India must not take China's declaration of friendship at face value and risk slowing improvement of ties with US

The continuation of positive momentum in India-China relations is good news for all those who desire peace and stability in South Asia — a region that has been reeling from the geopolitical reverberations of its fractious politics. New Delhi and Beijing are holding talks to set up a hotline between their defence ministries as part of the confidence-building measures. During Chinese defence minister General Wei Fenghe’s recent India visit, he held in-depth discussions with the Indian leadership on how to implement the vital consensus arrived upon by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping during their 'informal summit' in Wuhan in April. There are some other developments that point to a mitigation of tensions between the two Himalayan neighbours since the Doka La standoff last year.

South Asia lacks political unity and economic integration, and good relations between the two major powers — India and China — are a good omen. However, Chinese outreach towards India is transactional and has been necessitated due to the US-China trade war that has rattled Beijing. New Delhi would be well advised not to take Chinese declarations of friendship, mutual trust and cooperation at face value and consequently, reduce the pace of its growing proximity to Washington. What the 'Wuhan consensus' for China means is not too difficult to understand: It is primarily aimed at persuading India to roll back from deepening its strategic partnership with the US.

Beijing perceives this particular relationship as having the potential to adversely affect the regional balance of power. China's anger at the concretisation of the Indo-Pacific concept is directed against the formation of an alliance-type relationship among India, the US, Japan and Australia. New Delhi is not oblivious to the fact that rock-solid partnership with Washington is foundational to ensure the existence and survival of a rules-based sustainable regional order and the freedom of the seas.

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. PTI

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. PTI

Amidst the loud talk of a transformative shift in Sino-Indian ties, India can ill-afford to lose sight of China’s role in making things extremely difficult for India, both geopolitically and strategically. New Delhi should not let Beijing's recent charm offensive obscure its fundamentally hostile actions. Can China's role in arming Pakistan be forgotten so easily? Islamabad has continued to serve as the primary tool of Beijing to contain and surround India. The China-Pakistan 'axis' has only grown stronger in recent years as Beijing continues to exploit Rawalpindi’s anti-India sentiments to thwart New Delhi's regional and global ambitions. It has totally ignored Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India by opposing moves in the United Nations to place international sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorist groups and individuals.

India's efforts to gain permanent membership of the UN Security Council and membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) continue to be thwarted by China, with Pakistan performing the role of a loyal sidekick. It is largely because of Chinese assistance that Pakistan has been able to blunt India's unquestionable military edge in conventional weapons. Courtesy China, Pakistan is in possession of plutonium-based, miniaturised tactical nuclear weapons, and its missile programme is entirely based on Chinese technology.

Moreover, China is proving to be an impediment to peace efforts in Afghanistan. Is it a mere coincidence that despite the unprecedented increase in terror attacks, intensified fighting and mounting casualties across Afghanistan, no Chinese ventures have faced attacks? Both China and Pakistan want the NATO troops out of Afghanistan at the earliest. Although China is denying reports that it is planning to deploy troops or establish a military base in Afghanistan, the fact cannot be denied that Beijing's role has not been very positive. On 30 August 30, Chinese defence ministry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian denied a report published in the South China Morning Post that Beijing has plans to station hundreds of soldiers at a base in eastern Afghanistan.

Even Afghan Ambassador to China Janan Mosazai had to clarify that Beijing was only helping Kabul set up a mountain brigade to bolster counterterrorism operations, but had no plans to send Chinese military personnel on Afghan soil. However, there are unconfirmed reports of Chinese military vehicles operating in the Wakhan corridor, which connects Afghanistan to China in the east and separates Tajikistan in the north from Pakistan in the south.

It may be pointed out that the intelligence agencies of Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan held an important meeting in Islamabad on 11 July to formulate "coordinated steps to prevent the trickling of Islamic State terrorists from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, from where they would pose risks for neighbouring countries". But neither Afghanistan nor India was invited for this discussion. The meeting should have happened under the banner of the Regional Anti-terrorism Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), as all affected countries are either its members or observers of the group. It remains to be seen how India and China undertake joint economic projects in Afghanistan — marking a paradigm shift in their strategic ambitions.

Despite having some overlapping geoeconomic and geopolitical interests in Afghanistan, structural constraints in Sino-Indian relations are likely to limit their ability to constructively pursue cooperation in the country. America's visible hastiness in withdrawing forces from Afghanistan will only tighten the strategic bond between China and Pakistan, accelerating the process of India's encirclement.

There can be no dispute on the larger gains from the Indian Army's enhanced international military engagements. India's participation in the just-concluded joint military exercises with Pakistan under the aegis of the SCO may be termed as a tremendous gesture as far as peacekeeping and disaster management are concerned, but seems to have sent confusing signals in terms of counter-terrorism endeavours. Nobody is sure as to what specific counterterrorism purpose has been achieved by India’s participation in the joint exercise when Pakistan’s role in propping up violent non-state actors in Kashmir and Afghanistan is not a secret anymore.

Without forcing its 'all-weather ally' Pakistan to slough off its undesirable dependence on Islamist militants and the pernicious ideology that underpins them, China would like to deliberately promote more such events. Beijing is more than happy as long as Pakistan’s military establishment keeps China-focused militant groups in check. Any drift by New Delhi towards better relations with Islamabad without extracting tangible counterterrorism commitments in return is going to benefit only China.

If Beijing feels that New Delhi should take steps to correct the contradictions in their bilateral ties, it cannot avoid its own responsibility in breaking the impasse. Jeopardising Indian interests by emboldening Pakistan’s recklessly ambitious military establishment is not the best way forward. Beijing’s interest in building economic and infrastructure ties needs to be accompanied by sincere efforts to reduce political trust deficit. The Narendra Modi government's foreign policy strategists would be well advised to pay attention to what Henry Kissinger observed in his book, On China: "Chinese negotiators use diplomacy to weave together political, military, and psychological elements into an overall strategic design. Diplomacy to them is the elaboration of a strategic principle. They ascribe no particular significance to the process of negotiation as such; nor do they consider the opening of a particular negotiation a transformational event. They do not think that personal relations can affect their judgments, though they may invoke personal ties to facilitate their own efforts... They prize gestures of goodwill only if they serve a definable objective or tactic".

South Block mandarins are mistaken if they believe that an informal summit or high-level diplomatic visits or military hotlines will do the trick in resolving fundamental issues between India and China.

Longer-term perspectives, rationality, and diligence are required for policies to develop some direction and momentum as far as Indo-Chinese relations are concerned. There is nothing wrong in making concerted efforts in resetting ties with China; this is what is required at the moment to make Asia’s geostrategic environment more conducive for sustainable peace, security and stability, but it needs to be pursued without throwing caution to the wind. In one way or the other, all Indian governments have sought to deepen New Delhi’s engagement with Washington as the relationship has been rightly perceived as pivotal to mange China’s antagonistic postures against India’s strategic interests.

Therefore, China’s transactional overtures must not blind India into the real intentions of China’s grand strategy of Asian hegemony through economic engagement and military coercion. China has no intention to allow India to be the dominant power in South Asian and the Indian Ocean Region which have been and should always remain India’s primary area of influence.

There have been many developments since the so-called 'Wuhan reset' which evidently indicate that China continues to view India as a military threat, and will not cease working towards frustrating its ascendency to the status of global power. On the other hand, despite President Donald Trump’s avoidable belligerence on trade issues and erratic approach to foreign policy, the US is publicly committed to India’s rise to global prominence. India’s long tradition of ‘strategic autonomy’ may deter it to forge a formal alliance with America, but it makes perfect sense for New Delhi to establish a unique security partnership with Washington — one that delivers the benefits of allied status without the formal architecture associated with it.

The success of the Indo-Pacific project requires an engaged America. The Modi government should beware of China’s tactical olive branch. Any signal that New Delhi is accommodating Beijing’s interests will harm Indian interests in the longer run. And if China succeeds in achieving its long term objective of becoming the pre-eminent global economic and military power, India has much to lose. As the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis are heading to New Delhi for an inaugural set of 2+2 dialogue between India and the US, the Modi government must accord greater momentum towards strengthening India’s strategic partnership with the US and send an unmistakable message to China that improvement in ties will not remain a one-way street.

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Updated Date: Sep 03, 2018 11:38:14 IST

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