The power corridors in New Delhi are abuzz with the prospects of a “reset” of India-China ties. It started with a missive from foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale on 22 February discouraging government functionaries from attending events organized by the Tibetan government in exile. A number of high-level visits have since taken place. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi came to India in early March and Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval visited China last week. And there have been reports suggesting that India did not intervene in the Maldives despite grave provocation from the Abdulla Yameen government in deference to Chinese sensitivities.
The idea is to get a leadership-level bilateral summit ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet in June. There is now a possibility that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit China later this month. Some analysts have suggested that these moves represent a much needed corrective to the last three years, during which the Modi government moved too close to the US. But the more acceptable consensus is that the government wants to avoid a Doklam type face-off before the 2019 general election.
There are two questions that need to be addressed here. First, is a “reset” in current circumstances a smart move? Second, what should be India’s broader strategic outlook towards China?
The limits of the current “reset” exercise have been borne out by the events that have transpired in recent weeks. Union minister of state for culture Mahesh Sharma and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ram Madhav did indeed attend the “Thank You India” event organized in Dharamsala by the Central Tibet Administration on 31 March. It is not clear whether the government changed its view on participation in light of public opinion or because of China’s refusal to reciprocate India’s move in the manner that New Delhi had initially anticipated.
China has refused to accommodate India’s interests in other spheres. New Delhi was disappointed with the outcome of the latest joint economic group (JEG) meeting where Beijing yet again failed to take seriously India’s concern on rising bilateral trade imbalance and lack of market access for Indian goods in China. India has, once again, taken up the issue of its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) with China but a breakthrough seems far away. China has been insisting on simultaneous entry of India and Pakistan into the NSG and is unlikely to budge from that position.
The biggest problem with the current “reset” exercise is that a bilateral summit is being seen as an end in itself. This has been an old problem with India’s foreign policy but has been exacerbated in recent years. A visit is seen as something to be celebrated, rather than outcomes from that visit. Given the structural problems between the two countries, Modi’s visit, if it happens, is unlikely to turn the tide in bilateral relations, the histrionics of the summit notwithstanding.
Now, the bigger question on how India should view China strategically. Some have suggested that India should stick to a new version of non-alignment where it can maintain equidistance from both China and the US. This, they argue, will help India avoid becoming a pawn in a bigger US-China war. There are two massive problems with this suggestion. One, it fails to address the scenario where the war is not between the US and China but between India and China. The 73-day stand-off at Doklam last year indicates that the latter is no less likely than the former. Two, equidistance from both the US and China will have to be artificially manufactured because it does not exist naturally. India has a territorial dispute with China, not with the US. The US supports India’s elevation in the UN and the NSG, China doesn’t. India is raising a mountain strike corps to fight the People’s Liberation Army, not the US military. It is, therefore, monumentally silly to talk of equidistance here.
China is India’s No.1 strategic threat. The ideal way of countering this threat would be to build indigenous military and economic capabilities. But that won’t happen immediately; China is already decades ahead of India in terms of material capabilities. External balancing through a close US partnership is thus essential. External balancing may also help build India’s own capabilities through cooperation on defence production.
Can India delay making a choice between the US and China? Can’t New Delhi look for partners only when a war with China is imminent? No. It is inadvisable to look for health insurance policies once you have a fatal disease. Even if an insurance policy is available, the premiums would be extraordinarily high.
All this does not mean that India and China cannot cooperate with each other in any domain. China is willing to side with India when it is assured of immediate pay-offs. It helped in grey-listing Pakistan at the financial action task force (FATF) to combat money laundering and terrorist financing because India helped in Beijing’s leadership bid of the inter-governmental body. Recently, China and India have initiated discussions to jointly use their leverage in oil price negotiations. Similarly, the two countries have an enviable track record of cooperation in global climate change negotiations.
India should definitely make use of these opportunities of collaboration with China. But it should not delude itself into thinking that a reset in New Delhi will lead to melting of hearts in Beijing.