Even as India heads into a general election, it is important to keep focus on and not lose track of how the country must shape its foreign policy over the coming five years. Suggestions, inputs, advice on these issues will be valuable to whichever government is formed. Within our larger foreign policy matrix, there is no denying the fact that India’s relations with China constitute one of our most important challenges in the national security arena. Thus, even while attention is currently on the election schedule, thinkers, analysts, academicians and observers in western India have been giving a lot of thought to the next steps in India-China ties. Since these plans and ideas have been sharpened, fleshed out and given final shape through debate and discussion in the city of Pune, it would be appropriate to call it the “Pune Action Plan on India-China Relations”.
First, given the nature of China’s polity, which is highly centralised, it will continue to remain important to drive the relationship from the top down. Therefore, we agree that there should be intense political interaction, starting with the top leadership and filtering down to the ministerial level and then senior official level. It will be essential to have an early visit to India by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the second half of 2019 to keep up the momentum from the Wuhan Informal Summit of April 2018 as well as to impart new impulses with the formation in office in India as a result of our elections. Whether the interaction between Xi and the Indian prime minister continues to be of the informal variant we experienced at Wuhan will be for the two sides to decide.
The positive aspect of the informal summit format is that it permits just the two leaders of the most populous nations on the globe to interact with each other over significant amounts of time, thereby enabling the two to indulge in strategic communication on each country’s hopes and fears, their assessments and calculations, their dreams and their goals. Such an exchange of views is indeed of significant value, especially amongst nations which need to build upon mutual trust.
Second, it will be important to enhance military-to-military interaction and cooperation between India and China. Currently, the exchanges are mainly between the armies of the two countries. It will be essential to expand this to the navies, which are meeting on the high seas more often. Such exchanges should not merely be limited to study visits, attending courses in the military schools of the other side and perfunctory port calls by naval ships. They need to go beyond such symbolism and aim at getting a better understanding of the doctrines, practices and assessments of the other side. Naturally, this will not be immediately possible but a start has to be made somewhere. On the border itself, there is a need for new confidence-building measures, which will aim at defusing the increasing close proximity situations that have been witnessed in the recent past. Additional Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) may also have to be put into place.
Third, to address the increasingly adverse balance of trade India experiences with China, it is essential to work with the Chinese government to ensure greater market access in China for Indian pharmaceutical products, particularly our cheap formulations. Also, we must look at the “invisible” part of our payment balance with China and make a focused effort at attracting more Chinese tourists. Marketing Incredible India in China will be a first step, but we shall also have to work with Chinese travel agents, the various airlines which fly between our countries, the new online agencies as well as the social media methodology to popularise India as a tourism destination. Naturally, we will also have to ensure facilities in India for Chinese tourists who have very special needs. If such an effort is indeed made, our mountains and our beaches, our temples and our heritage sites, our Buddhist trail as well as our wildlife sanctuaries are likely to be hugely popular with the Chinese — one estimate states that we can expect 1.5 million tourists to visit India by 2020.
Fourth, it is important to acknowledge that China has rediscovered Bollywood. The success of relatively recent offerings such as Dangal, Secret Superstar and Hindi Medium indicates that the Chinese audience will flock to movies which have a strong theme, an excellent script and good acting. While Bollywood will continue to tap the Chinese market on its own, since the government is important in China, India should offer whatever assistance may be required by our filmmakers in marketing their ware in China. Films are important since they are a vehicle for promoting mutual trust and understanding between societies and peoples, while at the same time helping earn our movie-makers important markets and foreign exchange.
In addition to films, India’s other export which is reaching out to millions of ordinary Chinese folk is yoga. We must continue to promote yoga in China and, once again, this is best done through the private sector, but the government could consider effecting policies which promote this “soft power” export. It is significant that in order to celebrate International Yoga Day in China on June 21 each year, our official outposts in that country are able to bring in as many as 8,000 to 10,000 people at each of the many events in China.
Sixth, it will be essential to engage China in the field of sports, where they are extremely strong. While Vivo and Oppo will continue to sponsor the Indian Premier League in cricket, we can encourage Chinese coaches in table tennis, gymnastics, track and field, as well as shooting, archery and swimming to come to India and train our youngsters. We shall benefit from such assistance.
On global issues, India has established the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in partnership with France with its headquarters in India. China, which is an important manufacturer of solar panels and other related equipment, must join the ISA at an early date. This would be a win-win proposition for both countries and will provide an excellent example of how the two can work together in international organisations. Now that Japan and Saudi Arabia have joined the ISA, it is time to step up our encouragement to China to participate in this important area of environmental policy where we have no fundamental differences.
We shall have to continue working with China to convince them that they must remove their hold at the UN Security Council on the listing of Masood Azhar under the 1267 sanctions. We are confident our diplomats must be on the job even as we speak.
Eighth, the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are now mainly between India and China. We must ensure that RCEP has a strong commitment with respect to services and the movement of natural persons which is important for India. Perhaps, side letters between India and China on bringing the lower tariffs into effect at later dates may be the way to resolve the current impasse.
Ninth, it is important to understand that better relations with China do not mean we have to go slow in our relations with other countries — whether the ASEAN or Australia, Japan or the US. Putting our links with China on a firmer footing can be done simultaneously with stronger ties with other players in the region. Indian diplomacy is nimble enough to face this challenge.
Looked at holistically, the Pune Action Plan provides a comprehensive methodology for the soon to be newly-elected Government of India to proceed fast forward in its relationship with China in the second half of 2019.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 9, 2019 under the title ‘The Pune plan for China’. Bambawale, a former Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Pakistan and China, is currently a distinguished professor at Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune