Daily Editorial Analysis for 15th April 2021

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Why less may be more for India and China

Why in News

  • After a major rupture in relations of India and China in the border crisis, both nations seek a new equilibrium.
  • Track-II Consensus which was held in early April was the first of its kind to be held after the border crisis.
  • This Consensus was the opportunity to bring both nations together and it was organized by the Ananta Aspen Centre in New Delhi and the China Reform Forum in Beijing, which is affiliated with the Central Party School.

History of India-China Ties

  • The history of India-China ties is rife with examples of how misplaced expectations have burdened the relationship, often only leading to recurring disappointment.
  • In the 1950s, relations veered from being led by idealized notions of restoring some pan-Asian, civilization partnership — one that, in truth, never really existed through centuries of historical exchanges — to confrontation and ultimately war in 1962.
  • The most recent example of beginning of new promising era in ties are the holding of two “informal summits” in:
  • In Wuhan in 2018,
  • In Mamallapuram near Chennai in 2019.

At the core

  • At the recent dialogue, they shared view on the new relations with more realistic state of relations which will focus on three issues —
  • The boundary question,
  • Trade, and
  • The increasing impact of third-party and multilateral engagements on the two-way relationship.
  • Ten months after the clash at Galwan Valley, which marked the worst violence on the border since 1967, both sides are nowhere near full de-escalation.
  • The initial optimism of a quick end to the crisis, following disengagement on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake, the throniest of the disputes in eastern Ladakh, has now given way to an apparent stalemate.
  • The readouts from both sides after the eleventh round of talks between Corps Commanders on April 9 suggested as much, with no joint statement – for the first time since the sixth round in September – and no mention from the Chinese side of early disengagement.
  • At the Track-II dialogue, Chinese speakers, unsurprisingly, offered no clarity on what prompted the People’s Liberation Army’s mass mobilization along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) last summer and the hammer blow dealt with agreements that ensured decades of a carefully managed peace.
  • The absence of a permanent peace does not, however, mean both countries are necessarily destined for conflict. What they do need, in the view of military planners of both sides, is small steps to restore a shattered trust.
  • If China has made clear there is little likelihood of clarifying the LAC — a process that has been stalled for 19 years — one possible way forward is to, at least, clarify the most sensitive spots, and arrive at understandings, such as coordinated patrolling either by time or area.

Trade Relation between India and China

  • China is a major economic partner of India, so if the idea of roping now seems premature in light of the many unresolved political problems, so is talk of a complete disengagement on trade.
  • One only needs to look at the trade figures for a year that saw the biggest border crisis in decades.
  • Trade reached $87.6 billion and China was India’s largest trading partner, with India importing $66.7 billion worth of machinery and medical equipment, among other goods, and exporting a record $20 billion to China, mostly ores to fill the appetite of China’s rebounding economy.
  • Or, for that matter, at the prompt restoration of Chinese mobile phone company Vivo as the sponsor of India’s biggest cricket tournament after a suspension last year, even if the border crisis is nowhere near resolution.
  • Instead, what is needed is a clear-headed, all-of-government approach that decides where both sides can cooperate —
  • Infrastructure that has no security implications is an obvious area. As is clean energy is given China’s capacities on solar and wind, to name but two.
  • Another area where Delhi may find it needs to tread with caution, such as the roll-out of 5G.
  • The Track-II dialogue made it clear how China is viewing relations with India through the prism of its relations with the United States that is its abiding priority.
  • Beijing has increasingly hit out at what President Xi Jinping called “small circles” when he spoke to Davos, which has now become shorthand for U.S.-involved groupings including the Quad.
  • India has its own grouses with China-involved “small circles” of which there are many, to certain multilateral efforts on Afghanistan that India has been kept out of.

Way Forward

  • Rather than once again veer from high expectation to familiar disappointment, perhaps the search for a new equilibrium with China should instead be driven by modest goals, led by conversations driven by hard talk and self-interest, rather than lofty goals of the partnership.
  • Rather than view every element of such engagements as a threat, that both sides would be better served to have a conversation about what the red lines are was a shared view at the dialogue.
  • Moreover, as relations stabilize, India and China could start injecting more energy into their own shared platforms such as BRICS, which, for instance, could come up with its own vaccine initiatives as the Quad has done.
  • They could also revive their bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan.
  • As both sides chart a course forward after last year’s rupture in ties, they may find a conversation that is driven by hard talk and finding shared interests, even if modest ones, more rewarding than bearing misplaced expectations. As India and China go back to the drawing board, less may indeed be more.

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