Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s visit to India was preceded by a great buzz. It followed Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Japan and Shinzo Abe’s promise of $34 billion in investments in India over the next five years. Beijing’s consul-general in Bombay, Liu Youfa, spread the optimism by suggesting the potential for $100 billion in Chinese investments over Modi’s tenure as prime minister. Modi’s commendable experience with China when he was the chief minister of Gujarat also heightened expectations of major agreements on infrastructure. In addition, Modi’s upcoming visit to the United States, primus inter pares in an alleged triumvirate set to curb China’s aggressive and expansionist nationalism, gave more salience to Xi’s trip.
“Eleven” Jinping’s visit was flat on arrival. First, the Chinese delegation was larger than expected, with a 1,000 of its members camped out in Ladakh at Chumar and a few more at Depsang. Second, Xi left after promising an investment of $20 billion over five years; while not disappointing in itself, the commitment was a pale shadow of Beijing’s boast of investing thrice the amount of the Japanese in India and underscored the tepid state of affairs between Asia’s two largest countries.
However, few in India held their breath over the Chinese visit; they were more interested in observing how the leaders of the two countries interact with each other and how China will appraise an India that promises to be firm on border security but welcoming to trade. The summit promised little and in that it delivered abundantly.
Contrary to the verbiage about peace and harmony from Beijing, China is not keen on seeing its southwestern neighbour rise. While China’s banks are eager to uncover new investment opportunities, India’s development may prove to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Delhi’s rise, though not inevitable, is a safe bet and it would be foolish to miss out on profiting from the humongous investments India needs to make to feed, clothe, house, educate, and employ its 1.25 billion people. On the other hand, however, an economically stable and more prosperous India will become a rival to Chinese power in Asia and on the world stage. Ideally, Beijing would have India develop but at a slow rate so that it remains a source of revenue but the disparity between the two countries is large enough that India never becomes a concern.
Trade between the two countries has come down recently, but this would not worry China much as the imbalance is skewed heavily in their favour. China buys raw materials from India and exports manufactured good back much like the English of yore. Furthermore, Indian companies have to struggle to access Chinese markets whereas Chinese firms have been denied entry only in a few critical sectors like telecom. Xi has promised to rectify this equation but it remains to be seen what will actually be done.
The carrots China offered during the summit were interesting – an invitation to join the Maritime Silk Route, to push forward with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar trade corridor, and full Indian membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation if India would work to integrate China into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The first carrot was to invite India into a new world order shaped by China; the second carrot would benefit China far more than India due to the poor state of Indian manufacturing and infrastructure in the region to exploit the additional connectivity to its eastern neighbours. The third carrot, the SCO, was another attempt to tie India into a Sinocentric hemisphere: the Central Asian -stans do not share a border with India and Russia is currently tilting towards China due to its fracas with the West in Ukraine. In exchange for a place in the Chinese order, India would have to extend the benefits of SAARC to Beijing. It is telling that China has blocked India’s path into any forum that cannot be bullied by China, for example the Nuclear Suppliers Group and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The litmus test on India-China relations comes down to two things: China’s support of Pakistan and the border dispute. There were expectations is some quarters that China might be more pliable on these matters in light of the bonhomie between Japan, India, and the United States. These hopes were dashed as Xi’s trip turned sour upon news of Chinese incursions into Indian territory. While it has been suggested that Modi told Xi in no unclear terms to recall his troops, from Delhi’s perspective, Beijing reiterated its duplicity by invading Indian territory under the cover of a diplomatic delegation. China’s brazenness comes from its successful challenges to the global status quo in the past and confidence in its own position in the shifting world order. Having developed Pakistan into a perennial thorn in India’s side, Beijing now only needs to be nice enough to Delhi not to push it into an overt zero-sum alliance with Japan and the United States. The promise of investments and the threat of trouble along the border maintains that balance quite well for Beijing.
Historically, two powerful states have not risen peacefully side by side. Be it Rome and Carthage, the Byzantines and the Ottomans, or France and the Prussians, competition and conflict was unavoidable. It is unrealistic to expect India’s relations with the Middle Kingdom to ever be harmonious unless one of the two has been unquestionably subdued. The Chinese premier’s visit underscored the disparity in power between the two countries – India is weak and in need while China is powerful and wealthy. If there is a lesson for Delhi here, it is that the time for ambivalence and moralpolitik in foreign policy is over; no good news can come from across the Himalayas and India must be able to repel the worst.