issued during the prime minister’s visit repeats, therefore, the empty formulation that the “Special Representatives, who have been charged with exploring a framework of settlement of the India-China boundary question, were encouraged by the two leaders to continue their efforts in that direction”. If, after 10 years and 16 rounds of discussions, all that the two leaders could do is to “encourage” the special representatives, it indicates the wide gap that still remains to be bridged.

The memorandum of understanding signed during the visit on strengthening cooperation on trans-border rivers is a step in the right direction as it draws China into expert-level discussions on our concerns about Chinese dam-building plans on rivers flowing from Tibet to India. Whether China will move beyond data sharing and emergency management, and will concede any right to India to interfere with its plans is seriously open to question, given the implications of this, inter alia, for China’s relations with other lower riparian countries in Asia.

The joint statement notes that the exchange of visits by the prime ministers of the two countries “within the same calendar year was the first since 1954 and has great significance”. This is mystifying because the first such double exchange failed to resolve mounting differences over the border issue that culminated in a military conflict in 1962, and this second double exchange has not opened up any perspective of a resolution of these differences. Our eagerness to improve our relationship with China and project it positively in spite of Chinese provocations, which we tolerate and find ways to reconcile with, hugely handicaps our dealings with the challenges posed by that country.

Click here to read the article in The Telegraph