BY INDER MALHOTRA
WITH the installation of the new, sixth-generation leadership of China and the US President, Mr Barack Obama’s re-election there is need to take a close re-look at this country’s relationship with the world’s two most powerful nations, one of them a close neighbour of ours.
Since it was because of China’s rise and assertiveness that the US shifted its “pivot” from the West to “Indo-Pacific” the state of Sino-US relations would greatly influence the relationship with either of these two countries of all other major players on the world stage. This is particularly true of the relations between India and China, Asia’s two largest countries, sharing a 4,000-km disputed border, and with a history of a brief but brutal border war in 1962.
What will impact China’s relations with other powers even more profoundly is the nature of the change in China itself, which looks encouraging. The generation, headed by Mr Xi Jinping that now comprises the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) was born just before the Chinese Revolution in 1949 or in the early fifties. While growing up it witnessed the abject poverty of their parents, the horrendous excesses of the Cultural Revolution and finally the affluence brought to the Chinese by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. To preserve this affluence, without having to change the single-party political system is therefore going to be first priority of the new rulers. They are also painfully aware of the tide of corruption that, as the outgoing leader, Mr Hu Jintao, warned them, could “even cause the collapse of the party and fall of the state”. The new leadership, therefore, is bound to do all it can to rein in corruption and sufficiently to improve the working of the existing political system to mitigate the discontent with it.
Pragmatic Foreign Policies
Against this backdrop, it is perfectly realistic to expect that pragmatism would prevail in Beijing, and the Xi government would follow pragmatic foreign policies. This does not mean that he and his colleagues would stop asserting China’s sovereignty claims whether in the South China Sea or across the Himalayas. But almost certainly they would not be do anything so provocative as to cause an armed conflict. One Sinologist who discussed India-China relations with policymakers in Beijing reported that his hosts were aware of the havoc that even a brief spat between their country and India would cause to the world oil prices.
Above all, ever since the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation deal, the Chinese have been unhappy about this country’s “growing proximity” to the US. It would not, therefore, want to push these two countries closer together. Even this does not mean that what the Chinese would do, and indeed are doing already, would not impinge of India’s core geo-strategic interests. But the overall situation does enable this country to deal with China more deftly than in the past.
On the 50th anniversary of the 1962 War this country’s confident message was that 1962 could never again be repeated. It was unnecessary to tell the Chinese that, for they know that Indian defences are more than adequate. They are also aware that on the Himalayan border they yet have no military aircraft to match our Sukhoi-30. At the same time they know that we have no offensive capacity there while their offensive capability is more than ample. Furthermore, our belated efforts to improve our infrastructure on the China border are hampered by our own deficiencies such as enormous delays in getting environmental clearances. Budgetary constraints have become a drag on the most urgent acquisitions. This is deplorable. For, the gap between Indian and Chinese military power is large and growing larger. Any sign of weakness and irresoluteness on our part would be an invitation to disaster.
Regrettably, while China is always stridently assertive about its claims however tenuous, we tend to express our serious concerns hesitantly. The China-Pakistan nuclear nexus is a pertinent case in point. At first a device by China to confine this country to South Asia alone, this nexus has now acquired a wider dimension. China has built the Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Makran coast to acquire access to the Gulf oil there and then transport it homewards through the Karakoram highway or a pipeline.
Stand on Global Issues
On the other hand, there are several areas in which the two Asian giants have been cooperating because it in their interest to do so. Trade and investment between the two sides has expanded so fast that China is now our largest trading partner. There are a number of institutionalised India-China dialogues, including those on geo-strategy and economic strategy. In relation to global issues, the two countries have cooperated credibly on climate change and multilateral trade. There is no reason why this cannot be extended also to the Af-Pak problem because neither country wants the Taliban to rule Afghanistan yet again. On the critical border issue, however, the progress is zilch.
As for the United States, its relations with China can never be the same as they were with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Then neither superpower had any stake in the other. Mutual economic stakes between the US and China are so huge that they would compel them to remain engaged, pivot or no pivot. In any case, Mr Mitt Romney who was threatening to declare China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office is safely away from the White House. In these circumstances, nobody should crib about an equally close engagement between New Delhi and Beijing.
Before, during and after the US presidential poll, competent observers on both sides have been relaxed in the confident belief that close and friendly Indo-US would continue because many core interests of both countries converge. Now, however, many Americans are insisting that, instead of “more of the same”, relations between the largest and most powerful democracies must widen and deepen. This can surely happen in sectors such as trade, investment and defence cooperation. On the issue of China pivot, however, there could be a subtle divergence. The talk about India’s “nonalignment” between the US and China is meaningless. But while being America’s strategic partner, not ally, India is and must be equally friendly with other major powers, including, Russia, China, Japan et al. It is also a member of a trilateral India-Russia-China forum, an observer at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and of BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.