Relations between Asian rivals India and China have come under considerable strain in the recent months as mutual misgivings are steadily mounting. A slew of issues has led to the current strain and is likely to continue, unless one or the other blinks. However, neither country appears to be in the mood to do so.
"Positions have hardened and India must be prepared for a period of strained relations with China and Pakistan,’’ said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.
The strategic dynamic of the region is changing. China has been consistently backing Pakistan against India: Whether that be blocking India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, citing technical reasons for not supporting UN sanctions against Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar, or building massive infrastructure projects in PoK, which India claims as its own.
China is watching with some concern India’s growing warmth with the US. Beijing believes that Washington is propping up New Delhi to balance China's increasing military might in the Asia-Pacific. India has also been vocal about the South China Sea. During President Barack Obama's visit, India and US had issued a separate joint statement on the South China Sea calling for all parties to respect international laws.
The signing of the Logistics Agreement in Washington which allows India and US to use each other’s facilities is being seen in Beijing as another step in that direction. The agreement had been in the works for years as the UPA government had refused to sign it as many in the Congress saw it moving into the US orbit. The UPA also did not want to annoy China as improving relations with its giant neighbour was a priority of the Manmohan Singh-led regime.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou, where he was attending the G20 Summit hosted by China. In the bilateral talks, Modi spoke frankly. Unlike in
the past when many things were left unsaid, Modi did not shy away from mentioning India’s concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. New Delhi has been publicly talking about its unhappiness about the $46 billion project, which was announced by Xi, during his visit to Pakistan. Not a word of this was mentioned to India, even though Xi flew to Islamabad after a successful visit to India, where he and the First Lady were entertained by Modi on the banks of the Sabarmati. "China should have at least informed India about it, considering India claims PoK. Courtesy demanded it,’’ said Mansingh.
Unlike many other countries in the region, India has not been enthusiastic about Xi’s One Belt One Road initiative. At the moment as China prepares to launch its ambitious project, India’s
protests are hardly likely to make an impact.
Uncertain times are ahead, unless China shows some concession
“As a matter of principle, both countries would have to be sensitive to each other’s strategic interests. In order to promote positive convergences, we will also need to prevent negative perceptions. For this the specific actions by both countries would play the major role,” MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup paraphrased the prime minister as saying, at the briefing after the talks between the two leaders. Significantly, without naming Pakistan, China’s all-weather friend, Modi said: “Our response to terrorism must not be motivated by political considerations.” He also spoke of terrorism coming from the area. Although Pakistan was not named, the reference was obvious.
Significantly the CPEC is part of Xi’s pet projects which he hopes will transform the entire Central Asian economy. The CPEC envisages rail, road and pipeline projects to ferry oil and gas from Gwadar Port (built earlier by China) in Balochistan to Kashghar in China’s Xinjiang province through PoK. Pakistan is naturally enthusiastic about the CPEC. Political parties and more
importantly, the army are fired up by the project, but people in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province are not.
India’s open support for the Baloch cause announced by Modi in his Independence Day speech, has been hailed by the people there. Pakistan has long accused India of interfering in Balochistan and blamed Indian intelligence working out of Afghanistan of aiding Baloch "terror outfits". These charges will escalate in the days and months to come. Chinese interests will also be affected. This is why Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary and astute diplomat believes that if India takes on China, as it is doing about the CPEC, it has to be ready to take the consequences. It is not just Pakistan now in PoK and Balochistan, but Chinese interests as well.
Mansingh however welcomed India’s muscular stand on the South China Sea, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. "Chinese respond to strength and know the power game. Previously, India’s foreign policy was about moral principles and not real politik. This is the way forward.’’ The fact that India and the US are on the same page on China’s aggressive stand in the South China Sea, is a plus. Japan, India, US, Vietnam are all ranged together and there is strength in numbers. Modi’s visit to Hanoi ahead of the G-20 meet, was also a pointer that Delhi can also woo Beijing’s neighbours.
Even though China will certainly not change its stand on the CPEC, India must continue to flag its concerns in every forum, said Mansingh. Uncertain times are ahead, unless China shows some concession. Allowing India smooth entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, when the issue comes up in the last quarter of the year, may change the equation.
This will help to smooth the way to better ties.