By Ankita Dutta*
The bilateral relationship between India and China is a key foreign policy challenge that requires concerted focus and effort by the Indian government. Given all that China offers -a big economic opportunity and a strategic challenge at the same time – dealing with it necessitate shedding the heavy-footedness and ambivalence that has held back New Delhi’s China policy so far. No matter how fast the Indian economy recovers and the Chinese slows down, Delhi cannot hope to close the gap any time soon. Instead, it should use its disadvantage into advantage and embark on an economic partnership that invites and eases Chinese investment. Following are few challenges that have raised the ambivalence in the relationship between the two countries.
First challenge for India is the ever-widening economic gap between the two. In the economic domain, India is not recipients of any Chinese generosity. China has limited Indian access to its domestic market. India’s trade deficit with China rose to a whopping USD 37.8 billion in 2014 even as bilateral trade picked up, totalling USD 70.59 billion, a year on year increase of 7.9 percent. According to annual figures released by China’s General Administration of Customs, the total trade volume went to USD 70.59 billion from 2013’s USD 65.57, an increase of USD 5.02 billion amid increasing Chinese exports to India. India’s trade deficit with China touched a massive USD 44.87 billion in 2015 as bilateral trade registered a marginal increase, totalling USD 71.64 billion compared to USD 70.59 in 2014, missing the USD 100 billion target set by the leaders of the two nations. The total India-China trade in 2015 amounted to USD 71.64 billion.
Secondly, the military imbalance India suffers to its north with China impinges on the long-running border dispute between the two countries. With respect to India, China follows a policy of strategic ambivalence in terms of settling border. The idea involves enhancement of its military and economic strength and then lay claim over territory on the basis of this ambiguity. This is evident from the fact that even after 19 rounds of talks between Special Representatives, since 2003, there has been limited to no progress. Taking advantage of the ambiguity on the border, China resorts to incursions across the LAC from time to time to build strategic structures to its advantage.
China’s alacrity in engaging the Modi government, for instance, is without promise of moving forward on the border issue.The Chinese foreign minister has time and again dismissed Indian objections to the stapled visas regime for residents of Arunachal by calling it a “goodwill gesture”. China’s strategy involves consolidating border management mechanisms that would limit, in its view, provocative patrolling by India while they have freedom of action in areas they consider incontestable. Its declared aim is to reduce the impact of border differences on bilateral relations to the “minimum level”.
Thirdly, India faces tough competition from China in its maritime domain. China is acquiring naval facilities along the crucial choke points in the Indian Ocean not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence. Under the strategy of “string of pearls”, China has virtually surrounding India by establishing its advanced naval presence in countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As the ability of China’s navy to project power in the Indian Ocean grows, India’s vulnerability will increase despite enjoying distinct geographical advantages in the area. India has very limited diplomatic space to counter such moves by China. India is right to be disturbed at the news of docking of Chinese submarine in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, even though the Chinese government downplayed the docking saying that the submarines had only made a replenishment stopover.
India’s maritime security has been challenged further by China’s plan to construct a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as a part of One Belt One Road Initiative. The Maritime Silk Road involves a series of agreements that would link China to Europe by sea. The idea is to build a maritime highway, by building infrastructure, upgrading port facilities and creating economic capability with countries along the maritime zone. This will serve China’s strategic interest by straddling routes along which its trade and natural resources flow. The Indo-Pacific Ocean which is critical to India’s economic and strategic interests, as also to those of China and Japan, will be the most crucial part of this road.
The Indian strategic community seems to be divided on whether or not India should join this initiative. While some Indian experts feel that this would lead to the dominant presence of China in the region on a permanent basis and India should counter it, others believe that India should partake of the facilities thus created which would benefit the region as a whole.
Fourthly, China’s growing assertiveness is most visible in the South Asian region, which presents India with a credible challenge and need for pro-active thinking to outpace China and emerge as a reliable partner. China has advanced its economic diplomacy accompanied by expanded strategic cooperation with India’s neighbours. China has stepped up its engagement with the region and promoted Asian connectivity, largely through its Silk Road “belt and road” vision, and marshalling extensive resources on initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that will likely outpace other financial sources.
The China-Pakistan axis stands as a special case. China’s most recent economic commitment to Pakistan—a declared package of $46 billion in infrastructure development and assistance—thus represents an intensification of a longstanding relationship. China is also responsible for strategically damaging India by arming Pakistan with nuclear and missile technologies. Also, China overtook India as Bangladesh’s top trading partner in 2005 and since then China has displaced many Indian goods in Bangladesh, offering cheaper Chinese products. China’s trade Sri Lanka still lags behind India’s, but the gaps are narrowing. Sri Lanka is among India’s top trading partners in South Asia, and India is Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner. Since 2005, however, Chinese exports to Sri Lanka have quadrupled to close to $4 billion, coming closer to Indian levels. China and Sri Lanka are also negotiating an FTA to further boost trade and provide better access for Sri Lankan goods in Chinese markets. Sri Lanka also features prominently in China’s Maritime Silk Road project.
Despite the hype over relations between India and China, there is an underlying strategic dissonance. There has been a steady erosion in India’s manoeuvring power vis-à-vis China, as the gap in economic and military capabilities between the two countries widened relentlessly. India-China economic relationship constitutes one of the most lopsided trade relations with Chinese exports being 3.5 times greater in value than its imports. Despite rising border provocations, Indian policymakers have no idea about how to handle it. China’s hostility towards India is intended to checkmate the rise of India, to keep it entangled in South Asian security challenges, and to prevent it from acquiring a global stature.
Other than India, there is no Asian power which has the potential to compete with China in economic and military power. China has the ambition to emerge as the most powerful state in the world, overtaking the United States. That is the Chinese dream in pursuit of which China formulates its global strategy; not allowing India to rise is a part of this larger strategy.
*Ankita Dutta is a PhD. Scholar at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]