If Beijing desires a greater sense of security, it must act to facilitate such an environment that addresses the security concerns of others too
Events of the past month indicate a deepening disconnect between India and China. Developments in Afghanistan, the Quad summit and sustained tensions along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh inform that the bilateral relationship will remain difficult for the foreseeable future. This was apparent from the recent comments by both the Indian ambassador to China and the Chinese ambassador to India during a Track II dialogue last week. The addresses by both diplomats underscored that all was not well in the bilateral relationship. However, both had a very different assessment of the root causes of the problems and how those should be addressed.
For ambassador Sun Weidong, the problems were a product of a deepening “strategic miscalculation” by the Indian side of viewing China as a “major threat” and “strategic rival.” He blamed this on India relying on “outdated western thinking” and viewing ties “from the prism of so-called realism in international relations theories of the West.” In addition, for Sun, Indian policy was increasingly “losing sight of the forest for the trees”, by focussing primarily on the boundary issue. Sun argued that “peace and tranquility in the border areas is important, but it is not the whole story of the bilateral relations.” He called on both sides to “place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations” and move the current situation from “urgent dispute settlement to regular management and control.”
It is worth noting here that in the same week, Sun’s colleague Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the US, speaking at an event on China-US ties, emphatically stated that “there isn’t any example in the history of international relations where the political relationship between two countries is in competition or even confrontation but other spheres remain safe and sound.” One wonders why Beijing seems to believe that what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander.
The next part of Sun’s diagnosis was that both sides should focus on ensuring “strategic autonomy” and “development and rejuvenation.” Consequently, what the ambassador wants from New Delhi is for it to steer clear of “ideological bias and Cold War mentality” and engagement with “closed and exclusive small cliques” or an “alliance or quasi alliance” targeting China. These comments reflect Beijing’s increasing discomfort with India’s relationship with the US and more specifically the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
Sun, of course, ignores the Chinese leadership’s efforts of engaging in its own minilateral dialogues, which exclude India. The latest example of this is the China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan quartet to coordinate policies related to Afghanistan. The group came together at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Dushanbe earlier this month. One wonders why such a grouping was needed when all parties are members of the SCO.
Finally, Sun was critical of the economic measures taken by India in response to the standoff in Eastern Ladakh, and called for “a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies.” To him, this is an issue that must be treated as distinct from border tensions. Of course, this view doesn’t concur with Beijing’s own diplomatic practice. China’s economic coercion of Australia is a case in point. For instance, in July this year, when asked about Australian agricultural products losing market share in China, the Chinese foreign ministry’s Zhao Lijian had said that “mutual respect is the foundation and safeguard of practical cooperation between countries. We will not allow any country to reap benefits from doing business with China while groundlessly accusing and smearing China and undermining China’s core interests based on ideology.”
In contrast to Sun, ambassador Vikram Misri argued that although there a number of issues that make the India-China dynamic significant “not only for our two countries but also for regional and global peace, prosperity and stability,” “the most pressing issue” between the two sides today is the situation in Eastern Ladakh. Acknowledging “significant progress” on the ground in terms of disengagement along the North and South Banks of the Pangong Lake and Gogra, he expressed hope that “disengagement at the remaining friction areas will enable us to reach a point where we can pick up the threads of bilateral cooperation.” This was an unambiguous reiteration of the view that Beijing cannot expect normalcy in the broader relationship while tensions along the boundary persist.
In addition, the ambassador was critical of attempts to shift goalposts when it comes to the current issue in Eastern Ladakh. In a clear indictment of the PLA’s efforts to force a new status quo using force, Misri argued that “any attempt to confuse border affairs with the Boundary Question is a disservice to the work of those involved in finding solutions… the Indian side has been consistently saying that the current issue is about restoring peace and tranquillity to the border areas and is not about the resolution of the larger Boundary Question, on which our stance has not changed, despite what happened last year.”
Reiterating the “three mutuals” – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests – that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had outlined in January 2021, Misri argued that bilateral engagement must be on equal footing. “It cannot be that only one side’s concerns are of relevance while the other side’s case goes unheard,” he said. At this point, it’s also worth noting comments by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July ahead of a visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Prior to her arrival, Wang had bristled that “if the US has not learned how to treat other countries as equals by now, then China and the international community as a whole bear the responsibility to teach the US a lesson.” Evidently, there is a chasm between Beijing’s rhetoric and actions.
The final point that Misri highlighted was the challenge of “viewing bilateral relations through the prism of relations with other countries,” and cautioned against “imaginary third factors complicating” the bilateral relationship. This underscored New Delhi’s efforts to assuage Beijing’s concerns with regard to India-US ties. Earlier this month, in a meeting between Jaishankar and Wang Yi in Dushanbe, the Indian foreign minister had reiterated that “it was necessary that China avoid viewing our bilateral relations from the perspective of its relations with third countries.”
Beijing is likely to remain skeptical of such assurances. Its reaction to the outcomes of the Quad summit further underscores this. The fact that the summit outcomes did not touch upon military ties is also unlikely to alter Beijing’s perception. With that said, however, there is little that India can do to help the Chinese leadership in this regard. If Beijing desires a greater sense of security, it must act to facilitate such an environment that addresses the security concerns of others too. This will require introspection and a significant change in the current direction of Chinese policy. However, for the moment this appears highly unlikely, given the current state of Sino-US relations, the deepening sense of ideological confrontation with the West among the Chinese elite and potential domestic political churn ahead of the 20th Party Congress in October 2022.
The author is a Fellow-China Studies at The Takshashila Institution. Views expressed are personal.