Hints of a thaw in Sino-Indian ties

RAVI VELLOOR

Associate Editor , The Straits Times

If this had been a Bollywood movie script, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, onstage at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand last week, would have looked at each other for a long moment, then folded the other in a prolonged embrace before turning their eyes skyward to the future with perhaps a song about the Old Silk Road playing in the background.

For the moment, such thoughts must remain wishful thinking; although both leaders did share a stage for the obligatory SCO summit photograph, the two found it difficult to share a dinner table and gave the pre-summit informal feast organised for summit participants a miss.

Neither did they shake hands; the wounds of a severely damaged bilateral relationship have not healed after their armies came to blows on an icy ridge in the high Himalayas two years ago, leaving a total of 24 officers and men dead by official counts.

It was only last week, and just a day or two before the summit - and two months after an agreement was reached between local army commanders - that the two sides managed something of a pullback in one or two of the contested areas.

While this much is welcome news, the suspicions between the two have not abated; thousands of troops are still lined up along the frontier whose very length - 3,800km by some count and only 2,000km by others - is itself in question since China claims the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in its entirety.

Tensions continue on multiple other fronts. Even as bilateral trade reached a record US$126 billion (S$178 billion) last year - mostly in China's favour - New Delhi has cracked down on Chinese apps, and is trying to reduce the market dominance enjoyed by China's cheap smartphone makers such as Xiaomi. Meanwhile Beijing views India's membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that includes the United States, Japan and Australia with deep suspicion.

In August, India voiced its objections to a Chinese navy survey vessel using a mostly unused Sri Lankan port to resupply. After some delay, the authorities in Colombo nevertheless gave the vessel permission to berth at Hambantota.

A few days ago, and for the third time in three months, China blocked a joint India-US attempt to put Pakistan-based terrorist Sajid Mir on the UN Security Council's list of global terrorists.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba "commander", now lodged in a Pakistan jail after being convicted of terror financing, is wanted for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, as well as terrorist attacks in the US and Denmark.

And yet, there is the mildest hint of a thaw - seen not so much in the military pullback as much as the reporting and commentary of the state-influenced official media in Beijing.

In recent weeks Chinese media has noticeably warmed towards India. From disdain for India and offering it free advice on its relative weakness vis-a-vis its powerful neighbour, an element of grudging respect is in evidence. News writing increasingly portrays India as assiduously pursuing its interests but also opting for an independent foreign policy marked by reluctance to embrace the Western camp.

Beijing reacted positively to Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar's remarks in late August that "it is said that the prerequisite for an Asian Century is India and China coming together. Conversely, their inability to do so will undermine it", and that a multipolar Asia is necessary for both the Asian Century and for a multipolar world.

Dr Jaishankar then went on to deliver the bottom-line position: "The state of the (Sino-Indian) border will determine the state of the relationship".

New Delhi's recent decision to steer clear of a key pillar - trade and digital flow standards - in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) promoted by the US has won praise in China. It comes as a balm to the sourness China felt when New Delhi did a last-minute withdrawal from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations, fearing a flood of Chinese goods if it entered RCEP.

A commentary in the Global Times enthused that India's "wait-and-wait stance" towards the IPEF deal shows the divergences in American and Indian interests and is testimony that Western "hype" about the US succeeding in drawing India to its side and getting it to decouple from China is "nonsense".

Not everyone in Beijing sees things this way, of course. More sceptical Chinese view New Delhi's recalcitrance on the IPEF trade pillar as a feint to improve the atmospherics for the Samarkand meeting. Whether such scepticism is merited, or not, some facts on the ground cannot be missed as regards the US-India relationship.

First, there hasn't been an American ambassador in New Delhi for 19 months. Second, the visa processing time for Indians to get a tourist visa to the US is almost two years. To India's dismay, Washington also recently allowed a significant upgrade of the US-built, nuclear-capable F-16 warplanes in Pakistan's armoury, which number 85.

The US, for its part, is losing patience with an India that went ahead with the purchase of S-400 missile defences from Russia, and continues to import large quantities of its oil, handing Moscow an economic life line.

India also sent a contingent of Gurkhas to join Chinese and other nations' troops at the recent Russia-hosted Vostok-22 military exercises even as it stayed away from the navy part of the exercise, held off Japan.

Special relationships aren't built quite this way.

Does all this offer Beijing a window of opportunity to slow the ever-tightening US-India embrace. And, is it worthwhile to try?

Depending on how the Chinese establishment assesses these signals, the next Xi-Modi encounter could result in at least a handshake when the two are likely to come face to face in Bali at the G-20 summit.

By then, Mr Xi should have secured the third term in office that he is said to be seeking. It would leave him better positioned to do the dealmaking required for a more lasting solution to the vexed problem that blew into open conflict 60 years ago, and since has stopped a full flowering of ties between the Asian giants.

If things go well thereafter, serious talks on the border can be resumed and a measure of progress achieved before what could be two Xi trips next year to New Delhi; for the SCO and G-20 summits, both of which Mr Modi will host.

The Indian leader is said to have opted to give Indonesia the privilege of being G-20 host this year so he could be seen hosting key global leaders next year, usual visuals that would come just ahead of his own bid for a third term as prime minister.

It is clear that for a stable, mutually productive Sino-Indian relationship two things are essential: New Delhi will have to ease up on its China scepticism and not look askance at Beijing's every move to improve ties with India's immediate neighbours. It also will have to tolerate a larger Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.

China's heft and national interests span the world and it is senseless to think it will not show up in a big way around Asia. Likewise, its security needs - keeping its energy supply routes open and unchallenged for one thing - are perfectly legitimate ones.

As for Beijing, it needs to drop the lofty disdain it often affects for New Delhi, and stop trying to hem India into its South Asian neighbourhood. Backed by the world's fifth-largest economy, New Delhi has its own ambitions to play a larger role in the world, including at the UN.

The second part is that Beijing, which itself built a multifaceted relationship with the US before things began to sour a decade ago, has to accept seeing an India that works closely with the US on multiple fronts, and not view everything from a China-containment prism.

Indeed, the more Beijing pushes at New Delhi, the stronger its impetus to enter a strategic clinch with the US. So far, the nation that stands in the way of the Quad turning into a full-fledged anti-China alliance is India.

At the same time, it is not to be missed that this year's "Yudh Abhyas" (War Exercise), an annual wargame held by the American and Indian armies, is to be held closer to the disputed Sino-Indian border than it has ever been done before. US-built equipment - from howitzers on the ground to Apache helicopters in the air - have been lined up by the Indian Army along the frontier.

As its economy slows, and hostility with the West rises, it also makes sense for Beijing to keep its goods flowing into the giant next door, now a single market under a unified tax regime.

According to a July report by market research firm Canalys, four out of every five of 36 million smartphones sold in India during the second quarter of 2022 came from China, led by Xiaomi's seven million units. Assuming India succeeds in home-shoring some of this, there still is plenty of space in this big market for others to fill.

China's best hope on the India account is that New Delhi will balance its policy between China and the US, just as it has done between Russia and the US. It has every reason to encourage India to do so; at the very least it makes sense to try and settle one flank as it turns more attention to the flashpoint that is Taiwan.

The Asian Century may be a chimera dreamed up by editorialists but practical minds would see sense in taking a reasonable approach to tackling historical cankers without needing to scratch each other's names on trees - or humming Bollywood tunes together for that matter.

 velloor@sph.com.sg

 
 
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