By C. Uday Bhaskar
The India-China bilateral relationship has a distinctive strategic dimension to it and experts are agreed that the vision of an Asian century unfolding in the 21st century will be determined by the degree to which this bilateral relationship is able to realize its full potential.
Over the last three years, both Asian giants have had new leaders at the helm – President Xi Jinping in China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India - and the initial expectation for a more cooperative relationship has floundered. The last year has been particularly testy.
China’s reluctance to support India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Beijing’s tactic of using a "technical hold" at the UN Security Council on the Pakistan-based terrorist leader Masood Azhar have irked New Delhi visibly. Consequently, over the last year the bilateral relationship has been more brittle than it has over the last decade.
Thus, the visit of Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Beijing (February 22) for the first ‘upgraded’ strategic dialogue had aroused considerable interest and both sides dwelt on the importance of regular high-level consultations.
The manner in which the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi framed the visit is instructive. In his meeting with Jaishankar, Minister Wang said: “I am certain that by raising the levels of this strategic dialogue, our two sides will be able to enhance our strategic communication, reduce strategic misunderstanding and build more strategic trust and deepen our strategic cooperation.”
The use of the word ‘strategic’ five times was not accidental or a coincidence – but reiterates the underlying feature of the relationship between the world’s two most populous nations. Wang added: “And this way, we can better tap into the potential of our bilateral relations and live up to our two nations’ responsibilities to regional and global stability as two important neighbours.”
However despite this expansive ‘strategic’ context to dialogue, it is evident that Jaishankar’s meeting with the Chinese Executive Vice Minister Zhang Yesui did not lead to any substantive movement on the more contentious issues. While there was no joint statement, in his media interaction Jaishankar reiterated Delhi’s concerns and expectations on the major issues : namely NSG (Nuclear Suppliers' Group) membership ; terrorism related to Masood Azhar and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) .
The choice of word and phrase by Jaishankar suggests a level of candour that is new to the contour of the bilateral dialogue. Traditionally, China is opaque and guarded in its official responses and given its authoritarian nature of governance, Beijing is not compelled or convinced about the need for any kind of transparency about bilateral negotiations.
In contrast, given its democratic ethos, the political leadership in India needs to be sensitive to public opinion and Jaishanakar’s observations about the CPEC is instructive. “CPEC violates Indian sovereignty because it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir….therefore since they (China) are a country who have been very sensitive to sovereignty concerns, it is for them to say how a country whose sovereignty has been violated can come (join CPEC) on an invitation.”
China is more favourably positioned in the bilateral by way of the significant comprehensive power differential between the two neighbours and its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Paradoxically, even within the UNSC, the Chinese position both on the NSG membership and the Masood Azhar case is at variance with the other four members.
Currently all the major powers are seeking to comprehend what the Trump-led US foreign policy will prioritize and only then will they be able to consolidate their own position on a range of global issues. A certain degree of hedging is therefore inevitable and it appears that both China and India want to keep the lines of communication open – their differences notwithstanding.
This is reflected in Jaishankar’s concluding remarks about his Beijing visit: “Overall, I felt my visit was certainly useful in conveying to the Chinese side our concerns and priorities and gaining from them an appreciation and their understanding of the world situation and in what manner we could work together.”
(C.Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: firstname.lastname@example.org)