After Wuhan, will the Dragon and the Elephant tango?

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In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they visit an exhibition of cultural relics at the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Friday, April 27, 2018. The leaders of India and China met at a lakeside resort in central China on Friday amid tensions along their contested border and a rivalry for influence among their smaller neighbors that could determine dominance in Asia. (Pang Xinlei/Xinhua via AP)

The hype over the informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping at Wuhan is receding. However, prudence demands that going beyond the hyperbole, we investigate the dynamics of the India-China entente in a dispassionate manner.

There are differing viewpoints articulated by analysts on the motives behind the summit. Some say India succumbed to China, others believe China blinked and a third group holds the view that it suited both sides to seek rapprochement in the light of Trump’s ‘America First Policy’, growing US protectionism and the larger geopolitical milieu.

There is a school of thought that Chinese president Xi Jinping has applied Mao’s “Theory of Contradictions” to recalibrate relations with India. Chairman Mao had theorised that secondary contradictions be temporarily set aside till the primary contradiction is resolved. Meaning, at this juncture, China is entering a vicious trade war with the Trump Administration which has designated China as a hegemonic and revisionist rival; it has imposed trade barriers on major Chinese companies that are potentially damaging for China’s economy and technological advancement.

So the primary contradiction for China, for the moment, is how to deal with an intransigent Trump administration on priority. An upstart India, a perceived secondary contradiction, can be handled later. Beijing can ill-afford two major Asian powers viz, Japan and India to ally with Washington. A strategic alliance like the Quad (with Australia, Japan and the US), if successful, could impede China becoming a developed country by 2035 and a superpower by 2049, as envisaged in ‘China Dream’.

China is cognisant of India’s growing economic heft and resolve to protect its core interests. India’s stand during the military face-offs at Doklam, Chumar and Depsang over the last few years, and continued reservations about the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), particularly its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor *CPEC), has made China realise that it is premature to coerce India. Realpolitik on the part of China demands a tactical adjustment to steer relations with India to a manageable level till the American challenge is mitigated.

India’s incentive to cosy up to China stems from the unpredictability of the Trump administration and uncertainty about US reliability in a strategic calculus vis a vis China. The exclusion of Australia from the multilateral naval exercise Malabar-2018 is a harbinger of diminishing traction to the Quad, in deference to Chinese sensitivities.

With several state elections this year culminating in the general elections in May 2019, it is important that the Modi government not have any serious contestations with China in this period, which would otherwise have a serious political fallout. Therefore, a truce at this juncture favours both sides.

But the moot point is, will the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant dance with each other, as fancied by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi? From a broader perspective, the irreconcilable differences in the strategic objectives of the two powers suggest that their emerging bonhomie won’t mask their deeper differences for long.

At the 13th National People’s Conference, President Xi exhorted the People’s Liberation Army not to lose even an inch of China’s territory. China’s strident position on the disputed border with India, with the Tibet issue as well as the fact that it has become a de facto third party in the Kashmir imbroglio, means that any breakthrough in the boundary dispute is near impossible. China continues to scuttle UN Resolution 1267 on declaring Masood Azhar as a terrorist, has opened conversations with the Taliban and enthusiastically defends Pakistan.

Efforts to obtain tangible assurances on not diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra river, righting the enormous trade imbalance or India’s membership of Nuclear Supplier Group have so far yielded little. China’s outreach into South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is inducing a gravitational pull on India’s neighbouring states.

India will soon encounter another challenge at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Amongst all the member states, India is the lone dissenter on BRI. The SCO member states are promoting the linking of BRI with the Eurasian Economic Union, setting up a Eurasian Fund and starting business transactions in regional currencies. China is wooing Afghanistan by extending CPEC into that country, helping set up a military base and facilitating dialogue with Pakistan. An ostrich-like approach cannot wish away the hard challenges in the evolving balance of power staring India in the face.

India and China will compete for domination of resources, location and influence. Structural factors in the relationship suggest that Sino-Indian rivalry will intensify in the long run. There is a widening gap in the comprehensive national power of India and China. Beijing is constantly gaining a competitive advantage in the strategic balance vis-a-vis New Delhi. We need to have a coherent understanding of this “new modus vivendi” with China, albeit, without compromising our core interests.

India cannot be complacent about China’s intent and machinations to see it as a subordinate power in Asia. We should be deft in our assertions to make China understand and heed India’s sensitivities.

In the meanwhile, the window of heightened strategic brinkmanship between China and the US should be utilized to build capacities to reclaim strategic influence in the periphery and place India in a favourable position for long-term competition with China. Concurrently, measures to build strategic trust, complementarities and interdependence with China must continue with dignity and sincerity.

Finally, India must heed the Theodore Roosevelt maxim, “to speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”. For India, it implies achieving credible deterrence against external threats.

This article is written by Maj Gen B K Sharma (Retd), he is Head of Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation at the United Service Institution of India, based in New Delhi. This article has been posted with the author’s permission.

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Maj Gen BK Sharma
Maj Gen BK Sharma is the Deputy Director (Research) and Heads Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation at the United Service Institution of India (USI), India’s oldest ‘Think Tank’ established by the Britishers in 1870. He was commissioned in the SIKHLIGHT Infantry in 1976 and superannuated in Apr 2012, after being approved for the rank of Lt Gen in the prestigious command stream. He is a recipient of national awards of Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM), Sena Medal (SM) (twice) from the President of India for rendering distinguished national service of exceptional order and for display of courage and devotion to duty. He was warded the Chief of Army Staff Commendation Card for a high- risk strategic mission in the Sichen Glacier. In a span of 38 years of military service he has contributed a great deal in furtherance of national security and strategic culture. The General Officer commanded a mountain division on the China border. He was Senior Faculty Member at the prestigious National Defense College, Director at the Military Wing at the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Ministry of Defense, Principal Director at the Directorate of Net Assessment, HQ Integrated Defense Staff, Ministry of Defense and Brigadier General Staff of a Corps deployed on China- Bangladesh- Nepal -Bhutan borders. His foreign assignments include Defense Attaché in Embassy of India in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. He participated in demobilization and disarming of Contras guerillas in Nicaragua in Central America in 1990 as part of UN Peacekeeping Mission. The officer is endowed with brilliant civil and military academic achievements. He is a graduate of Defence Services Staff College, Higher Command course and National Defense College. He attended a course in International Peacekeeping in Santiago (Chile) in the year 2000. He was awarded M Phil twice in Defense Management and Defense Strategy and is pursuing PhD in Geopolitics in Central Asia The General Officer has made outstanding contribution in the field of civil and military education. He has travelled to about 33 countries in his official capacity and has presented academic papers on strategic affairs at several international seminars. He has delivered lectures at the premium military education establishments and universities in India and abroad. He has conducted a series of workshops and training capsules on strategy and national and international security for military officers, Indian and foreign diplomats and university students. He has guided a large number of senior policy makers and research scholars in writing thesis and academic papers. He has edited four books namely “Indian Ocean Region: Emerging Strategic Cooperation, Competition and Conflict Scenarios”, “Geopolitics, Security and Bilateral Relations- Perspectives from India and South Korea”, “China’s Belt & Road Initiative, Challenges and Prospects” and Developments in Central Asia India-Kyrgyzstan Relation besides authoring Monographs titled, “Analysis of China’s Military Organization and “India’s SCO Membership”-Challenges and Opportunities. He edits Strategic Perspective, the USI digital magazine and the prestigious USI Strategic Yearbook. He participates in TV panel discussions on the Indian and foreign TV shows. His contribution in promoting awareness in strategic affairs among the policymakers and academic cum strategic community and security has been of exceptionally high order.