“India and China have only begun to impact seriously on the world. Today, we are striving to rewrite the rules of the world a little more in our favour.”
—Foreign minister S.M. Krishna at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing on April 6
Mostly seen as rivals and sometimes even as direct adversaries, India and China are presently trying to embark on a new path where their combined strength and joint cooperation can take on the West and force a change in the rules of global engagement such that it would benefit the two countries.
For long, India and China have had to follow policies formulated and articulated by an elite group of nations in the West that had kept them away from accessing sophisticated technologies and slowed their growth. But they are today regarded as emerging global powers and studies conducted by international bodies like the World Bank and the IMF show that if China and India can sustain their current growth rate, by 2030 they will become the second and third largest economies of the world respectively.
In addition, one-third of the world’s population lives in China and India. In another two decades, more than 92 per cent of the global middle class are projected to be in the developing countries, of which China and India will account for nearly two-thirds.
But much of the optimism regarding their combined clout in the global arena comes from recent experience. In January, India and China worked together at the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen to steer the debate in such a way that no formal encumbrances were put on their growth. Their joint cooperation came as a surprise to many, though officials in South Block say the two sides had been working on the issue for many months before the summit. Now they feel such cooperation between the two sides can be replicated in other areas for mutual benefit. China is India’s largest trade partner and the two-way trade between the two sides is likely to cross $60 billion by the year-end.
As part of their growing confidence, the countries have also established a hotline between their two prime ministers to ensure that the two leaders can get in touch whenever they feel the need.
The Indian rethink in working closely with China may also have been forced by some developments in the neighbourhood. Part of this may have come from the growing overlap between Pakistan and US positions on stabilising Afghanistan and also from Washington’s reluctance to put more pressure on Islamabad to dismantle terror groups based there that are active against New Delhi. The fact that China has also been hit by terrorists in some of its provinces have also opened up a new area where India feels the two countries can cooperate to address these common concerns.
Of course, sceptics raise questions about the viability of this cordial turn in bilateral relations. “At Copenhagen it was China that needed India more as it was under pressure for being one of the largest polluters in the world,” former foreign minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha told Outlook.
However, there is no denying that newer areas are opening up for cooperation and that Copenhagen was not a one-off incident. India and China have also worked with each other as well as some other emerging economies to ensure they have a greater say in international financial matters. The very reality of the G-20, where developing economies share the platform with the world’s richest nations and where India and China now have a say on major financial policies that affect the world, is an indication how this cooperation can work in future.
India and China, both hungry for energy resources, have also been collaborating in this area. Indian officials pointed out how in Sudan the two countries have shared stocks to develop an oil block along with the Sudanese government. The two are also working out arrangements where they don’t hike up international oil prices unnecessarily in their attempt to outbid each other.
During his four-day visit to China that began from April 5, Krishna’s attempt during his talks with Chinese leaders and opinion-makers, including premier Wen Jiabao and foreign minister Yang Jeichi, was to highlight how the two sides worked together in advancing decolonisation and independence movements in the world in the ’50s and how they can work on similar lines in future.
Many experts criticise India for having looked at China in the ’50s through rose-tinted glasses. They point out that the two countries have fought a war since over their boundary dispute, which still remains unresolved. On that issue and others, they say, the two countries have mostly taken adversarial positions rather than that of partnership. Moreover, their different political systems, where India is a democracy and China a one-party-ruled Communist country, is often shown as an inherent, deep-rooted spur towards such an adversarial posture.
Referring to such criticism, Krishna says, “Because we are different, our divergences are often exaggerated. If truth be told, there are vested interests at work too.” The foreign minister’s remarks implied that there are many sections both within and outside India which oppose a coming together between India and China. Indian officials point to the possible correlation between stories in sections of the Indian media about ‘intrusion’ by Chinese troops along the borders and the presence of many international arms companies around the same time in Delhi. “The China card often works better in raising the scare scenario,” says a senior Indian diplomat.
The reports about China-based hackers eating into Indian defence secrets—something that were deliberately not raised during talks with the Chinese leaders—are also being seen as attempts to muddy Sino-Indian relations. But does this mean that India and China relations have become problem-free?
“We have our fair share of problems,” a senior South Block official said. “But we are trying to find a mechanism where we can confidently address them.”
As part of this, the two sides have had a series of meetings that included foreign office consultation, expert group meetings and one between the India-China Joint Economic Group. Issues ranging from trade imbalance and visa issues to Chinese activities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as developments in Afghanistan and in the region were also raised and discussed. Krishna’s meetings with the Chinese leadership also went through this gamut of issues.
Though Indian officials expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the meetings and the Chinese response, many in India felt that some strategic issues were not addressed properly.
“I don’t want to sound negative about the foreign minister’s visit to China but I have not seen any real progress on many issues of concern to us,” former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh told Outlook.
He pointed out that no clear assurances were seen from China on issues like giving visas to Jammu and Kashmir residents in separate stapled papers on their passports, or what the Chinese were doing in PoK, or whether they were willing to work closely with India on developments in Afghanistan. “We know these issues were raised but don’t know yet what the Chinese response to them were,” Mansingh added.
Going by the current mood in India as expressed by Mansingh, it can be said that though the groundwork has been laid for a closer cooperation between India and China, the two neighbours have a long way to go before their hopeful, well-meaning and hesitant overtures mature into a partnership.