Rethinking the China-Pakistan-India Triangle

It has been suggested that New Delhi’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was an ‘extraordinary exercise in realpolitik’, that the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘is not easily rattled by disapproving noises at home or abroad’. One analyst referring to China’s opposition put it rather colourfully that Beijing behaved ‘not as an enlightened power but as a strategic small-timer, with the petty, perfidious and short-termist mindset of a Pyongyang dictator or a Rawalpindi general’.

Not being ‘rattled’ is a good thing and as it should be. However, the ‘exercise in realpolitik’ is not all on the one side and nor indeed, the petty behaviour of a ‘strategic small timer’ with a ‘short-termist mindset’. India is just as guilty and another Indian commentator has, in fact, analysed the NSG episode as an example of India lacking in Kautilyan attributes.

There are two questions for India here: one, does India have the wherewithal over the long term to take on the Chinese – or anybody else, for that matter – and two, what is the out-of-the-box approach India should take to deal with China ingress into India’s neighbourhood?

Sustaining the Good Fight

To start with the first question, unlike the well-oiled diplomatic tandem of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Defence Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan and the occasional Politburo Standing Committee heavyweight thrown in for good measure, India seems to be overly reliant on the Prime Minister while effective military diplomacy is limited by civilian bureaucratic cussedness. To deploy our biggest gun in the form of the Prime Minister for every major diplomatic visit or occasion is to both cheapen his value and reduce his impact. The Chinese are well aware of this.

The Prime Minister is also not helped by the size of the diplomatic corps at his disposal. How does a country with regional and global ambitions make do with a foreign service the size of Belgium’s? India’s diplomatic successes are hard won and often mean that efforts and energies are diverted from other tasks. The Chinese by contrast are all over the place and in strength and their diligence and the sheer numbers that they can throw at a problem have begun showing results in countries like Nepal which New Delhi has for long imagined as securely within its sphere of influence but which now clearly has pro-India and pro-China camps within its political establishment and among its intellectual elites.

To his credit, Prime Minister Modi has tried to work around these structural weaknesses in the Indian system and adopted a multi-pronged approach to China. Thus, we have a prominent BJP leader on religious pilgrimage in Tibet at the invitation of a Chinese think-tank, finance minister, Arun Jaitley in Beijing trying to persuade Chinese firms to invest in Indian infrastructure and manufacturing and BJP Chief Ministers like Shivraj Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh and Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra with their own attempts to seek investments to their respective states. All of these activities took place around the same time last year as the contretemps over the NSG bid or the Chinese ‘technical holds’ on sanctioning Pakistani terrorists. Chouhan even said that dialogue with China had to continue despite the latter’s NSG position.

However, how can India achieve both its economic and political goals?

Who’s Afraid of Hyphenation?

Strangely, Modi’s multi-pronged approach employed in the case of China seems to be lacking when it comes to Pakistan. If Chinese attempts to hyphenate India with Pakistan works against India in the NSG, it could work for India in the case of economic engagement. Greater Indian flexibility on China’s ‘one belt, one road’ initiative, particularly on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will also be a way to break the ice with China on a variety of other issues, NSG included.

The CPEC is important because for the first time, India has the transformational opportunity to be a swing state in Sino-Pak relations. Prime Minister Modi has not gone far enough in his attempts to improve relations with Pakistan. Terrorist attacks should not surprise or throw larger strategic plans off course. If they do, then either the attempts to engage were shallow to begin with or merely political theatre at worst.

For a variety of reasons ranging from security to returns on investment, Chinese state-owned enterprises are unhappy with their own government for pushing them into Pakistan while the real prize is next door in India. While China continues to pour money into Pakistan, it cannot keep writing off the costs indefinitely in terms of some vague ‘strategic’ benefits that are not entirely clear even to their brightest minds. For their part, thinking Pakistanis have their own concerns about the nature and consequences of the CPEC.

These factors create opportunities for New Delhi which should see that engagement with the CPEC actually opens legitimate avenues to reach out not just to the Islamabad government but also to other interest groups in Pakistan, including its military, its economic elite, its youth and its provinces. Businessmen and industrialists from the two Punjabs, for instance, should be discussing how to make money together while knocking back a few Patiala pegs and thanking the Chinese sitting inside their highly fortified compounds throughout Pakistan for the opportunity.

India’s current position on the CPEC – opposing it on the grounds that it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) – might be proper but about as unimaginative a policy as it can get. Joining the CPEC does not have to prejudice India’s position of holding sovereignty over PoK.

India has by its own actions boxed itself into a situation of negative hyphenation with Pakistan. It is not surprising therefore, that China exploits the situation in the best traditions of realpolitik as it has done at the NSG.

The challenge then is for India to subvert this logic, to take the relationships with both Pakistan and China a bold step forward by engaging with the CPEC. The transformative potential for India’s geopolitical environment is huge. More specifically, for India, to let an immediate neighbour of some 200 million people spin permanently out of any sort of Indian political, economic and cultural influence is not smart international politics.

This article was orignally published by the India Global Business.

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