The optimism that the April 2018 Wuhan Summit brought to the India-China relations was palpable at the third India-China think-tank forum held at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in New Delhi. The deliberations laid bare the multi-layered and multi-faceted nature of Sino-India relations and threw open possibilities for both the countries to cooperate at deeper levels.
While the commonalities that India and China have in terms of shared dreams and ambitions were discussed, what was striking about the Track II engagement was the evolution of a new perspective in analyzing the bilateral relations. It pointed to a future where India and China can talk about each other sans the alarmist and often aggressive rhetoric often espoused by the media and think-tanks in both the countries.
The think-tank forum which had representatives from the government, diplomacy, academia and the media gave a platform for both the Indian and Chinese delegation to talk about issues and deliberate on solutions. As pointed out by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the current momentum in India China relations provide opportunities for both sides and there is no better way to tap into it than enhancing people to people ties.
Prof Gao Peiyong, Vice President, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said India and China are representatives of developing countries and they have the responsibility of building a new international order. Former diplomat T C A Raghavan, Director General, ICWA called for identification of joint areas of research as both the countries are in the midst of rapid development.
The official positions are that which are often heard in the public discourse. It is only when the strategic realities are accepted that a bilateral forum will have relevance and that is exactly what the platform brought about. The participants were not afraid to admit that the boundary dispute, India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative and the rise of a continent-wide security architecture that is intricately linked to the increasing assertiveness and power of China will remain difficult issues for both sides to resolve. The real ray of hope came about when issues which were so far outside the purview of Track I diplomacy were addressed.
Of all the unique perspectives put forward, the one articulated by Prof Madhu Bhalla, Editor of India Quarterly, ICWA was of particular interest. Referring to the rise of new powers and institutions, she pointed out that India and China have been cooperating bilaterally quite successfully within multilateral institutions.
This practice of meeting on the sidelines of important summits have become a norm of global diplomacy. But inability to stand united within multilateral institutions which look up to India and China in a global order where power is spread more horizontally and vertically give out a message of mistrust. But this is now being sought to be redressed through more bilateral contacts through different layers of engagement.
Dr Wang Xu, Associate Professor, Centre for South Asian Studies, Peking University revealed how cooperation between India and China lack in several aspects. The possibilities of collaboration in Afghanistan and Africa have not been explored by both the sides. Instead of viewing each other as rivals, India-China ties will prosper only if they view themselves as partners who would benefit from each other’s growth. This definitely calls for a new model of development that both the countries should work towards.
India and China have taken a significant step by eliciting a broad section of opinion of civil society to take forward their ties. The challenge now will be to incorporate these innovative ideas in Track I diplomacy and not let the momentum lose steam. There is far too much at stake for regional stability and global order if both powers let hostilities supersede cooperation.
(Lekshmi Parameswaran is Researcher, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)