NEW DELHI – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s upcoming visit to India will include his first meetings with India’s new government, including Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and, more important, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the trip is about more than getting acquainted. The leaders of both countries will be taking one another’s measure, and their conclusions will determine how the relationship between the world’s two most populous countries evolves.
In some ways, the bilateral relationship is already moving in a positive direction, especially on the economic front. But, as trade imbalances favoring China become apparent, India is growing increasingly frustrated. Wang, an establishment figure well versed in Indian affairs, will make every effort to downplay these imbalances and promote deeper ties.
A far more formidable challenge will be resolving the dispute over the countries’ Himalayan frontier – the world’s longest unsettled land border. Indeed, “special representatives” from the two countries have already met 17 times to settle the issue, but have made precious little progress, not least because of Chinese concerns about the restive border provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.
As if the conflict were not already complicated enough, China has adopted an increasingly assertive stance in the area, including several incursions into disputed territory. For example, last year, Chinese troops established a temporary camp in Ladakh’s Depsang valley, leading to a high-stakes standoff with India. As long as the “line of actual control” remains undefined, tensions will continue to escalate – raising serious risks for both countries.
Another major point of contention is China’s reflexive support for Pakistan’s efforts to destabilize Ladakh and Kashmir, buttressed by deepening military cooperation. This aspect of China’s foreign policy is puzzling, not only because it undermines relations with India, but also in view of Chinese fears of Islamist radicalism among the Xinjiang’s Uighurs.
All of this highlights a fundamental flaw in China’s external strategy: its efforts to use its increasingly powerful military to intimidate its neighbors come at the expense of its own long-term security. Indeed, instead of trying to build a mutually beneficial relationship with its largest neighbor, China has sought to encircle India by asserting military control of surrounding territories. This so-called “string of pearls” strategy directly threatens India’s national-security interests, rendering the type of robust bilateral relationship that would benefit both countries next to impossible.
Of course, China claims that its intentions toward India are peaceful. For example, it contends that its efforts to establish bases in the Indian Ocean and bolster its blue-water navy are aimed at safeguarding the Malacca Straits, a maritime trade route that is perceived as a choke point for the Chinese economy.
But actions speak louder than words – and the message that China’s behavior is sending is far from peaceful. Indeed, Chinese leaders seem to be taking advantage of the opening provided by an overstretched United States to assert control over a broad expanse of Asia’s oceans.
To this end, China has created a vast Air Defense Identification Zone covering most of the East China Sea – including territories claimed and controlled by Japan and South Korea – where it has also declared disputed territories to be part of its own exclusive economic zone. These unilateral moves resemble the announcement by the United States in 1823 of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which, among other things, placed Latin America within a strictly US sphere of influence.
At the just-concluded Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called China’s actions “destabilizing.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe echoed this sentiment, declaring that Japan will play a larger role in safeguarding regional security, including by providing patrol ships, training, and military surveillance equipment to countries engaged in territorial disputes with China.
The response from China was immediate and unambiguous. Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, blasted Hagel and Abe for “corroborating and colluding…to provoke and challenge China.”
While Modi has not yet commented on the security challenge that China’s actions are creating, he will have to do so soon. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping practically insisted that India join the discussion when, in a speech in Shanghai last month, he said that “India, the world’s largest weapons-systems importer, must take very serious note” of mounting regional tensions.
But Modi will need to offer more than words to meet India’s national security interests. Because India has just endured a decade of neglect by the previous Congress government, the new administration will have to act quickly and decisively to safeguard the country’s national-security. This imperative is made all the more urgent by China’s decision to expand its defense budget by more than 12%, to $132 billion, in the next fiscal year, as well as its recently concluded 30-year energy deal with Russia, which has strategic implications for India.
Wang’s visit thus is coming at a time of fundamental redefinition of Sino-Indian relations. Given that continued friction is inevitable, even if no conflict occurs, the challenge is to find a way to engage in creative and competitive cooperation that bolsters both countries’ efforts to eradicate poverty and promote economic development.
Xi has said that, “We need to innovate in our security concepts, establish a new regional security-cooperation architecture, and jointly build a shared, win-win road for Asian security.” But China’s actions suggest that its leaders view Chinese hegemony as the only viable security structure for the region.
Subordination to China is certainly not Modi’s goal. The question is whether he can work with China and other Asian actors to design an alternative framework for regional peace.