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India asserting its interests vis-a-vis China

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — India hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao earlier this month in an attempt to stabilize Sino-Indian ties, which have undergone great turbulence the past two years.

There was no dearth of warm words during the visit: Wen, in a lecture in New Delhi, invoked Mahatma Gandhi as “a man of love and integrity” who “has always lived in my heart.” He stressed that although Sino-Indian relations have experienced major turns, they were only a short episode in a 2000-year history of friendly bilateral exchanges.

Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna reciprocated by suggesting that the two nations do not see any contradiction in each other’s rise and that both understand the importance of leveraging growth and development with mutual cooperation.

As in the past, economic ties ended up being the focus of the visit. The two sides have now set a target of $100 billion in trade expansion by 2015 from the present $60 billion. Wen had come to India with a group of around 300 Chinese executives; business deals worth about $16 billion were signed. But there was no progress on the regional trade agreement as India remains concerned about its growing trade deficit with China.

China did not concede to India on any major issue while India decided to play hardball on various issues of importance to China. Wen, for example, refused to acknowledge Indian concerns over China’s issuance of stapled visas to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir, the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and anti-India terrorist groups operating from Pakistan. Unlike other major powers, China has refused to unambiguously demand that Pakistan shut down the terrorist infrastructure on its soil.

For its part, India this time refused to explicitly state that it recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the Chinese territory.

There was little movement on a range of concerns that India had flagged before the visit. India had expressed concerns about Beijing damming rivers like the Brahmaputra as well as the nontariff trade barriers to Indian companies in China. India remains keen on gaining access to Chinese markets, especially in the area of pharmaceuticals, information technology and engineering goods.

Despite the lackluster nature of Wen’s India trip, the newfound robustness in India’s China policy in recent months is rather striking. After trying to push significant differences with China under the carpet for years, Indian decision-makers are being forced to grudgingly acknowledge that the relationship with China is becoming more contentious.

India has adopted a harder line on Tibet in recent weeks by making it clear to Beijing that it expects China to reciprocate on Jammu and Kashmir just as India has respected Chinese sensitivities on Tibet and Taiwan.

Ignoring pressures from Beijing, India decided to take part in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in Oslo. Beijing had asked several countries, including India, to boycott the ceremony, describing the prize as open support for criminal activities in China. India was among the 44 states that did participate; Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq were among the nations that did not attend. There were rumors that Wen might cancel his India trip in response.

India’s challenge is indeed formidable as it has not yet achieved the economic and political profile that China enjoys regionally and globally. But it gets increasingly bracketed with China as a rising power, emerging power or even a global superpower. India’s main security concern is not the increasingly decrepit state of Pakistan but an ever more assertive China, which is widely viewed in India as having a better ability for strategic planning.

Indian policymakers, however, continue to believe that Beijing is not a short-term threat to India but needs to be watched over the long term even as Indian defense officials increasingly warn in rather blunt terms about the disparity between the two Asian powers.

India’s naval chief has warned that India has neither “the capability nor the intention to match China force for force,” while the former Indian air chief has suggested that China poses more of a threat to India than Pakistan.

It is certainly in the interest of both India and China to stabilize their relationship by seeking out issues on which their interests converge. But strategic problems do not necessarily make for satisfactory solutions merely because they are desirable and in the interest of all.

For a long time, India was not very important in China’s foreign policy calculus, and there was a general perception that India could be easily pushed around. New Delhi’s own actions also cemented a perception in China that it was easier to challenge Indian interests without incurring any cost.

New Delhi’s latest robustness in its dealings with Beijing should, therefore, be welcomed insofar as it clarifies certain red lines that remain nonnegotiable.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.