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Beijing bonhomie

In 2014,Delhi should focus on overlapping areas of interest.

Written by P. Stobdan | Updated: January 9, 2014 9:56:44 pm

In 2014,Delhi should focus on overlapping areas of interest

In 2014,President Xi Jinping will complete more than a year in office. In the recent Communist Party plenum,Xi outlined the direction of China’s economic reforms and its foreign policy priorities for the next decade. It is believed that Xi’s policies will be as decisive for China as those Deng Xiaoping had unveiled.

By the end of 2013,the India-China story looked more positive than negative. China’s new leaders were surprisingly affable towards their Indian counterpart — such warmth had been missing since the 1950s bonhomie. Though the Depsang incident overshadowed a good part of the story,visits by leaders of both countries indicated the importance of the relationship. Premier Li Keqiang chose India as his first overseas stop. This was a deliberate choice.

China’s proclaimed intent to deepen ties with India,along with the promise to make “greater efforts” to resolve boundary issues,is welcome. For President Xi,Chinese and Indian “dreams” were inter-connected. The Indian leadership also struck an optimistic note,rejecting “containment” for “cooperation”. Two conclusions could be drawn: first,the strategic partnership launched in 2005 was yielding enduring results,and second,the leadership has gained a higher level of confidence.

It should be easy for the new Indian leadership in 2014 to build on these achievements. But the question of whether India should join others to offset China’s influence or cooperate with its neighbour will have to be decided. The new leadership may face mounting pressure not to be soft on China. The Chinese media will also view Indian infrastructure build-up as a provocation. But it is the lingering boundary dispute that is likely to threaten the India-China story,though interim measures are in place to manage the differences until a final solution is found. The challenge for both leaderships in 2014 will be to take more steps towards a mutually acceptable boundary settlement. Both on the boundary and the trans-border river issues,out-of-the-box solution should be explored.

Commerce will continue to drive the relationship,but the next Indian leadership also needs to resolve a trade imbalance of $40 billion,tilted against India. Significantly,India has overcome past apprehensions and is getting more receptive to Chinese proposals. The border defence pact is a case in point. The prospects of a regional trade agreement and a regional comprehensive economic partnership,of setting up industrial zones and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor,are being looked into. The new Indian leadership would do well to learn from China’s experience of spurring domestic economic development with regional and global linkages.

China’s sphere of influence in South Asia,encircling India,and its forays into the Indian Ocean continue to create mistrust. But there is a growing view that strategic partnerships with other countries must not be seen as directed against each other. On the strategic front,the global powers have tended to pitch India as a countervailing force against China. India was seen as a linchpin particularly in the US’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. A closer relationship with Japan and the US may serve some purpose,but India’s reliance on the US as a partner and balancer has been challenged lately. Moreover,the idea of India joining the contest in the Asia-Pacific is being viewed as a “development fraught with uncertainty”. India had best stay out of such contests,and focus on overlapping,rather than conflicting,strategic interests.

To this end,the Indian leadership could build on the existing strategic mechanisms in economic,defence and regional issues. It could start with issues such as Afghanistan,Central Asia,West Asia and terrorism. India and China could consider calibrated moves to work together in Afghanistan,post 2014. Both have high stakes in the stability of Afghanistan. Similarly,both could fill the strategic vacuum in West Asia. This could help tackle issues such as energy security and the growing violence in the region.

There is convergence on a range of global issues and that should be leveraged to deepen the understanding between the two countries. As China and India venture out globally,they should jointly seek to initiate new norms in global relationships,including the removal of strategic disparities that have contributed to global terrorism.

The biggest obstacle is the trust deficit between the two countries. The aberration of 1962 needs to be left behind. While the best way to build trust is to strengthen economic ties that benefit the people of both countries,the civilisational aspects of the relationship cannot be ignored. Nothing much has been done to disseminate knowledge about the countries’ shared cultural past. Can India’s new leadership pursue cultural channels to strengthen ties? Beyond communication between leaders and diplomats,there could be exchanges between people from every walk of life.

The new Indian leadership could focus on bridging the gaps — lack of market access,trade imbalance,the treatment of Indian labour,visa restrictions on Chinese labour etc. The new year is sure to offer both leaderships more avenues to solve the longstanding dilemmas of the India-China relationship.

The author is a former ambassador

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