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Sino-Indian Relations — New Way of Thinking and “Rebalancing”

CIIS Time: Aug 23, 2013 Writer: Lan Jianxue Editor: Li Xiaoyu

By Lan Jianxue[1]


Noticeable progress has been made in Sino-Indian relations in recent years which are entering a new period of all-round development. A growing number of inherent drivers and external factors may impact the bilateral relations which are at a critical time for “rebalancing” and “redefinition”.


I. Fresh Progress of Sino-Indian Relations in Recent Years


1. Steady growth of economic ties, trade and two-way investment between China and India

China is now on of India’s largest trade partners whereas India is China’s largest trade partner in South Asia. According to statistics released by China’s Ministry of Commerce, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $ 66.47 billion in 2012, China’s export to India was $ 46.47 billion and China’s import from India was $ 18.8 billion, falling by 10.1%, 5.7% and 19.6% respectively from the year before. India had a deficit of $ 28.87 billion in its trade with China with an increase of $ 1.79 billion from 2011. Chinese companies had signed contract projects to an accumulated amount of $ 60.131 billion with a turnover of business of $ 33.518 billion by the end of 2012. In two way investments, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce had approved or put on record $ 725 billion of direct investment from China in non-financial projects in India while Indian companies had actually invested $ 486 million in 800 non-financial projects in China by that time. [2]This indicates that despite the negative impact of the overall international economic environment and growing trade frictions between the two sides, Sino-Indian trade and economic cooperation have continued to grow steadily as smooth progress of the contract projects portends enormous potentialities for mutual investment.

2. Tortuous path of security cooperation

The Indian side unilaterally suspended military exchanges with China in 2009 when the Chinese side began to issue stapled visas to inhabitants residing in the Indian-controlled zone in Kashmir. Nevertheless, after the Fifth Round Defense and Security consultation between the Ministries of National Defense of the two countries in January 2013, the two sides argued to resume defense cooperation and launch the third joint military exercise scheduled this year. As the two countries’ international roles grow, the maritime interaction between the two sides has become a focus of concern as they begun to explore for dialogue on maritime security as of 2012. It should be noted that the two countries are prepared to start “dialogue on the Tibetan issue” in the post-Dalai Lama time with a view to reducing the frictions over this issue left over from history. In April 2010, the two sides signed theAgreement between China and India on the Establishment of a Hotline between Prime Ministers of the Two Countries. This is one of the latest actions taken by the two sides for enhancing mutual assurance. This will be an effective way of dispelling misunderstandings on both sides at a time of crisis and preventing the escalation of the crisis. Therefore, it is of great significance for an exchange of view on strategic issues between leaders of the two countries. Just recently, the two sides held the Sixth Round Consultation on Anti-terrorism in Beijing, during which the participants had in-depth discussions of international and regional developments against terrorism and bilateral cooperation in this area. By and large, the two sides have made progress in the negotiations over sensitive and complex security and strategic issues and slowly but effectively reduced the “deficit” in strategic mutual reassurance.

3. Limited progress in the boundary negotiations, but the border areas under effective control

Given that no major breakthrough is in sight in a short time, the two sides are prepared to tighten their control over the border areas and prevent contingencies. For this purpose, the Special Representatives’ Meeting for boundary negotiations is charged with a wider scope of responsibilities and functions. Moreover, the two sides formally signed the Agreement between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of the Republic of India on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. This consultative body is comprised of diplomats and military officers from both sides, led by principals at the Director-General level of Ministries of Foreign Affairs. It is mandated to handle all matters concerning peace and stability along the China-India borders and study how to carry out exchanges and cooperation between military personnel and agencies of the two countries in border areas so as to serve as a proper channel and platform for enhancing information exchange and better collaboration and ensure for handling border affairs through the diplomatic channel in a more timely and effective manner, thereby preparing good conditions for resolving the boundary question through negotiations and promoting better relations between the two countries. In April 2013 when “troops face-off at tents” occurred in the western sector of the Sino-Indian border, the two sides successfully prevented the escalation of the event, which might lead to the deterioration of the bilateral relationship through such a consultative and collaborative mechanism for boundary affairs and through timely diplomatic contact and meetings between frontier officers of both sides at the border. [3]The successful “soft-landing” of the troops face-off indicates that the two sides still have different views on and perceptions of the line of Actual Control. It also proves that the cooperative regimes and institutions for the boundary issue are truly helpful in crisis management. Generally speaking, border control is a kind of preventive measure of “negative assurance”, but it is indispensable in the course of resolving the boundary questions between China and India, and serves as an important institutional guarantee which has prevented major military conflicts over the past several decades along the Sino-Indian border that has not been formally delineated to date.

4. A highlight of bilateral cooperation in multilateral and international organizations

In recent years, as India plays an increasing salient role in the reshaping of international order, it has become one of the strategic partners China counts on. The two countries support each other in regional cooperation and made joint efforts to promote peace, stability and development in Asia. China and India join hands in handling many global issues such as international trade and financial issues and sustainable development, energetically safe guarding the tights and interests of developing countries and new emerging powers and facilitating improvement and reshaping of the existing international economic order. All these are outstanding highlights for bilateral cooperation which provides a convincing footnote for Sino-Indian strategic partnership. The United States and some other western countries feel hard pressed by the common positions of China and India on energy security, climate change and some other global issues. The BRIC countries, G20 Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS) have now become important venues for close interaction between leaders of the two countries in sustainable development of bilateral relations.

5. People-to-people and cultural exchanges — a plus in bilateral relations

To commemorate the both anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, China and India co-launched “India Year” and “China Year”, an exchange program of culture activities in 2010. In 2011, the two sides hosted more people-to-people exchange programs under the auspices of “Sino-Indian Year of Exchanges”. And in 2012—defined as “Sino-Indian Year OF Friendly Cooperation”, the exchange programs in the field of humanities helped to reduce the negative memory of the border conflicts that had broken out 50years before. Moreover, the exchange of visits of “hundred-member” youth delegations were well received in the host country. Indian audiences very much enjoyed the shows put up by Chinese artists’ troupes on their commercial performance tours in India in recent years. India is now one of major tour destinations for Chinese cultural and theatrical troupes. This has injected new vitalities into cultural exchanges between the two countries and energetically promoted non-governmental exchanges and mutual understanding between the two peoples.


IINew Features of Sino-Indian Relations in Changing Circumstances


Having gone through a decade of exploratory efforts by the two sides in the new century, Sino-India relations at present display the following outstanding features:

1. Enhancing markedly to a strategic relationship

Top leaders of both countries define Sino-Indian relations as one of the most important sets of bilateral relationships in their foreign relations and an increasing higher priority in their diplomatic agenda. As the two largest countries in Asia and the developing world as well as countries with an ancient civilization and major emerging market economies, China and India have great potentials for bilateral cooperation and more and more common interests and carry growing strategic weight in the restructuring of regional forces in Asia. Clearly, Sino-Indian relations have an increased impact on the international trading system, the international financial order, the global development agenda and regional cooperation in Asia and the Pacific. If one used to observe Sino-Indian relations by gradually shifting one’s perspective from South Asia to the Asia and the Pacific at large five or six years ago. One should now shift one’s focus from Asia and the Pacific to the world at large in analyzing Sino-Indian relations. Just as Indian Prime Minister Singh points out, “Today, both India and China are in the midst of rapid transformation. The development agenda has taken centre-stage in both our societies. Our systems are different, but people in both countries are united in their aspiration for a better future. When countries of the size of China and India, together accounting for 2.5 billion people begin to unshackle their creative energies, it impacts on the whole world.” [4]

2. Treating each other pragmatically and rationally

Due to the lack of strategic mutual assurance in the past several decades, anything in the offing or any contingency might easily stir emotions on both sides. This has always been a major deficiency in the bilateral relations. In recent years, however, under the guidance of top leaders of both countries, Sino-Indian relations have again become more practical and rational. The manifestation of this are: 1) Leaders of the two countries have reiterated that the earth is a vast planet which allows for the rise of China and India as new emerging powers; 2) in 2012, the year that marks the fiftieth year after the border conflict, the mainstream view in the media and public opinion in both countries was that the two sides should reflect on and learn lessons from the past with a conclusion that the two countries should never fight again and work together for a better future; 3) Each side is more keen on discovering and learning from the strong points of the other, refraining from treating it emotionally or with preconceived ideas, and drawing on good experiences and valuable assets of the other side to the good of its own development. This is particularly the case in the areas of trade, economic cooperation and the mutual investment. Such changes have markedly highlighted the importance of cooperative Sino-Indian relations and facilitated the growth of friendship mass organizations and associations as a valuable asset in Sino-Indian relations.

3. “Walking on two legs” of seeking common ground while reserving or solving differences

In the past fifty years and more, an important principle governing Sino-Indian relations has always been to bear longer interests of bilateral relations in mind and seeking common ground while reserving differences. While “freezing”, controlling and shelving major differences, the two sides taking store by the overall interests of bilateral relations, have been working hard for cooperation and common development in other areas so as to prepare conditions for resolving such differences and contradictions in the future. In recent years, both sides have realized that an important way of enhancing strategic mutual reassurance and future promoting bilateral relations as well as freezing Sino-Indian relations from interference of third parties is to iron out their disputes through better communication, dialogue and consultation. While continuing to find out and expand the convergence of interests, the two sides should proactively try to narrow down or resolve the differences. Despite the fact that the two sides are yet to prepare all necessary conditions for the resolution of the boundary dispute and that one has not seen a marked increase of favorable factors, they wish to talk and settle this issue and act accordingly with a deeper understanding of the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the border areas. With this in mind, China and India have made progress on some “theory issues” in their relationship. They have launched, or are ready to launch, talks on establishing new mechanisms for the border issue, strategic and economic dialogue, maritime security dialogue, dialogue on the Tibetan questions in addition to steady progress in the consultations on trans-border water resources, combating terrorism and mil-to-mil relations.

4. New ideas and frameworks emerging in bilateral relationship

In the past ten years, China and India have gradually found out how to keep on good terms through properly handling their differences and disputes and making cooperative efforts for common development and better bilateral relations.

First, new ideas and suggestions for enhancing Sino-Indian relations have kept emerging, such as “new concept of China-India relationships”, “2.0 edition of China-India relations”, “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, “How emerging powers should treat one another”, etc. Of late, Mr. Sanjaya Baruformer Press Consultant of Prime Minister Singh has made a comparative analysis of President Xi Jinping’s recent “Five –Point proposal” on Sino-Indian relations and Prime Minister Singh’s five principles governing Indo-China relations. The fact that leaders of both countries are thinking of putting bilateral relations more on a theoretical basis indicates that Sino-Indian relations are becoming more and more important and that the bilateral relationship now stands at a critical juncture of reaching a new height.

Second, each side tends to take a more pragmatic and forbearing approach to the presence and activities of the other side in the region of its pivotal interests. The joint “China-Indo-Japan ship escorts” in the Gulf of Aiden and China-Indian consultation and collaboration at East Asia Summits point to the fact that the two countries have less “zero-sum mentality” and more cooperation and win-win in mind.

Third, the two sides are less on the alert and more accommodating towards each other in exchanges of views in multilateral fora. Cases in points are their collaboration in G20 events, BRIC meetings and UN conferences on climate change.


IIIProspects for Sino-Indian Relations


As the need to enhance cooperation and dialogue is the consensus of decision makers in both countries, Sino-Indian Strategic partnership is entering a new phase of development. This general orientation would not be affected by changing domestic political circumstances in both countries. Looking ahead, one needs to take note of the following developments in Sino-Indian relations:

1. Near-term uncertainties and variables in India

As the General Election is approaching in the coming year, rivalry among all political forces in India will be in full swing. Current top leaders and policy makers, such as Prime Minister Singh, National Security Advisor Menon, and Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid, might leave their posts in addition to other personnel changes. This might affect China-Indian relations. There are not many “China hands” among Young Turks in the National Congress Party and their position and views on India’s China policy are not quite clear. If “Right-deviant” party as represented by Bharatiya Janata PartyBJP comes into power, Sino-Indian relations may proceed in a “learning curve”. Of course, whichever political force assumes power in the coming election in India, India’s fundamental policy toward China would not change dramatically, but one would definitely see some “fine-tuning” of the strategic tendency and certain specific issues in India’s China policy.

2. Sino-Indian relations will progress in a more “normal manner”.

Though years of concerted efforts, China and India have learned hot to treat each other in good terms and properly handling their differences while working for peaceful development. The two countries will gradually rid themselves of the negative impact of old scores and historical disputes and construct a normal relationship as between two close neighbors, a cooperative relationship as between two major powers and a new-type relationship as between two emerging powers sharing weal and woe. Sino-Indian relations will have a more salient and stronger impact on regional and international patterns of relationship. As it rises, India will be more and more confident and poised in its relations with China. The growth of India’s own strategic deterrent and increasingly close ties with the United States and other western powers have somewhat alleviated its feeling of insecurity and mentality of being encircled. As India is more confident and is deporting itself in a calmer manner in handling its relations with China, it will more firmly believe that the two countries will mutually benefit from cooperation and friendly exchanges. India has realized that as rapidly rising power, China has a pivotal impact on India’s development and security. The mainstream view in India is that maintaining a stable, cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with China is in India’s national interests. Even those strategic analysts and politicians in India who still stubbornly cling to their view that China is “a long-term threat to and a rival of India” tend to think that India can keep such threat and rivalry under control by way of economic engagement, military preparation, diplomatic skill and a balancing strategy of maneuvering among big powers, thus making the bilateral relationship less vulnerable to contingencies.

3. Consensus on more assurance that China and India should not fight again

In the foreseeable future, the outbreak of a planned, long-scale military conflict in the border areas between China and India is virtually impossible. A major constraint is the fundamental national interests of both countries for which the top priority is to grasp strategic opportunities in the coming years and shape a secure and stable domestic and international environment for national rejuvenation. This is also the primary concern in formulating their military and security policies. Moreover, the military strength of both countries has grown markedly in the past several decades. Both countries possess large quantities of conventional arms and a significant nuclear deterrent force, each side having a greater capability to deter and defend against the other. With all these factors at play, war would mean an unbearable disaster fraught with danger ever afterwards for both sides.

4. Focus of Sino-Indian relations shifting from “high politics” issues to “low politics” ones

In future, bilateral trade, economic ties and mutual investment will be an increasingly important factor that will affect the evolution of Sino-Indian relations. In other words, more “low politics” issues will affect bilateral relations. Some issues and matters which seemed to be less important or less sensitive in the past may now have major impact on bilateral relations. While economic cooperation, trade and investment are favorable assets for strengthening and promoting Sino-India relations trade and economic frictions will likewise affect the vital interests of the peoples of the two countries, thereby upsetting the overall bilateral cooperation. National sentiments in the two countries, individual cases of economic disputes and different lobby groups and interest groups would exert more influence on bilateral relations. “High politics” issues such as the border dispute, the Tibetan question and military issues would undoubtedly continue to affect bilateral relations, but they would be less and less important and sensitive. This objectively will be conducive to the solution of such issues.


New Thinking in Boosting Sino-Indian Relations


The development of Sino-Indian relations in the past ten years or more indicates that decision makers and far-sighted public figures at least need to take up the following challenges both in theory and practice so as to bring about a qualitative leap in relations between the two countries:

1. Diluting the historical disputes over the boundary and accurately defining and taking care of each side’s core national interests

There are few major powers in the world today with their boundaries on land territories left un-delineated as in the case of India and China. Boundary negotiations between the two countries have been going on and off since the 1980s. The boundary dispute has been a liability for both sides left over by western colonialists and a thorn in the side of the two nations, irritating their nerves from time to time and often being exploited by outsiders. The issue has extracted much energy and effort from the two governments and still has a decisive impact on the bilateral relations today. To a certain extent, the boundary dispute is a comprehensive display of the lack of strategic mutual assurance, old scores, the Tibetan question and national sentiments between China and India. At present, there is still a large gap in this thorny issue, it not only requires high negotiating skills and diplomatic wisdom, but it is more imperative for the two sides to approach and handle the issue from a strategic perspective with sufficient courage to make compromises and the ability to guide public opinion in addition to shaping a favorable international environment. In view of the fact that this is a highly sensitive issue, the two sides should maintain peace and stability in the border areas, narrow down the perceptional gap with regard to the Actual Line of Control, and improve and increase frontier trade. In the contemporary circumstances, there is no way out to settle the boundary question by force, but the only way out is to hold peace talks with patience, hard work and mutual accommodation, thereby finally forming a clear-cut boundary of friendship acknowledged by the people of the two countries.

2. Redefining the nature and connotation of Sino-Indian “strategic partnership”

In 2005, China and India announced that the two countries would “build toward a strategic partnership for peace and prosperity”; in 2006, the two sides formulated ten strategic principles for Sino-Indian cooperation and agreed to further deepen and strengthen the strategic partnership. Under changed circumstances, in order to consolidate and enrich Sino-Indian strategic cooperation and upgrade the bilateral relationship to a new high, it is necessary to redefine the preliminary nature of such strategic partnership. “The formulation of building toward a strategic partnership for peace and prosperity” appropriately reflects the most important political meaning of Sino-Indian relations, namely peace means that the two countries not only should or can not come into confrontation, but should or can not regard each other as a mortal strategic threat, while prosperity means that both countries conclude that national economic and social development is their fundamental task and that foreign policy is aimed at creating a peaceful international environment which is favorable for domestic development. Building toward Sino-Indian strategic partnership is a strategic decision made by leaders of both countries rather than a tactical expediency. The two sides should meet each other half way and make concerted efforts. As Sino-Indian relations are entering a critical phase in which issues involving the core national interests of both side will be looming large in the foreseeable future, it is all the more imperative for the two sides to persistently adhere to the strategic partnership. Pessimistic views and comments on Sino-Indian relations in both countries reflect the author’s different positions and purposes, but what is in common is that they all overrate the difference and contradictions between the two countries to the neglect of the common missions and shared interests of the two governments and peoples.

3. Each side taking a rational approach to the rapid rise of the other and calmly handling emerging problems in competition

Side-by-side rise of China and India in the international political landscape is independent of man’s will. In recent years, Indian official at different levels have emphatically pointed out on various occasions that there is a vast area in the world for common development of China and India, which contributes to global peace, stability and prosperity and that India does not regard Indo-Chinese relations as confrontational. Bilateral trade is increasing with each passing year and the two sides often discuss many global issues including international economic order, sustainable development and climate change. Meanwhile, it is self-evident that the two countries compete in comprehensive national strength and international influence. The two sides should take a rational approach to and properly handle such competition. Positive competition is a major external diver of mankind’s continuous progress. One should not take a negative approach to or oversimplify Sino-Indian relations. Former Indian Ambassador to China Nirupama Rao wrote an article a few years ago, in which he said “Ours is a complex and multilayered Relationship. At the same time, in order to make a fair assessment about today’s diplomacy, where national interests and realpolitik dictate the actions of state players, no relationship that is intense enough to be called a strategic partnership could lend itself to simplistic portrayal in dichotomous terms of competition and cooperation. There will always be overlaps between competition and cooperation. A fair amount of healthy competition is not necessarily bad and can indeed lead to more meaningful cooperation”. [5] As India grows in strength, it has closer ties with foreign countries and enhanced its military power. This has led some Chinese commentators to think that India poses a threat to China and makes China nervous. They are afraid that India would attempt to use force to settle the boundary question or collaborate with the United States in containing China. However, it has been evident to date that the external strategy of India still mainly aims at enhancing its international standing and strategic independence, which is conventional thinking and that “learning one-sidedly to the United States”, or confrontation with China, is not the “DNA of India’s foreign policy”, and nor is it in its fundamental national interest. On the long run, therefore, taking a rational approach to the growing strength of the other side and calmly handling competition will be “a normal subject” in Sino-Indian relations.

4. Establishing a multi-pillar institutionalized Sino-Indian cooperative relationship

First of all, post-Cold War Sino-Indian relations indicate that as exchange of visit by leaders and high-ranking officials facilitate progress of bilateral relations, it is necessary for the two sides to institutionalize the exchange of visits by top political leaders and maintain frequent contact between officials at all levels on regular basis so as to effectively and maintain stable bilateral ties. Secondly, both sides should make and work out necessary confidence measures in the border areas with a view to ultimately delineating the boundary while maintaining peace and stability along the border. Finally, expansion of trade and other economic exchanges between the two countries is mutually beneficial and sustainable. Moreover, as China and India play an increasing important role in world affairs, it is essential for the two sides to establish a coordinating regime for their overseas interests. Both sides should take measures to facilitate non-confrontational dialogue and civil society exchanges between academic and cultural communities of the two countries. Such measures are of profound and far-reaching significance for sustained development of bilateral relations.

Overall, Sino-Indian relations after the Cold War have been based on “Four Pillars” of cooperative frameworks, namely regular summit meetings and high-level meetings, military confidence building measures (CBMs), boundary negotiations, and trade and mutual investment. “The four pillars, as a diplomatic substructure, will no longer suffice; a new China-India architecture will be required. This must be a deeply layered, multilevel, interlocking structure for mutual confidence, consultation, and coordination involving political leaders, legislators, officials, experts, businesses, policy institutes, academics, students, and other actors in the two societies – like the ramified architecture of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It should aim to identify and strengthen common ground, manage conflict as it arises, and promote cooperation in bilateral as well as international affairs.”[6]

5. Energetically fostering objective, balanced public opinion and academic studies

Due to unique-historical background and lack of mutual understanding between China and India, the bilateral relationship is very vulnerable to criticisms in the media and public opinion. With rapid development of new mass media and cyber technology, there are more and more stake holders and actors which are involved in and may influence Sino-Indian relations. Therefore, mutual perceptions and popular sentiments may easily be swayed by media reports and public opinion. In India’s mass media, sensational news reports hyping on Indo-China relations are an unspoken rule for “political validity” of Indian media. Indian high-ranking officials fall under the sway of public opinion from time to time or purposefully release message through the media to exert pressures to bear up the Chinese side. In China, media reports about India are also more and more multi-polarized with a great variation in quality and spectrum, not without misjudgments or impertinent comments. Though the relevant authorities in both countries are already aware of this, it will take a fairly long time to fundamentally close this “perceptional gap”. Looking ahead, in order to promote long-term, sound and sustainable development of Sino-Indian relations and solidify bilateral ties with more room for maneuver, it is essential for both sides to create a favorable environment of objective, balanced public opinion sot that each side correctly perceives and analyses the words and deeds of the other side.


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