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Five thoughts on China

Together,leaders of India and China can craft a Panchsheel for a new time

Written by Sanjaya Baru |
March 25, 2013 3:53:36 am

Together,leaders of India and China can craft a Panchsheel for a new time

There is something about the number five in India-China relations. As free powers,the two Asian giants defined their relationship in terms of the famous Panchsheel — mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and,peaceful co-existence. China’s new leaders have enunciated a Panchsheel for our times.

China’s President Xi Jinping listed a “five point proposal” for guiding India-China relations. These are: maintain strategic communication and keep bilateral relations on the right track; harness each other’s comparative strength and expand win-win cooperation in infrastructure,mutual investment and other areas; strengthen cultural ties and increase mutual understanding and friendship between our peoples; expand coordination and collaboration in multilateral affairs to jointly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries and tackle global challenges; accommodate each other’s core concerns and properly handle problems and differences existing between the two countries.

India would be happy to be on board with each of these five points. The fifth point is the only tricky one. It leaves undefined what China’s “core concerns” are. Traditionally,Tibet and Taiwan were China’s “core interests”,but more recently,Chinese spokespersons have referred to their claims on the South China Sea as a “core interest”. This has already opened a Pandora’s box for China,setting the cat among the South-east Asian pigeons and facilitating America’s rediscovery of Asia. India,like many other countries that have economic interests in the Pacific,would like freedom of navigation through these seas.

India would,understandably,want to know what exactly China has in mind when it talks of core interests today. For its part,China too must be mindful of India’s “core interests”,especially because it has grievously hurt at least one Indian core interest by enabling the nuclear weaponisation of Pakistan.

Clearly,the last of the five points raised by Xi requires further elaboration and consideration. Indian anxieties on this score have been enhanced by China’s investment in strategic assets like the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. While China cannot be blamed,perhaps not even implicated,in the rising trend of India’s South Asian neighbours trying to play the so-called “China card”,India cannot remain oblivious to this trend. It would,at some point,impact on India’s core interests.

Having entered that caveat,India should welcome these five principles for they take cognisance of the new and growing economic relationship between the two and their cooperation at the global level. This in itself would be a good starting point for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s conversation with Xi this week in Durban,South Africa.

Over the past nine years,Prime Minister Singh has enunciated his own five principles about India-China relations,though he has never packaged them together into one general statement,as Xi has done. What are the PM’s five principles in dealing with China?

The first principle he enunciated on India-China relations related to the border issue and was stated by him at his very first meeting with his counterpart,Prime Minister Wen Jiabao,in Vientiane in November 2004. Singh told Wen that India was willing to show accommodation on the border question,“but an accommodation that must take into account ground realities.”

Singh’s second principle,which is often reported in the media as Wen’s observation but was in fact originally coined by Singh and subsequently repeated on several occasions by Wen,says that “the world has enough space for the growth ambitions of both countries”. This at once places in perspective a question that is often asked: is the rise of China followed by India,two-fifths of humanity,a zero-sum game that has conflict written into it?

Having said this,Singh enunciated his third principle,that the rise of China and India is a global public good. Addressing the China Academy of Social Sciences in January 2008,he saw the possibility of the rise of China and India having positive externalities for the world as a whole because of the new opportunities for development they could bring to the international community,especially other developing countries.

The fourth principle Singh has repeatedly enunciated is that,because of all the above and,equally,despite the above,the relationship between the two would be characterised both by elements of cooperation and competition. In other words,even while there would be space in the world for both countries to rise,and even as that may have beneficial consequences for the world,these processes would both offer opportunities for cooperation,as on climate change and energy security,and generate the potential for competition,for markets,resources and influence.

The fifth principle articulated by Singh is a more general principle of national security,that one country’s policy towards another is defined not just by intentions but also capabilities. Intentions can change,capabilities are more enduring. Thus,it is not what one country’s political leadership says that ought to guide another’s policy but what one is capable of doing. Even as India accepts China’s reassurances,it cannot afford to remain indifferent to China’s rising capability to create problems for India.

On the question of intention vs capability,former US President Ronald Reagan had the last word. When asked if he could trust his Soviet counterparts when they promised to reduce their nuclear and missile capability,Reagan famously said,“trust,but verify”. That was precisely Singh’s reply when he was asked if he could trust Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf,and that should be any Indian leader’s response to reassurances offered by China’s leaders.

All this offers a good framework for a business-like interaction between the PM and Xi this week. There is,today,another concern that ought to engage both leaders. That is,how would developments in the global economy,especially the Trans-Atlantic economic slowdown and the rise of religious and other extremist politics in Asia,impact on their own rise and of Asia as a whole?

Would conflict in Asia,in the South China Seas or in West Asia,serve anyone’s interests at all? Can China and India afford to remain reticent observers while the Asia around them burns and remains mired in sectarianism,terrorism,violence and instability? Don’t they confront,along with many other Asian economies,a shared energy security challenge? Does it serve China’s purpose to unnerve the countries of Southeast Asia,playing one ASEAN member off against another? Is a Sino-Japan conflict in the interests of the rest of Asia? Should they not work together to build new regional architectures for sustained economic growth and regional security? Don’t Asia’s two giants have the responsibility to work with other Asian powers,including the ASEAN,Japan,Russia and the US to ensure peace,prosperity and stability in Asia? Many principles of cooperative engagement can be crafted from these challenges.

The writer is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy,International Institute for Strategic Studies and Honourable Senior Fellow,Centre for Policy Research

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