By Siwei Liu*
Close on the heels of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Hangzhou, China for the G20 meeting last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his second India visit to participate at the Brazil Russia India China and South Africa (BRICS) Summit on 15-16 October 2016 in New Delhi. There is no doubt that the frequent interactions between the top leaders of both countries are helpful for the current Sino-Indian relations that have experienced setbacks in the past years. At the same time, differences on some key issues have disrupted the smooth development of bilateral ties. It is time for China and India to adopt an inclusive approach for managing their differences, with them being the two biggest powers in Asia. This also means that the two sides should show greater mutual respect and pursue a win-win cooperation to avoid the Thucydides Trap.
Athough evidently there is no reason for making an over-pessimistic assessment on current China-India ties, there still remain major differences and disagreements between the two countries. Indian policy-makers and strategic analysts repeatedly state that China does not take care of India’s interests on some issues, including India’s entry into the NSG and India’s efforts to get the United Nations to impose sanctions on anti-India terror groups based in Pakistan. India has also been opposed to the Chinese-initiated China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) arguing that the corridor passes though the disputed region of Kashmir. The extension of India’s strategic frontier to the western Pacific Ocean along the lines of its Act East policy, and its security relationships with Japan and the US, cause concerns to the Chinese strategic community. China has also been closely watching the Indian stance on the South China Sea issue; upto now India has had an unclear policy on this issue.
Thankfully, the two sides have channels of communication and opportunities for interaction both at the multilateral level and at the bilateral level. In recent years, the two sides have recognised the importance of using some of the multilateral mechanisms to enhance bilateral dialogues and negotiations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the G20 and the BRICS summit. In addition to these, a number of new bilateral mechanisms have also been established, including a ministerial-level mechanism to tackle terror, a working mechanism for consultation and coordination on border affairs, and so on. The two sides also held the first round of dialogue on maritime cooperation this year. There is no denying that these mechanisms provide a good platform for the two nations to discuss each other’s positions, expectations and interests.
Exploring and creating channels of communication is only the first step for achieving positive ties. The next and the more important step should involve the two sides thinking deeply on how to manage their differences and address the divergence of interests between the two countries. China and India should avoid a zero-sum approach to manage their differences; adopting a comprehensive approach is the best choice.
How can the two sides push the bilateral ties forward? First, fostering an inclusive environment and restoring some positive energy for the current bilateral ties is very important. This understanding will have to be reflected in the national discourse and national institutions; for instance, bilateral ties are not only impacted by realistic national interests, but also by the behaviour and speeches of national leaders, diplomats, public intellectuals, etc. China and India should encourage related people, institutions and media to use a positive discourse to describe the developments in bilateral ties and make the relationship appear valuable and friendly.
Second, an all-encompassing approach requires taking some effective steps to respect the other’s core interests and values. If possible, the two sides should have more frank exchanges and a express each others interests and concerns more clearly, particularly on its national security stance. In addition, the two sides should believe that any side’s friendly behaviour in bilateral ties possibly could motivate the other side to think actively about their own behaviour. For instance, India could avoid exerting pressure on China on the South China Sea issue – an area of Chinese core national and strategic interest – and if possible India could even try to ease the tension in the region. Similarly, China could cooperate with India on counterterrorism, nuclear safety and maritime security governance, among other areas.
Third, a broader vision is required in both countries to manage the China and India relations. Besides their bilateral issues, China and India should also think about the effective management of regional and global affairs. As the overall national strength of both nations rises and as their strategic frontiers expand, there is greater scope for clash of interests and disagreements, especially at the regional level. Therefore, both sides need to recognize their responsibility to pursue an inclusive economic development and security cooperation for a stable and prosperous Asia. One of the ways to do this is by joining hands to provide public goods at the global and regional platform.
* Siwei Liu
Assistant Researcher, ISAS (Institution of South Asia Studies), Sichuan University, China