Sunday, July 12, 2015

Still Battling Mistrust

The best assessment of the outcome of Narendra Modi's visit to China has been made by the Prime Minister himself. Twice on Friday, he referred to the inability of the two countries to fulfil their potential because of mistrust between them.
This time around, there was no reference to the 2005 formulation that the SinoIndian relationship was a “strategic and cooperative partnership“. The tone and substance of the joint statement, which usually reflects areas of agreement, was modest. Not surprisingly, it spoke of the “imperative of forging strategic trust“.

In his media statement in Beijing on Friday, Modi said he had, in his official talks, “stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising full potential of our partnership“. Later, in a speech at Tsinghua University, after outlining his plans and policies for India and the potential of the China-India political and economic partnership, Modi again emphasised the need to “address the issues that lead to hesitation and doubts, even distrust, in our relationship“.
Such candour is not unusual in talks between government heads, but Modi's insistent public references probably left the Chinese bemused. For too long they have gone on with the cynical claim that China's ties with Pakistan are not aimed at India, or that the border dispute is left over from history and is best left for later generations to handle. The simple fact is that Sino-Indian relations are now far too important to be allowed to fester for decades, as they have.
Modi conceded that the Chinese leadership was “responsive“ to him, but it is clear that they hesitated to act on his points. In his press remarks and Tsinghua speech, Modi spoke of the need to clarify the Line of Actual Control as a means of maintaining peace and tranquillity on the LAC, as well as the need for progress on the stapled visa policy. But the joint statement is silent on both issues.
In the same vein, there were probably subjects that the Chinese would have liked to have seen in the joint statement, but they are not there. Tibet and one China are old hat, but Beijing would have wanted a favourable reference to President Xi Jinping's favourite scheme ­ the One Belt One Road initiative that seeks to build overland and maritime connectivity in Central Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.
The reference to the border dispute in the joint statement is anodyne. Both sides seem adamant in wanting to get an “LAC plus“ settlement.
But there has clearly been forward movement in the economic and peopleto-people ties. Investments could come in railways and industrial parks, new consulates will be opened in Chengdu and Chennai, initiatives to encourage province-to-province and business-tobusiness relations will get a fillip through Indian e-visas. As of now, many of the plans are on paper, but there is a logic to closer India-China economic ties that cannot be ignored. Still, as Modi pointed out, at present there is a self-limiting trajectory to the relations. At its heart is a dark area of mistrust, which is actually growing. In the 1962-2000 period, it was primarily related to the memories of the war and China's backing of Pakistan, to the extent of altering the strategic equations in South Asia by giving them nuclear weapons and missiles.
But after 1988 China and India were able to keep aside the problems, maintain peace on a disputed 4,000 km border, build important economic relations and develop convergence on a host of global governance issues.
Till the end of the Cold War, with the Soviets on their side, India effectively balanced China. Our GDPs and levels of technology were roughly the same. But in the 2000s things have changed rapidly and today China's GDP is five times that of India; Russia is drifting towards China.After 2008 China has come to be seen as a world power, bringing in its wake enormous turbulence in the world order.
Yet, the Sino-Indian border dispute continues to fester and the China-Pakistan relationship seems even more solid, with little change in Islamabad's hostility towards India or China's military commitment, the latest to the provision of submarines capable of firing ballistic missiles.Layered upon this are newer areas generating mistrust ­ China's naval activity in the Indian Ocean and the nature of relations with India's close neighbours, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
So it is not surprising that India, feeling the ground shifting beneath its feet, is furiously modernising its military and racing to build its border infrastructure. It is reaching out to democracies like the US and Japan to maintain a balance of power, and this, in turn, following the logic of great power competition, is scaring China.
In part the mistrust is fostered by a difficulty in understanding how the Chinese system functions. But rising China, instead of becoming more open and democratic, remains opaque, determined to create an authoritarian universe in its governance system, internet, media and international outlook.
But conflict is not inevitable. India and China have themselves shown how it is possible to manage disputes. However, it requires a pragmatic ability to confront festering issues and resolve them. By being unusually forthright in his speeches in Beijing, that is what Modi was trying to tell China.
Times of India May 18, 2015

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