Naina Singh

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs of India in his recent book titled, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World regards India-China relations as ‘the most consequential relations’ of current times. He contemplates that in the global backdrop of ‘weakened’ United States and ‘far from matured’ China, it is instrumental for India to engage both of the principal actors and even if the West and Russia remain the focus of Indian foreign policy, China being the rising global and regional Asian power, cannot be disregarded.

Jaishankar’s book is the compilations of his thoughts presented over the years of his accomplished diplomatic career in China, Japan, Singapore,  the United States and as foreign Secretary of India. And he is right in emphasizing that India needs to learn the importance of ‘defining strategic goals’, ‘recognizing optimal outcomes’ and ‘appreciating the interplay of politics and policy’ to leverage the contemporary world order towards its own interests and ambitions. With the more assertive China, the transformation of world order is inevitable and ‘getting China right is critical to India’s prospect”.

China’s Rise has its Lessons for India

In the very first paragraph of the book’s first chapter, Jaishankar gives China the credit where its due. According to him, China’s rise being the first of its kind serves as an inspiration to sharpen India’s competitive instincts. India has much to learn from China’s ambitious trajectory and the first lesson to start with is clear demonstration of India’s global relevance. Jaishankar ponders on China’s strategic clarity and risk taking behavior in navigating the events of the Cold-War and post-Cold-War to carve its own strategic space in the region. According to him, today China is reaping double benefit of the risky diplomacy of switching between US and USSR in initial years for its rise.

The Chapter titled “The Nizmo-Indian Defense” reflects author’s viewpoints on the past ups and downs of India-China relationship and the issues needed to be addressed to build a sincere relationship in a multipolar world. The transition of the two great Asian civilizations engaged in intellectual, commercial and religious exchanges into the two states trapped in tumultuous relationship characterized by mistrust and power-play requires strong introspection from both sides; not only for their own bilateral relations but for the hope of building a different future.

In the current US-China dynamics, this lesson of ‘engaging than distancing’ is the need of the hour for Indian diplomats. ‘China had been winning without fighting’. In today’s world, technology, trade and connectivity determines the path up to the hierarchy. Like China, financial instruments, development and connectivity projects should be the focus of India’s future trajectory, but in contrast to treating them as power vessels, India should maintain universally recognized international norms, transparency, equality and respect for one sovereignty and territorial integrity.

According to him, comparisons would be made but ‘imitating’ the process is not the answer for the characteristically different society like India. Abstaining from utilization of dichotomous nomenclature of ‘democracy’ and authoritarian’, the author does acknowledge that characteristically India and China are two different polities and societies and thus India has to debate the right issues and diligently work towards its goal as an aspiring player.

The Border Issue and the Future are Tied Together

Jaishankar out rightly asserts that India needs ‘greater realism’ in securing its border with China. Prevalence of peace and tranquillity on the border is the bottom-line to not jeopardize the progress achieved in last three decades and for the future of India-China relationship. The ceaseless political idealization of the Asian Brotherhood has clouded India’s assessment of dominance seeking Mao’s China in the past, thus ‘forging ahead will mean taking risks and refraining from passing off timidity as strategy or indecision as wisdom’.

He reflects how the fear of immediate friction restricted Nehru to follow up on Sardar Patel’s suggestion to initiate steps to finalize border after China’s 1950 ‘move’ into Tibet. The mind-set of avoiding hard choices not only led to poor assessment of facts on ground but also to limited military leadership in decision-making during 1962 conflict. The 1962 War, a confrontation situated in ‘the politics of the period’ and desire to dominate still looms large in Indian public psyche whose impact is still not well-comprehended by China. As elegantly put, ‘The loser in the 1962 war was not just India but the relationship itself’.

Despite an impressive progress made by both the countries in institutionalizing boundary talks, the recent illicit assertiveness of China on Central and Western sector of India-China border is in consistence with its past trajectory where its upward move in economic hierarchy was accompanied with unilateral decisions on border disputes. The troublesome events of border intrusions, stapled visas and military contacts were all acts of an emboldened China. Thus, ‘avoiding hard choices is not the option anymore’.

Time to Address the Elephant in the Room

The global financial crisis of 2009 was the turning point for China’s global and regional position. Jaishankar recalls the growing sense of confidence in Chinese establishment about its rise as its effects were also loudly visible in India’s neighborhood. According to the author, 1947’s partition; India’s foreign policy burden; was the major event which ‘unintentionally’ gave China an entry point in strategic space of South Asia. The relevance of Pakistan to American and now Chinese strategic aspirations could not be underestimated. Sino-Pakistan collaboration in terms of physical connectivity, nuclear capacity building and the peace process in Afghanistan has its consequences on the regional standing of China in South Asia and thus on India.

For him, China’s reaching out to Pakistan in early 1960s was the visible display of ‘realpolitik’ in concern to dealing with India. The all-weather relationship between China and Pakistan serves dual purpose for China: A pathway to the larger global role for itself and a limited India within ‘South Asia box’ entangled with Pakistan. The implications of these historical realities with the addition of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC);an open disregard for India sovereignty; is detrimental to the future of India-China relationship and Beijing’s constant dismissal to acknowledge them is not a constructive gesture. China’s relations with Pakistan has its ‘reputational costs’ but India should not wait for China to realize it; it should visualize, clarify and communicate its terms and conditions effectivity in diplomatic exchanges.

Honor the Rule of Reciprocation

As highlighted by the author, China’s lack of reciprocity in modern history of India-China relations is the unpleasant fact.  Somehow the golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’ does not seem to apply to China. There are sufficient such instances in Delhi-Beijing diplomatic history to look back to. After independence the sense of being on the same side of history prompted India to support China’s UN representation, its instrumentality in regional wars and peace treaties, only to face China on the opposite side of its bid to permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

On one hand, Chinese goods are flooded in Indian economy and have destroyed many sectors of its industry and on other Chinese government is not even eager to give India’s persistent appeal to open its economy for India’s globally reputed sectors such as Pharmaceuticals and IT services, a serious consideration. The saga of Nuclear Supplier Group Entry is not any different.

“This (behavior) is not only talked about in policy circles but is equally realized by industry and the public”, asserts Jaishankar. This especially puts India-china economic collaboration in complicated domain as the cheap import is harming India’s domestic capacities. Now, after the destructive impact of coronavirus on national economies, India will not only rethink its economic policy but also become more ‘self-generating’ and ‘self-sustaining’. Its greater emphasis is on ‘Make in India’ for both global and domestic consumption.

Accommodating Each Other’s Global and Regional Footprints

Jaishankar’s thoughts clearly chart out India’s global ambitions and its willingness to actively connect and engage with its ‘extended neighborhood’. Thus, ‘the equilibrium between India and China is not going to arrive only bilaterally, it would be shaped in different ways across the larger landscape’, postulates the author.  The convergence of India and China on global and regional stage is not something unexpected. There have been periods of multilateral cooperation despite bilateral challenges. Platforms of AIIB, BRICS, Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), issues of climate change and trade and region of Africa are the bright and shining examples of India- China forging convergences and managing divergences.

As China has aspirations in South Asia, India would also demonstrate it in South-East Asia and East Asia. With its ‘Look East’ and now ‘Act East’ policy India has already made its pathways to Japan, South Korea and further east. India-ASEAN relationship has facilitated India’s interactions with Asian neighbours and rejuvenated Indian foreign policy outlook i.e. an India operating on multiple axis. Thus, India and China have to get comfortable with each other’s larger footprint.

It is interesting to note that despite Jaishankar’s strong advocacy of India’s interaction with Asian economic poles, Asian Tigers such as Taiwan are conveniently left out. Previously written prominent diplomatic writings on the similar subject has recognized the role of Taiwan in rise of China and Asia altogether.  Former Secretary of External Ministry Shyam Saran’s book (2017) How India Sees the World included Taiwan in the ‘substantial economies’ of East Asia. Another former Foreign Secretary Rajiv Sikri in his 2009 book Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy also mentioned Taiwan among ‘dynamic’ East Asian economies. He also went a step further in commending India on maintain its active Taiwan policy since 1995 and indicating that the dynamics of Cross-strait relations will have a consider effect on military balance on India-China border.

As the author repeatedly emphasizes that India must reach out in as many directions as possible to maximize its gains, it would be interesting to see whether India is ready to take the ‘Taiwan’ risk. As rightly advised by him, ‘Not all risks are dramatic; some just require the confident calculations and determined follow-through of day-to-day policy management’. As an aspiring power, India has to put one eye for larger picture in navigating a rising neighbor and maintaining a stable Asia.

Course Ahead

Delayed economic reforms and the prolonged exercise of the nuclear option were serious setbacks for India rise, but in going forward India needs to discard the option of playing defense and take the help of ‘discontinuous politics’. ‘It is important to not either be persuaded nor pressurized’. Inadequate understanding of China be it the significance of the communist revolution or its post-economic reform rise has coasted Indian prospects enough, the need of the hour is to encourage honest domestic conversations and work towards maintaining better balance and converging interests. At the end, achieving ‘pragmatic settlements’ with ones’ neighbor is more desirable than prolonged strained relationships.

Naina Singh is the Associate Editor for the South-Asia division of the Center for Studies on South Asia and the Middle East (CSSAME). She is a PhD Candidate at Graduate Institute of International Politics, National Chung Hsing University.

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