Monday, October 2, 2023

Crystal gazing India-China relations

2022 closed with a fresh setback to the fractured relations between India and China after Indian troops threw out 300 strong Chinese troops who had crossed the Line of Actual Control at Yang Tze in Tawang Sector of Arunachal Pradesh on December 9. How will the relations between the two Asian giants be in 2023?

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By Col R Hariharan

After the clashes at Yang Tze, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told the Parliament, the Chinese intruders “attempted to unilaterally change the status quo” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In the scuffle that broke out some soldiers on both sides were injured. 

India-China relations started rapidly going south ever since China started massing troops along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. It culminated in a clash between the Chinese and Indian troops at Galwan along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh in June 2020 in which 20 Indian troops were killed. The Galwan clash was perhaps a moment of truth for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had invested heavily in building a mutually beneficial relationship with China. As prime minister, he had visited China five times and met with President Xi Jinping 18 times. Even after the ten-week long stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam along the border with Bhutan in June 2017, he had met Xi twice in informal summits in Wuhan (April 2018) and Mahabalipuram (October 2019). They had agreed to maintain peace and tranquillity between the two countries, along their disputed border.  

After the Galwan clash, in January 2021, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said three so-called “mutuals”—mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests—are the determining factors for the bilateral relationship. “Any expectation that they can be brushed aside and that life can carry on undisturbed despite the situation at the border, that is simply not realistic.”

In the new year, Jaishankar’s latest broadside on China in his first media interaction in Vienna after the Yang Tze intrusion showed that India is in no mood to kiss and make up with China unless it conforms to agreed norms of conduct. He minced no words in reiterating that China was responsible for the tense situation between the two countries on the LAC. “We had agreements with China not to mass forces in our border areas and they have not observed those agreements, which is why we have the current tense situation for flouting the border agreements.” He added, “we had an agreement not to unilaterally change the LAC, which they have tried unilaterally do.”  

Evidently, the Indian MEA’s “calling a spade a spade” remarks can be considered a comment on China’s foreign minister Wang Yi’s Christmas day statement couched in diplomatese. Wang said: “China and India have maintained communication through the diplomatic and military-to-military channels, and both countries are committed to upholding stability in the border areas. We stand ready to work with India in the direction toward steady and sound growth” of the relations.

Evidently, Wang Yi was trying to play down the Yang Tze incident as the military commanders on both sides met after the incident and agreed to adhere to norms of conduct. In Eastern Ladakh, India and China held the 17th round of Corps Commander level talks on December 20 at Chushul/Moldo border. Nothing much was achieved; both sides agreed to maintain dialogue through military and diplomatic channels and work out mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues in Eastern Ladakh at the earliest.

Is this how relations between the two Asian giants will be in 2023? At the macro level, 2023 is not going to be like yester-years. As Thomas Friedman, thinker and author of the global best seller The World is Flat says, the world is not flat anymore. “The world is fast, fused, deep and open.” He explains fast as the speed of technological change in the pace of change. “Fused” is not merely the world is interconnected, but it is interdependent. The world is also fused by climate. Friedman explains “Deep” as the most important word of this era because “we have put sensors everywhere.” Lastly, he says the world is getting radically open. With a smartphone, every citizen is now a paparazzi, a filmmaker, a journalist and publisher with no editor or filter.

Friedman’s words are being validated by the way warfare has morphed into hybrid warfare—involving not merely the troops, but trade and commerce, industries, communications and at national and international levels. And China is mastering hybrid warfare. The dislocation of the chip industry in China and its fall out on global supply chains is an example of this. 

As both India and China are big countries, the advantages of coexistence and if possible, cooperation outweighs confrontation. India is an unavoidable Asian neighbour sharing the longest land border with China. Culturally, economically and militarily, India is a dominant power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. More importantly, in spite of India’s self-reliance goals, India-China trade rose 34% to $115.83 billion in the year ending March 2022. 

China also cannot afford to ignore India as it is rated fourth in global military power rankings. Economically, India has the fifth highest GDP. India is also an important member of the Quadrilateral framework with three other-nations—Australia, Japan and the US—aimed to keep global waters free. Though the Quad framework is sketchy, India has assiduously cultivated strategic relations with the member countries.

Internationally, India shares the views of China on global warming and on the need for a more equitable world order where countries share resources equitably. India continues to be a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS initiative of five powers who want change. India has maintained its close friendship with Russia in the face of Western sanctions slapped after its war in Ukraine. India has maintained its strategic autonomy by importing Russian oil and evolving monetary instruments for trade with Russia, defying the sanctions regime.

Ideally in 2023, both China and India should take steps to bury their hatchets and take baby steps to build their relations. But the real world is different from the ideal. China is in no hurry to resolve the border dispute as it can be used as a pressure against India. So, we can expect sporadic incidents of manageable proportions in the dozen “trouble spots” along both Ladakh and Arunachal borders.

President Xi is relentlessly pursuing the realisation of the Chinese dream. He has consolidated his control over the CCP; under his leadership China’s policymaking apparatus now rests not with the government, but with the Communist Party. This has strengthened the Party’s role in policy formulation and its strict implementation. General Secretary Xi heads the party’s eight central commissions and the Central Taiwan Small Group, dramatically increasing his decision-making power. With his tenure extended for a third term, Xi’s writ will remain unchallenged for quite some time. In 2023, we can expect President Xi to dominate both the national and international scene. This gives him a huge advantage over other global leaders.  

Based on President Xi’s speeches at the CCP Congress in 2022, we can identify China’s focus areas for action in 2023. Among these, Global Security Initiative (GSI), the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025) are of special interest as they provide a central global role to China. The US considers the GSI as a challenger to the Quad initiative. GSI aims at staying committed to comprehensive, cooperative, sustainable security, respecting sovereignty, territorial integrity of all countries. India’s neighbours are likely to be invited to join the GSI; already, unconfirmed reports indicate China has approached Nepal to join the initiative. 

GDI is to improve China’s role as a leader in the global development agenda. President Xi proposed the GDI at the UN General Assembly in 2021. It seeks to expedite the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The GDI has received the support of over 100 countries. More than 60 countries have joined the Group of Friends of GDI. Of course, internally China will be busy with overall economic recovery to improve its economic performance in 2023. China is expected to follow proactive fiscal policy and prudent monetary policy to facilitate this. 

In his first comments after the latest round of talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China is ready to work with India for the “steady and sound growth” of bilateral ties and the two countries are committed to upholding stability at the border areas. Wang Yi’s palliative words on “growth” of bilateral ties after the latest round of talks on December 20 have failed to make any progress in resolving the remaining issues along the LAC. We may well end the year 2023 writing about the 30th round of talks; you never know what Emperor Xi can pull out of his hat! 

—The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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