India-China strategic dialogue: Combative and indignant, New Delhi is making same mistakes again

At the end of the almost seven-hour India-China strategic dialogue in Beijing, we are nowhere close to solving the issues that have driven a wedge between the two Asian giants and triggered a deep diplomatic chill.

As the Indian delegation led by Foreign Secretary Subramanyam Jaishankar, co-chair of the upgraded dialogue, emerged from the meeting on Wednesday after hectic parleys with China's Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui and his team, it was evident that both sides have not budged even an inch from their stands.

In fact, what struck one was the combative approach adopted by India on areas of divergence. The post-dialogue media briefing carried unmistakable tones of indignation that India feels on account of Chinese official position on a number of topics including membership to the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, UN terrorist tag on Masood Azhar, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and mounting trade imbalance.

 India-China strategic dialogue: Combative and indignant, New Delhi is making same mistakes again

Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and Executive Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui during the India-China Strategic Dialogue in Beijing. Twitter

On each of these issues, India was rather blunt in blaming China for being obtuse and indulging in obstructionism.

On Azhar, India said China's move to prevent UNSC 1267 Sanctions Committee from censuring the Pakistan-based terrorist was in direct contravention of Beijing's stated standpoint on terrorism. Countering the charge that New Delhi needed to show "more proof", Jaishankar held that the burden of proof does not lie with India because the latest motion to tag Azhar as a terrorist at the United Nations was moved by the US, UK and France.

Indicating that China's move was political in nature, Jaishankar said: "We pointed out that this time around, it’s not India but other countries (which mooted the proposal). So, there is a body of world opinion out there (against Azhar)."

India complained about the yawning trade deficit and demanded more access in areas of IT and pharmaceuticals, put pressure on China on NSG membership and reiterated that the CPEC, which runs through Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir, violates India's sovereignty. There was extra stress on 'violation of sovereignty' — an unmistakable reference to China's position on South China Sea.

Turning down China's invitation, Jaishankar said India won't be able to attend the Silk Road summit because CPEC is part of this initiative. "Since they (China) are a country who have been very sensitive to sovereignty concerns, it was for them to say how a country whose sovereignty has been violated can come on an invitation."

On trade deficit, as Livemint points out in its report, India and China have done business worth $70 billion but almost $53 billion of this is Chinese imports to India. “The Chinese have taken some measures but clearly these haven’t addressed the problem in a substantive way,” Jaishankar said.

However, as has been noted, there was very little progress on these areas except a reiteration that both nations must work towards strengthening the ties — a diplomatic way of saying that there is a lot of work to be done.

Now, let us tackle some key questions.

Is India right in feeling indignant and hard done by? Absolutely. Masood Azhar's notoriety has been highlighted globally. On India's entry into the exclusive NSG, most members are aware that New Delhi's non-proliferation record is impeccable unlike Pakistan, whom China is trying to push through. India has no first-use policy and has shown itself to be a responsible power. The CPEC cuts through areas that we consider as our integral part and India, like many other nations, is bearing the brunt of China's blatant maneuvering of world trade rules.

Therefore, should we not expect China to see reason and veer around to our position? Are we not justified in demanding China's upholding of principles that govern its stand on terrorism and sovereignty? The answer, sadly, is no.

India's concerns on divergence are just and correct. But morality, ethics and impartiality have no breaing on foreign policy. Reapolitik and geo-strategy are never based on idealism. These are formed on the bedrock of self-interest and shaped by both hard and soft power that a country wields. It is also related to how it sees itself in respect to other major powers.

India's combative approach vis-à-vis China is unproductive because it does nothing to mitigate the levels of distrust between nations. A fair question arises. Why should it be incumbent on India to lessen the distrust? Once again, the answer lies in realpolitik.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

As I had explained in my piece on Wednesday, (India-China strategic dialogue: Keep calm and talk on, let the Dragon play the big brother for now) it is more profitable for India to keep communicating with China and maintain a cordial relationship because right at this curve in history, we lack the crucial leverages to make Beijing act in accordance to our wish.

Like any other revisionist power, China acts out of self-interest and it is far more profitable for Beijing to keep Pakistan in good humour and see to it that CPEC project is completed soon than pander to our areas of concern.

Hardening of stance at this point will not benefit us. We must focus on areas of convergence and quietly work towards solving the areas of divergence because any animus between India and China will be deleterious to bilateral ties and only one country stands to benefit if Sino-India relationship deteriorates further: Pakistan.

In this connection, it will be instructive to notice the curve US-China relationship has taken ever since Donald Trump was elected to the White House. Trump and senior members of his cabinet made some initial noises about checking Chinese aggression. The US President went on record saying that 'One China' policy is not sacrosanct. His secretary of state Rex Tillerson told a Senate Confirmation Committee that US will not let China militarize or access artificial islands on South China Sea. Both have had to climb down since. In Trump's case, humiliatingly so. The POTUS has had to place a telephone call to China's President Xi Jinping and reiterate faith in 'One China' policy. Why?

The simple reason is that global connectivity in terms of trade and geopolitics has reached a stage where it is not easy to drastically revise foreign policies. In an article in Project Syndicate called 'Why Trump Can't Bully China', Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, writes: "If the Trump administration tries… crude tactics with China, it will be in for a rude surprise. China has financial weapons, including trillions of dollars of US debt. A disruption of trade with China could lead to massive price increases in the low-cost stores – for example, Wal-Mart and Target – on which many Americans rely."

It is important that India does not make the same mistakes it has been committing. Standing eyeball-to-eyeball with China won't be profitable. It must use policy of leverage, people-to-people movement and areas of convergence to nudge Beijing towards recognizing its viewpoint. This is a Test match, not a T20 encounter.

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Updated Date: Feb 23, 2017 15:44:10 IST