Boxing It In: China’s Approach to India

Originally published under the same title in The Quint, 13 August 2016.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi comes to New Delhi this week ostensibly in preparation for the G-20 summit in Hangzhou next month for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit China and the BRICS Summit in Goa for which Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit India in October. However, high-level meetings no longer impact matters significantly as they used to. Nor even do they help maintain matters on even keel if the incursions during Li Keqiang’s and Xi’s visits to India in 2013 and 2014 respectively or China’s objection to India’s NSG entry despite Modi’s personal intervention with Xi are anything to go by.

The question therefore, that Wang’s visit and the two forthcoming meetings between Modi and Xi must occasion is simple – what exactly is India’s place in China’s foreign policy calculus?

Falling Expectations from Modi

When Modi took over as Prime Minister, the Chinese were fully convinced that here was an Indian leader they could do business with. Modi’s personal qualities and his many visits to China as Gujarat Chief Minister were highlighted as signaling an impending change in bilateral ties. Modi’s many visits abroad and the dynamism that he seems to impart to Indian foreign policy continue to be remarked on frequently in China and the Indian economy too, is seen to be growing faster under his stewardship.

However, souring things for the Chinese in the first instance has been the Indian government’s implacable opposition to Xi’s pet ‘belt and road initiative’ (BRI), including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The other big disappointment for the Chinese has been the extremely slow pace of Indian economic reforms including on issues such as land acquisition and the Goods and Services Tax. Modi, the reformer, was expected to perform better pushing through initiatives to welcome foreign, and particularly, Chinese investment. Given these two aspects, such matters as India’s ever-closer partnership with the United States or its position on the South China Sea issue – which normally would be seen as par for the course in international politics – have had a cascading negative effect on bilateral ties.

As a result, halfway through the Modi term, the Chinese leadership seems to have made a couple of determinations about India. One, that it is neither moving fast enough for nor is it open enough to Chinese economic interests, and two, that given both its lack of capacity and its political rivalry with China, India had to be boxed in South Asia.

Chinese Arguments

However, this is not simply a repeat of the past. The Chinese have advanced subtle and highly sophisticated arguments that Indian policymakers can contest only if they are willing to make massive changes in India’s policies towards its neighbourhood.

First, Chinese analysts stress that South Asia is not just India’s neighbourhood, but China’s too. China, they point out shares borders with five SAARC members – almost as many as India does – and is the largest trading partner for most. Whatever happened in South Asia also affected China almost immediately in Xinjiang and Tibet and therefore, China had legitimate political and security interests in the region.

Second – and this is an example of the Chinese trying to change Indian behavior – surely India could no longer treat the sub-continent as its backyard for this was a defensive strategy arising out of the 1962 conflict and the Cold War and could no longer be feasible if India truly had global ambitions.

Third and related, the Chinese point out that regional economic integration, which is also an objective of SAARC, would be best served by cooperation between India and China, including joint investments and ventures in neighbouring countries. The unstated message is to cooperate with China on the BRI. On Pakistan, however, while the Chinese express their openness to connecting the CPEC to India, they are quick to put the onus on India saying that integration also depends on the state of Indo-Pak bilateral ties.

What China Achieves

Thus, China does two things. One, it indirectly tries to obtain Indian assent for greater Chinese activity and presence in South Asia. It would seem evident that where China is in a strong position, i.e., in Pakistan, there is little enthusiasm for anything to do with India. Where this is not the case and where Indian opposition counts as a significant factor, as in Nepal or Sri Lanka, Beijing is ready to discuss cooperation.

Two, given the gap between Indian and Chinese capabilities, it ensures that Indian expends its energies in South Asia itself trying to counter the ingress of Chinese trade and investments, and perhaps also tourists and soft power.

New Delhi has hitherto functioned more in a default setting of opposition to Chinese moves. However, the time is come for India to either adopt active alternatives to the BRI or think creatively about engaging with the BRI and CPEC both for reasons of facing up to reality as well as shaping it.

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