The Elephant, the Dragon and the Asian Century

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at the 13th Russia-India-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Beijing. Source: Reuters

When Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1989, Deng Xiao Ping said to him: “An Asian Century is only possible when India and China come together”.

The significance of this statement must not be under stated as mere political rhetoric. China and India are the two largest economies and militaries in Asia. In terms of human capital, together, the two nations account for almost 40% of the world's population. Given these figures, if the dream of the 'Asian Century' is to be realized, then India and China would have to radically alter their bilateral equation and follow a co-operative rather than confrontational policy toward each other.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has renewed India's foreign policy focus toward India's immediate neighbourhood. When he was elected as the PM in May last year, Sino-Indian relations were at a significant low point due to tensions at the borders in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir's Ladakh region.

In the last eight months, several high profile visits between Indian and Chinese officials have begun changing mutual perceptions on both sides. The Chinese President's visit in September last year marked a significant improvement in bilateral relations. During the visit, PM Modi stated that “a climate of mutual trust and confidence; respect for each other's sensitivities and concerns; and, peace and stability in our relations and along our borders are essential for us to realize the enormous potential in our relations.”

A framework for effective negotiations on the border issue was also discussed and NSA Ajit Doval was ultimately appointed as India's emissary for border talks in November. He met his counterpart, State Councillor Yang Jiechi earlier this month on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference and talks are said to have begun progressing smoothly.

This month, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited China to inaugurate the India-China Media Forum. She put forward a six point plan to broaden India's bilateral engagement with China which involved developing new areas of co-operation and finding a way to converge both countries' regional and international interests.

The points mentioned were - an action-based approach; broad–based bilateral engagement; identifying new areas of cooperation; expanding strategic communication; fulfilling common aspirations to usher in Asian century and setting up of industrial parks and projects in India that would contribute to PM Modi’s "Make in India” campaign. President Xi Jinping broke protocol and held a rare meeting with Sushma Swaraj during her visit.

It is likely that this visit will pave the way for more fruitful discussions when Prime Minister Modi will visit China in May. Another interesting development from the visit was the Joint Communiqe issued after the RIC summit in which, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated that China had no reservations against India and Brazil getting a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Rhetorical though this statement may be, it is still a significant softening of stance from China's usual position.

Global geopolitical upheavals have a significant role to play in this changing equation. The United States has begun withdrawing from its long drawn protracted engagement in West Asia. As part of its global re-balancing strategy, the US has decided to re position 60% of its strategic assets to the Asia Pacific theater. Within the People’s Republic of China (PRC), this move is perceived as a US strategy to encircle China.

China has yet to resolve its issues with countries in the South China Sea, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, and in the East China Sea with Japan. China has staked claims on large swathes of the South China Sea citing historical ties in the region. In the last three years, China has stepped up offensive patrolling in the region and faced off with the Vietnamese and Philippine navy on numerous occasions.

The area has extensive mineral deposits and is also a crucial transit hub for almost $5.3 trillion in annual trade. These factors no doubt make the region critical to China's rise. According to a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report, under its treaty obligations, the United States would have to defend Japan in the case of an armed attack and the U.S.-Philippine treaty holds both nations accountable for mutual support in the event of an “armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's invitation to Barack Obama for India's Republic Day celebrations has no doubt raised eyebrows in China. Indian media houses were quick to point out the close interpersonal relationship that Obama and Modi shared. Growing defence ties between India and the US, as well as between India and Japan will also be of considerable concern to the PRC.

Another interesting occurrence last month was the surprise result of the Sri Lankan general elections seeing the ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the coming into office of Maithripala Srisena, who has so far come off more pro-India than Rajapaksa ever was. India and China had several issues regarding China's forays into the Indian Ocean.

Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka allowed Chinese Submarines and long range deployment patrols to dock at Colombo, despite repeated concerns raised by India. Sri Lankan media houses were quick to allege that India's external intelligence agency, the R&AW, were involved in manipulating election results. The veracity of these claims is yet to be ascertained, however the message to the PRC is loud and clear. It is now dealing with a more proactive and assertive Indian foreign policy. This growing assertiveness has definitely played a significant role in changing the strategic equation between China and India.

This change however, is still manifesting itself, and it is essential that both sides maintain the momentum, in order to avoid losing this evolving relationship to rhetorical excesses. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit in May is expected to see many new agreements and MoUs signed as well. The key points of discussion during the visit will include bilateral investments and co-operation on multilateral forums like the BCIM connectivity and ASEAN. However, only once the two nations tackle outstanding issues such as the border demarcation can ties significantly move forward.

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