Monday, April 9, 2012

Hu's Delhi Visit: BRICS and the Bilateral Dynamics


Here's an analysis of mine published on ORF website on the recent visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Delhi, perhaps his last visit as the president, for the BRICS Summit. However the focus of this article is to see if cooperation at the multilateral levels such as BRICS contributes to narrowing down the differences that exist at the bilateral level between India and China.

For the full article, click here.



Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Delhi for the fourth BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit, possibly his last visit as the leader of China. BRICS appear to have made progress on the economic, trade and financial arena although it will be naïve to assume that it will make similar progress in the political and strategic arena. With Syria, Iran and developments in the West Asia being part of the Delhi Declaration, Mr. Hu is reported to have said that BRICS has begun to make gradual progress on global political issues as well. Rightly so, bilateral issues are not part of the mandate of the BRICS Summit. But it is unclear if cooperation at the multilateral levels such as BRICS contributes to narrowing down the differences that exist at the bilateral level between India and China.

The trend is not particularly reassuring. While India and China have enhanced their trade ties from a mere $ 5 bn a decade earlier to $ 75 bn in 2012, similar trend lines have not been witnessed in the political and strategic arena. Emphasis on economic matters from the Chinese side is quite understandable given that Beijing is on a lookout for newer markets in Asia as the West may no longer be the biggest economic partner for them. India's large market provides an alternative, but New Delhi should also exploit this to its benefit. There are a few issues that need to be addressed, including trade imbalance that is hugely in favour of China and lack of access to Chinese markets for Indian goods and services in the area of pharmaceuticals, agriculture and IT. India is understood to have raised these issues repeatedly with the Chinese side over the last few years with no satisfactory response.

On the political and strategic arena, it has not been easy to say the least. While there has been no untoward incident on the border or elsewhere, it can be best characterised as an uncertain calm. Mr. Hu made tall promises saying China has an "unswerving policy to adhere to the Sino-Indian friendship, deepen strategic cooperation and promote common development. … China is ready to work with the Indian side to seize opportunities, accelerate development, jointly cope with challenges and share the fruits of development to benefit the two peoples and make greater contributions to peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the world at large." In return, Singh reiterated that India "has no intention to contain China and will not take part in any schemes aimed at containing China. India recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China and will not allow Tibetans to pursue anti-China activities in India. He also expressed the hope to work with China to maintain peace and security on the borders and properly resolve border issues through friendly talks." While this is clearly an unobjectionable statement, it is noteworthy that China did not give any such assurances to India. New Delhi should have cashed in on an opportunity like this to gain similar assurances from Beijing as well.

On the sidelines of the BRICS Summit, Mr. Hu held separate meetings with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, discussing a range of issues, including bilateral issues on March 29, 2012. The two leaders also made the politically correct statements on bilateral ties while announcing 2012 as the "Year of India-China Friendship and Cooperation," with an intention to take bilateral ties to the next level, including making progress on strategic matters. The two leaders argued, among other issues, that there was a need for enhancing cooperation particularly in the fields of maritime and regional security. Anti-piracy operations and protection of SLOCS are ideal areas for India and China to cooperate if they have to make progress on the security and strategic front.

In addition, Mr. Hu laid out a five-point proposal to address India-China relations, including one on the border issue. The proposal says the two sides should handle their differences and work for peace and stability, while urging both to push forward border talks in the spirit of peace, friendship, equal consultation, mutual respect and mutual understanding and make good use of the working mechanism of consultation and coordination on border affairs so as to jointly safeguard peace and security on the borders. While the agenda appears comprehensive, this needs to be followed on the ground to make a difference to India-China strategic ties.

Having said that, it is not the border issue that remains at the crux of the problems between India and China. The bigger issue is to reach an understanding on their respective roles in the emerging Asian strategic architecture. It is India's growing role in Asian affairs and beyond and China's eternal desire to box India in South Asia that has been at odds in the recent years. Beijing's closer partnership with Islamabad and in fact with all of the neighbouring countries appears to have been motivated by the desire to balance India. Beijing's ongoing activities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, or its changing policy on Jammu & Kashmir or the Chinese protests at the Indian troop movement in Sikkim (an otherwise a peaceful sector on the Line of Actual Control (LAC); Sikkim was recognised by China as part of India during Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to Beijing in 2003) are not reassuring to India. These do reflect a tendency on the part of China to question the very territorial integrity of India.

It is likely that the simultaneous rise of four major powers in Asia (China, Japan, Russia, India) will lead to a period of uncertainty and newer frictions. The fact that except for India and Russia, all the other countries have had troubled history, including war, does not help ease the situation. However, these powers have to recognise that their wealth and prosperity will also depend on the health of bilateral ties with each of these Asian capitals.

India and China have to shoulder greater responsibility in this regard to ensure that they adopt more inclusive and cooperative approach in addressing each other's concerns. And no amount of multilateral level cooperation (BRICS, G-20, WTO) can diminish some of these vexed issues. The fact is also that the two countries have cooperated mostly at the Chinese insistence and where it benefits them and not necessarily in a global forum that is supportive of India. Beijing's less than supportive role at the NSG and its efforts to sabotage an ADB loan for India are one or two instances. Therefore, India has to become more pragmatic in understanding and leveraging multilateral platforms to further its own national interests while strengthening India-China bilateral ties.

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