Neorealists on both sides have yet again constrained India-China relations within the old rules of the game.
Neorealists continue to call the tune in the highest policy circles, think tanks and the media in India and China. They found their moment when Chinese President Xi Jinping came calling on 17-19 September. The visit brought into full play power games by the two sides thereby denying the potential for a growing partnership between the two countries.
There are mixed images from President Xi Jinping’s visit. There was the colourful reception in Ahmedabad which conveyed warmth and hospitality. But there were also the pictures of the face-off between the Chinese and Indian personnel in Chumar in Ladakh in the disputed zone of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), both sides carrying banners claiming that it was their territory. A similar incident took place in April 2013 in Depsang on the eve of the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and there was the case of stapled visas for residents of Jammu and Kashmir or earlier Chinese pronouncements of their claim to Arunachal Pradesh. The Chumar development was raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad following which the Chinese personnel withdrew, but only to return the day after Xi departed for Beijing. Clearly, the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, which came into being following an agreement signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China in October 2013, is not functioning, otherwise the Chumar incident would not have happened.
The Indian prime minister’s emphatic statement that without peace on the border there can be no peace in India-China relations and the statement by President Xi that China was determined to arrive at a settlement of the boundary dispute at the earliest and putting it in the joint statement as a “strategic objective” were the most important takeaways from the visit. But there was no clear indication that the two heads of state had agreed on a new process to achieve this objective. Modi and Xi reaffirmed the utility of the Special Representative mechanism which was put in place after Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003. Incidentally, the Modi government is yet to name India’s Special Representative for the talks.
Despite 17 rounds of talks over the years between the two Special Representatives, there has not been much progress. The approach that had been laid out jointly by Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping way back in 1988 that while the boundary talks should be pursued for a settlement, India-China relations on all fronts should develop has had its major achievements in the past quarter century and has now run its course.
Perhaps a time has come to address the boundary issue more directly. Prime Minister Modi’s demand to “clarify’’ the LAC to prevent incidents like Chumar and Depsang may actually be the clue to delimit and identify the actual line by mutual discussions and settle the boundary dispute once and for all. Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s statement to Xi that India’s China policy represented a national consensus is indeed a good baseline for the Modi government to make solid moves towards a boundary settlement while enforcing an agreed method to maintain peace on the LAC.
The neorealist moves of placing checks and balances on bilateral relations worked in full force during the Xi visit limiting the possibilities of cooperation not only in economic and cultural areas but also on regional and global issues. Chinese investment of $20 billion in infrastructure-building, particularly in railways, was announced but there was no target set for an increase of the trade volume such as reaching $200 billion in 2020, i e, doubling the 2015 target that was set by China’s Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002.
There was no common view on how to address the trade imbalance against India except the hope that the Chinese investment would promote manufacturing for export. No doubt, the 13 agreements signed by the two countries during the bilateral discussion had many important initiatives among them, such as cooperation on civil nuclear energy and space, and, thankfully, opening a new motorable road via Sikkim’s Nathula Pass to Kailash Mansarovar.
But there were clear retreats during the Chinese president’s visit on regional cooperation. Modi chose to ignore Xi Jinping’s dream project of the Southern and Maritime Silk routes, all of which would pass through India – something that both Maldives and Sri Lanka, which Xi visited before coming to India, welcomed. China has already announced its support for India’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which surprisingly did not find mention in the joint statement.
Equally surprising, the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor got only a passing mention. It should be noted that unlike the SCO, the BCIM – an alphabetical order signifying equal status of all the four countries – has been designed collectively to mutual advantage. To regard it as a Chinese manoeuvre to get access to the Indian market is the height of neorealist obsession. Instead of developing four-country cooperation to promote local people’s participation and development, and BCIM as an opportunity to address the alienation of the people of north-east India, the Government of India’s security advisers are pushing the country in the opposite direction.
Prime Minister Modi has been fascinated by China’s reforms and its focus on economic development and may therefore wish for a positive turn in India-China relations. But if he too falls into the neorealist trap and makes India a part of “balancing coalitions” in Asia and the world, then the early promise of his foreign policy of making peace and understanding in the neighbourhood as the focus of his world outlook will make little headway. India and China cannot afford to play another round of a power game that will only hurt both of them.
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