Assessing the need for deeper China-India cooperation

The equation between countries in international relations does not remain static forever but keeps on changing as per the demands of time and situation. The relationship between China and India has seen many ups and downs in history, which even led to a war in 1962.

In recent decades, both these countries have been experiencing high rates of economic growth. Their bilateral economic cooperation is also on the rise. It has often been said that the 21st century could very well be the “Asian Century.” If it is to be realized, then China and India will have to cooperate with each other rather than act as rivals.

Regional geopolitical scenario

India is undoubtedly the biggest power in South Asia. However, many of the other South Asian nations do not view it as a benevolent neighbor but rather as a hegemonic one.

India has never been comfortable with the idea of China spreading its footprints in South Asia, which has been increasing over the years. India has decided not to join the Chinese global venture the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), citing that the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through the Pakistan side of the disputed Kashmir region, infringes on its sovereignty.

India has also not been able to contain China’s increased investments and partnerships in almost all of the South Asian nations barring Bhutan. India’s “string of pearls” theory is a realist perception that might be considered outdated as China has already marked its presence in South Asia, which appears to be quite irreversible.

A liberalist approach that emphasizes mutual cooperation and interdependence would benefit both nations as well as the entire South Asian region.

A new beginning in Sino-Indian ties?

China and India have traditionally shared a relationship that lacks mutual trust. Any sort of military skirmish between these two nuclear powers would not only threaten each other’s national security but the security of the region and the world in general.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seem to have begun efforts in earnest to enhance cooperation between the two countries, taking lessons from last year’s border standoff in the Doklam region. Their informal meeting in the Chinese city of Wuhan in April allowed them to reflect on how their ties can move forward for mutual benefit.

Further warming of relations was observed after their recent meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao, which led to the signing of an agreement to settle the Brahmaputra River dispute.

One of the major foreign-policy concerns of China is related to Tibet and it expects its friends to stick with the “one China” policy. China has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of orchestrating the free-Tibet movement from Dharmashala in India. As India has given asylum to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile, the bilateral relationship will continue to be shrouded with suspicion if India continues to support the anti-China activities of the Tibetans in India.

Similarly, the frequent border disputes prevailing between the two countries should also be tackled in a logical manner to avoid a Doklam-like situation in the future.

China and India are members of several multilateral forums including BRICS and the SCO. Therefore, they both stand to benefit if they can build trust and start cooperating with each other, not only in economic matters but encompassing toward fulfilling their desired goals.

Although it is too early to predict the sustainability of a continued camaraderie between China and India, it can certainly be deduced from the recent events that the leaders of both countries have felt the need to have sincere mutual cooperation in the future for shared prosperity.

Geopolitics beyond the neighborhood

On one hand, India is considered to be an intimidating neighbor in South Asia, whereas China seems to be viewed more favorably. On the other hand, because China’s assertive posturing in the South China Sea, it is viewed by Southeast Asian nations as a hegemonic power threatening their sovereignty.

China’s ultimate competition for global supremacy is with the US, and therefore it is cozying up with India’s traditional ally Russia in its quest to establish a new world order. Its historically troubled relationship with Russia is a thing of the past, and their bilateral relationship is getting stronger by the day.

Considering its strategic location for maritime navigation and availability of a huge amount of natural resources, control over the South China Sea region has become a major foreign-policy objective for China. Similarly, India’s “Act East” policy of engaging with Southeast Asian countries has economic as well as strategic maritime objectives. Modi’s recent visit to a couple of countries in the region highlighted their growing cooperation in this regard as well as implicitly exploring means to counter China’s maneuvers in the South China Sea.

The often aggressive moves of Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea have prompted the United States and India to cash in on the opportunity and become sympathetic to the plight of Southeast Asian countries toward countering China. The US and India have advocated for the right of free navigation in the South China Sea, much to the displeasure of China.

The recent move by Washington to change the name of US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command signals its desire to expand maritime cooperation with its allies encompassing the whole of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Despite pressure from the US, India has shown reluctance toward the Quadrilateral Alliance also comprising Japan and Australia, bearing in mind the probable diplomatic fallout from China.

Creating a win-win situation

India appears to have adopted the strategy of maintaining a fine balance in its relations in such myriad scenarios in its international relations. Despite Russia being an old and trusted ally, the relationship is not as strong as it was during the Cold War era. While India wants to increase economic cooperation with China, it also desires to engage with the US and Southeast Asian countries to assert its role in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Chinese leadership is aware that although India is not its competitor at this point in time, it definitely possesses the capacity to act as a deterrent in China’s ambitions to challenge the US dominance in the international arena. Realizing this possibility, Xi has been trying to convince Modi of deeper collaboration during their meetings in Wuhan and Qingdao even if China has to give certain concessions in favor of India.

As the next step, he would be courting Modi so as to ensure India joins the BRI. China seems to be clear in its ultimate objective and the onus is now on India whether it wants to remain engaged in geopolitical games in conjunction with the US or forge a conducive partnership with its neighbor for creating a win-win situation not only for both of those countries but the region and the world in general.

The dream of an “Asian Century” will remain a distant one if China and India fail to cooperate with each other for the long term and have a divergent worldview.


What will India’s role be in the SCO?

This month the heads of state of India and Pakistan will attend, for the first time as full members, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, being held in Qingdao, China. Pakistan was already engaged with SCO member states through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Joining the SCO will reinforce Pakistan’s position and integration into the region.

However, regarding India, there are few clarifications needed. What will India’s role be in the SCO? How well can India integrate into the SCO? What are the expectations?

Let’s view some of the historical facts. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created to stage a combined front of the South Asian states for economic development and market access to member states within the region and beyond. India tried to hijack the forum, and later boycotted the summits, rendering the SAARC platform dysfunctional.

India was a driving member of the Non-Aligned Movement since its inception in 1956, but when the Cold War ended India realized non-alignment was not an option any more if it wanted to realize its geopolitical motives. Though India is still a part of the NAM, it has practically dissociated from it by aligning itself with the West.

To understand this behavior, we need to understand the basics of Indian foreign policy as laid down by the ancient military and diplomatic genius Chanakya. Chanakya said, “Your neighbor is your natural enemy and the neighbor’s neighbor is your friend.” This was the basic thought behind Chanakya’s theory and other clauses revolved around this basic principle.

Following this path, one can understand India joining the “Quad” group also consisting of Australia, the US and Japan, but it is not clear if such a policy can work in parallel to the regional SCO alliance. Samsraya, or the principle of alliance-building, is that states seeking the protection of a stronger king could entering alliances or by sign treaties.

The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) is a clear example of this, where the US and India can jointly use each other’s military installments for logistical purposes, hence giving both immense mobility in terms of naval warfare. Chanakya gave the principle of dvaidhibhav, or double dealing, which advised states to have peace with one state in order to pursue hostilities with another.

India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which postures itself as representing the democratic forces in the Asia-Pacific region. The group’s hidden motives are to counter China and Russia, which they believe are undemocratic forces.

Today, India is the second-largest beneficiary of US aid after Israel. The US is providing the latest technologies, high-tech weapons, economic and financial assistance, and political and military assistance.

The recent informal talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were aimed at wooing India to join the Belt and Road Initiative. The talks were inconclusive, however, and India still openly objects to the BRI. While all of the other SCO member states are already beneficiaries or supporters of the BRI, India alone is a staunch opponent of it. How will this affect the BRI’s inclusion into the SCO agenda?

The SCO is basically a regional security bloc. Under the SCO defense ties are expected to be increased, but India’s recent deal to acquire the S-400 missile system faced anti-Russia sanctions by the US before it could be implemented. This casts serious doubts on the extent of India’s defense cooperation with the SCO member states, while keeping close ties with West simultaneously.

Under this situation, how can India accommodate its own interests with these diverging blocs? The SCO has its own agenda for regional security and cooperation that the member states are committed to. On whose side will India stand? Can the SCO offer India a better package to involve itself with regional partners rather than trans-regional partners?

India is engaged with the US, Australia and Japan in the Indo-Pacific Dialogue. Meanwhile China and Russia – major drivers of the SCO – are on the US hit-list, as President Donald Trump specifically targeted those two countries in his State of the Union speech in January. Can India join the SCO and at the same time safeguard Western interests? India has to come out clearly on its standing so that bold decisions can be made at the SCO Summit next month.

In view of the above, understanding the whole situation, let the SCO member states judge or predict the Indian role in the organization.

In fact, the SCO constitutes one of the world’s most densely populated areas, rich in natural resources, yet the common man suffers. The provision of adequate food, potable water, education, health care, and security are still major problems. It is hoped that through the SCO platform, its members may achieve more cooperation, more connectivity, more trade, increased economic activities, more jobs and better law and order.

I am very optimistic that the day is not far away when we may be able to solve such issues for the majority of human beings.


Western leaders back in Russia as tensions appear to ease

East-West relations seem to have changed over past 10 days, as three major Western leaders attend St Petersburg forum

East-West relations have transformed over the past 10-day period. Russia’s isolation from the West after the Maidan coup in Kiev appears to have warmed as abruptly as it began.

Three major Western leaders – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – visited Russia during the period since May 18, mainly to attend the St Petersburg Economic Forum. But they had one mantra to chant: Russia is an indispensable partner – and one offer to make – despite sanctions, economic and political ties with Russia are possible and necessary.

On the other hand, US President Donald Trump’s critics, who accuse him of causing a trans-Atlantic rift, have had a rethink, since he may have instead triggered an overall easing of East-West tensions, as America’s European partners dust off their “Ostpolitik” to seek an apparent rapprochement with Russia.

Of course, the three Western leaders who traveled to Russia were not acting in concert. Merkel, Macron, Abe – each had a specific agenda with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. They were not interested in taking advantage of Russia’s tense relations with the US. Their intuition probably told them that things have come to such a pass in world politics that high-level contact between Russia and America might now be only a matter of time.

Equally, Putin was not inclined to turn the visits of three top Western leaders into an “anti-American” platform to exploit the current trans-Atlantic rift. Putin’s focus was on what these leaders could bring to the Russian economy by way of trade and investment. But in political terms, as much as Russia sizes up Germany, France and Japan as partners, the US still remains the partner of its heart’s desire.

Suffice to say, Russia grapples with the geopolitical reality that while the trans-Atlantic rift could become the “new normal,” an outright rupture between the US and its European allies or an unraveling of the Western alliance is not in the cards. Again, in the final analysis, without the United States’ participation, it is impractical to address issues such as Syria, the Iran nuclear problem, Ukraine, etc.

Macron audacious, Merkel wary

Between Merkel and Macron, the latter seemed far more eager and audacious to turn a new leaf in relations with Russia. France’s Total has taken US$2.5 billion in equity in Russian major Novatek’s Yamal LNG 2 project in the Siberian Arctic (with an option to double it). Macron promised to overtake German investments in Russia ($18 billion). He sought a new “mechanism” to solve the Syrian crisis; he stated France’s intention to protect its companies operating in Iran; and he even harked back to the defeat of Nazism to invoke France’s and Russia’s common destiny as United Nations veto powers and world leaders.

Nonetheless, Moscow is yet to figure out the potential of Macron, who began one year ago as the alpha male vis-à-vis Trump but went on to invite the latter as guest of honor on Bastille Day and become his best friend in the Western world, and is now presenting himself as an incorrigible Gaullist. Putin wore a quizzical look as Macron plunged gustily into an extraordinary speech lasting half an hour at the improbable forum of their joint press conference in St Petersburg on May 25.

The point is, Gaullism didn’t survive Charles de Gaulle. Will Gaullism-2 survive the second year of Macron’s seven-year presidency? Time only can tell. How far will Macron go out on a limb to drop the European Union’s hostile sanctions against Russia or to break loose from the West’s strategy to provoke Russia? Actually, he didn’t forget to add that France remains all the while a US ally.

As for Germany, Russia has always viewed it as the pace-setter in the EU. But there is a catch here too, since Merkel was also a midwife to the Maidan in Kiev (where it all began) and worked shoulder to shoulder with Barack Obama to erect a harsh sanctions regime against Russia. Those were halcyon days when Merkel was de facto leader of the EU and the champion of the liberal international order – “The Iron Frau” who doubled up as the “Matti” – Otto von Bismarck and Mother Teresa at the same time.

Things have changed since then. Obama has left the stage; the migrant problem became controversial and eventually diminished Merkel politically (despite the brilliant performance of the German economy); and she is besieged today by several negative factors. Brexit came out of the blue; the Franco-German axis that was integral to her pet project of European integration lost verve; and America First began incessantly battering Germany (and Merkel personally). To borrow a poignant metaphor from Mikhail Gorbachev over the sad plight of managers of Soviet state enterprises in the era of perestroika, Merkel is afraid to leave the open cage and take wing and fly into the firmament.

Perhaps her timidity is due to the fear that assertiveness may provoke accusations of Germany’s inordinate geopolitical ambitions triggering another tragic cycle of history (“German Question”), and due to a genuine distrust of Russia among Germany’s political class, which is weaned on Euro-Atlanticism. But it is there. As top Moscow pundit Fyodor Lukyanov wrote recently, in Berlin “change is feared.”

Within earshot of the visiting Western leaders, Putin again signaled his interest in a full-bodied Russian-American dialogue. But alas, Washington speaks in multiple voices. Meanwhile, bad tidings have arrived from Syria – an attempted drone attack on Hmeimim air base; a US threat to take “firm and appropriate measures” against any Syrian operations against extremist groups ensconced in southwest Syria; and the killing of four Russian military personnel in Dier ez-Zor on Sunday.

If only Russian wishes had wings, Americans should have been better soccer players. That might have just about brought them into the finale of the FIFA World Cup – and Trump to Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on July 15 in front of a capacity crowd of 87,000 fans in one of the most picturesque districts of the Russian capital with the Moskva River flowing gently alongside the stadium, and Putin sitting beside him, with no aides present, for a full 90 minutes.