China and India are the most populous countries in the world. They together constitute 35% of global population.
Indo-China relations have gone through a tumultuous phase in the last few years. There have been a series of disputes between the two countries, including China's fervent opposition to India's potential membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); Beijing's shielding of Pakistan and blocking Indian efforts within the UN to designate the Pakistan-based terrorist, Masood Azhar, head of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a global terrorist; the Doklam crisis that went on for more than two months last summer; and India's open opposition to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
India's geographical location itself demands that it defines its own narrative in aligning with the United States to manage China's rise. China remains a proximate power and the U.S. a distant one. History has demonstrated that a distant power needs to be engaged to balance against a proximate power.
The intersecting geopolitical and geo-economic spheres of India and China present opportunities for economic engagement but also create instances of "contestation" as seen in the Doklam standoff or the persistent disagreement over the nature of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) among several other issues in the past few years.
While the threats perceived from a rising China are palpable, with an unhindered influence in India's neighborhood, the economic opportunities for India from a rising China is also a reality. In fact, the emergence of a new great power relationship between the U.S. and China and the probability of power cooperation between the two has often been looked at with concern from New Delhi. Additionally, the long shared but unsettled territorial boundary between India and China persist as a major bone of contention that both countries are yet to find a common solution to the issue.
How to manage the threats and opportunities emanating from an economically as well as militarily rising China remains perhaps the most impending foreign challenge for India.. This presents a particular dilemma for India, as to how it could align itself with U.S. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping's political investment in the BRI's success might lead Beijing to create some traction for cooperative behavior with countries like India, as seen recently in Wuhan "informal summit" at the BRICS summit in Xiamen in April this year.
The symbolic value of Wuhan summit is immense for direction that Sino-Indian ties will adopt in future. While Modi and Xi had one-on-one meetings in Ahmedabad in 2014 and Xian in 2015, Wuhan summit is significant as it took place after a year when bilateral ties hit a low.
Symbolism plays a big role in Chinese society politics and foreign policy and more so under President Xi who wants to leave his imprint as leader for life and at par with Mao Tse Tung. In fact, Mao's politics was closely interlinked with Wuhan and therefore Xi's choice of Wuhan as venue for the summit might have sent a message to his party colleagues.
Managing the rise of China and deterring its unilateral aggression in the region remains a strategic glue that binds the US and India together other like-minded countries like Japan and Australia. However, China's relations with India, remains a complex reality. China's economic ties with each of South Asian countries are more significant compared to the economic ties among all these countries.
In this context, it is important to note that New Delhi needs to be pragmatic about where it can expect U.S. support, and where it has to go it alone. However, this is a story that New Delhi should be mindful in which areas the United States should be aligning their interests with India so as to build and maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region which has been threatened by Chinese activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
An immediate fallout of the summit was a statement by Chinese vice foreign minister that China will not push India to join its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect countries Asia, Europe and Africa amid India's persistent reservations on Xi's mega project on the grounds of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and financing patterns.
India has also been cool to China's recent proposal for trilateral corridor via Nepal. India has remained steadfast on its opposition to the very concept of BRI and it was the only big country that skipped 2017 maiden BRI Summit.
What message Pakistan draws from the Wuhan summit will also be closely observed in New Delhi. The stand that Beijing would henceforth take on the question of Pakistan-based terror will be noteworthy.
Chinese President and Indian Prime Minister visited the Hubei Provincial Museum to see ancient Chinese artifacts on 27th April last. The two leaders appreciated the Chinese civilization with a long history and exchanged views on strengthening exchanges between the two ancient countries and promoting the harmonious coexistence and dialogue of different cultures.
"The two-day informal meeting led to enhancing mutual understanding on the issues confronting both sides," said Srikanth Kondapalli, one of India's foremost experts on China. He further added that "The programmes are arranged carefully and calculatedly. The museum visit is aimed at tracing back relations to the ancient times and the reference to Indus and Chinese civilisations. This is a feel-good factor but also suggesting responsibilities as emerging powers."
The practice of India's strategic autonomy has always been about creating traction for the pursuit of India's national interest and India's ability to do so will be tested in how it manages its relationship with the United States and China. n
Barrister Harun ur Rashidgm, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva
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