India Plays Hardball with China
0 comments | by Harsh V Pant
After a year of turmoil in Sino-Indian relations, India hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last week with a degree of fanfare. Wen's visit came at a time of newfound assertiveness in India's China policy. Having tried to brush significant divergences with Beijing under the carpet for years, New Delhi policymakers have been forced to acknowledge -- if grudgingly so -- that the relationship with China has become increasingly contentious. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested just a few weeks ago that "China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality. . . . It's important to be prepared." India has also adopted a harder line on Tibet in recent weeks, making it clear that it expects China to reciprocate on Jammu and Kashmir. In the past, India has respected Chinese sensitivities on Tibet and Taiwan. Ignoring pressures from Beijing, India also decided to take part in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in Oslo. Beijing asked several countries, including India, to boycott the ceremony or risk facing its displeasure, describing the prize as open support for criminal activities in China. India was among the 44 states that did decide to participate, while Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq were among those that did not attend. There were even rumours that Wen might cancel his India trip in response, but they proved unfounded. India had flagged a number of concerns before the visit. The most significant involve issues impinging on India's sovereignty, such as the Chinese presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Beijing's issuance of stapled visas to Indians entering China from Jammu and Kashmir. India had also expressed its concerns about the upstream dams Beijing is building on shared rivers, like the Brahmaputra, and the trade barriers Indian companies face in China. India is keen on gaining access to Chinese markets, especially in the area of pharmaceuticals, information technology and engineering goods, sectors in which India argues its companies face non-tariff barriers in China. These issues notwithstanding, there was no shortage of warm words during the visit. In a lecture in New Delhi, Wen invoked Mahatma Gandhi as "a man of love and integrity" who "has always lived in my heart." He underlined that though recent Sino-Indian relations have experienced major twists and turns, they were only a short episode in a 2,000-year history of friendly bilateral exchanges. India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna reciprocated by suggesting that the two nations do not see any contradiction in each other's rise and understands the importance to leverage growth and development through mutual cooperation.
The substantive diplomatic outcomes of the trip, however, were underwhelming. Wen refused to acknowledge Indian concerns over the Jammu and Kashmir visa question and the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and also failed to condemn terrorist groups operating from Pakistan to target India. China has also so far refrained from supporting India's campaign to win a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. For its part, India decided to play hardball on the issues of importance to China. New Delhi, in a first, decided not to reiterate its support for the "One China" policy and refused to explicitly state its recognition of the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of Chinese territory. As in the past, in the absence of any political convergence, economic ties ended up being the focus of the visit. Wen came to India with a group of around 300 Chinese executives, and business deals worth about $16 billion were signed in a variety of sectors, including farm products and pharmaceuticals. The two sides also set a target of $100 billion for bilateral trade by 2015, up from the present $60 billion. But there was no progress on a bilateral trade agreement, as India remains concerned about its growing trade deficit with China*. "We are friends, not rivals," Wen said in India. But a growing number of Indians now see China, if not as a rival, then at least as a competitor. More damagingly, a perception is gaining ground that among the major global powers, China is the only one that does not accept India as a rising global player that needs to be accommodated in the global political order. Tensions between the two neighbours remain deep-seated, and their increasing economic strength and rising geopolitical standing have given rise to rapidly growing ambition on both sides. Though China now possesses more strategic resources -- both economic and military -- than at any time in the recent past, it is not entirely clear if Beijing has well-defined policy objectives vis-à-vis India. Indeed, for quite some time, India has not been a significant priority in China's foreign-policy calculus. There was even a general perception in Beijing that India could be easily pushed around, as New Delhi's past eagerness to keep relations smooth at all costs reinforced the Chinese assumption that Indian interest could be challenged without incurring any cost. New Delhi's newfound toughness in its dealings with Beijing signals that certain red lines remain non-negotiable. What remains to be seen is how far New Delhi is willing to go to hold these lines against the rising Chinese juggernaut. Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London in the Department of Defense Studies. His current research is focused on Asia-Pacific security and defense issue.