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The Effects of Wuhan in India-China Relationship

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The mistrust that has clouded the India-China relationship for the last several decades – mainly due to India’s skepticism and tendency to see China as its rival in every sphere – is witnessing a rapid reversal during the last one year, particularly after the resolution of the Doklam crisis last year and the informal Wuhan summit this year. The latter has laid important groundwork for guiding the relationship between the two countries. While China has always insisted on pursuing cooperation and shared goals in Asia with India, it is India that has repeatedly repudiated this idea of cooperation. India has been hemmed in by its longstanding attachment to the idea of non-alignment on the one hand and the gullible belief that strife and competition are the only basis on which to conduct international relations.

In such a view, countries have been seen as allies or rivals based on the perception of ‘strategic interest’ and pure calculation. The international and foreign policy of India – much like that in the West – has been based on pure calculation. This unquestioned view of international order has been dictated and dominated by the West, most notably the US. It has been in vogue not because there is merit in it, but because it was born out of the civilizational hegemony of the West in all fields ranging from politics, economics and diplomacy to culture and religion. In its essence, it harks back to the Western idea of individualism – born in the age of Scientific rationality of the modern era – which is based on the philosophy of the sovereignty of the individualism. In practice, it translates into a powerful justification for the advancement of selfish interests and viewing the collectivity as a sphere of continuous strife and dominance. Even the Communism of the West was born out of such a fossilized world view of selfish individualism, whose principles it blindly applied to collectivity.

Asia, having been subjugated to the West – materially, culturally and through a dormancy of its spirituality – for the last few centuries, has been blindly following this model. The disasters in material fields are fast culminating in increasingly intense psychological perversions, deprivations and degradation leading to major changes in both Western democracies as well as in Asia. In Asia, the perfect Japanese democracy had to bear a huge cost of being a passive recipient of the Western impulses, but having still retained the powerful crux of their culture and temperament, they, like other Asian countries are rising to meet the new era of the dismantling of the Western ideas.

In this unfolding scenario, China is, perhaps, one of those Asian countries which has actively taken the lead in asserting its dominance through Asia and of propagating a discourse of the revival of the ancient Asiatic cultures. For this resurgence, it has been much reviled, especially through the concerted campaigns by the Western governments and media. In particular, its economic projects like the Belt and Road Initiative have been labelled as being ruthless in their geopolitical ambitions by systematically laying out a debt trap for the participating poorer countries – by charging extremely high interest rates and later purchasing a chunk of the indebted countries’ sovereignty on a lease, as was allegedly done in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. China has similarly shaken the West in its ambitions like ‘Made in China 2025’ which the West alleges would be facilitated by stealing intellectual property from the Western companies. In other spheres by playing an active role in global politics in not only neighbourhood countries like North Korea, but even Afghanistan and Central Asia, China is displaying an active zeal in re-shaping world affairs.

Trump’s concerted efforts to use trade war as a weapon to rein in China, to play the Indo-Pacific card and alienate India, Japan and Australia from China – and Europe’s quick siding with the Trump administration – are yet being tolerated by the Chinese magnanimously. Whatever ambition China is currently displaying in leading international affairs, there is not a single trace of confrontation or antagonism in its approach. In fact, when India recently declared a slew of investments initiatives in Africa, especially Rwanda, China was quick to welcome them and suggested that India and China can partner well in Africa. If there is one thing about China, it is that it declares its intent well and directly. This is evident from the fact that China has repeatedly and strongly protested against any kind of Indo-Pacific grouping to target China. There is no evidence of manipulation, unlike in the West – especially the US – whose governments are extremely unreliable.

To take another example, let us revisit the Doklam crisis which unfolded last year. It was clear that India, by taking the plea of defending Bhutan – despite the latter’s foreign policy having been independent for long – interfered in an area where India had no sovereignty and which was an area of dispute and negotiation between China and Bhutan. The plea that China’s road construction in this area would threaten India’s northeast, even if true, could not justify India’s arbitrary foray into a territory not its own. In doing so, India not only interfered in what China viewed as its own territory, but also rode roughshod over Bhutan. The logic of northeast being threatened could have been resolved by talking to China.

Little highlighted was the fact that before starting the road construction, China repeatedly tried to get in touch with India to inform them of the same. But with no response from India after multiple attempts, they started the work. In an exclusive exchange with a media editor, a Chinese embassy official said the following, in July 2017:

“We reached out to your (Indian Army) local commanders thrice to discuss matters, before starting the road construction on 16 June 2017 in Doklam, which belongs to China. But we got no response. On June 18, the Indian side blocked our construction party by bringing nearly 200 soldiers about 180m inside our territory in Doklam, and hundreds of soldiers were reinforced behind in layers as back-up. China does not want war but wants to solve the problem by diplomatic channel. However, we will not stop construction on our side. You (India) have always misjudged China even when we always reach out…You overstate your strength.” (Sawhney 2018).

Irrespective of how Indians would perceive this exchange, what becomes rather obvious is the shoddy approach taken by India – the jump into confrontation and the later transition to diplomatic talks only once it became clear that China will not back down.

India has come a long way since Doklam. After Doklam, India has paid attention to its relationship with China, rather than just dismissing it as a transactional and economic relationship which was marked by competition. China’s insistence on adopting a closer cooperative approach and its high regard for India, despite the latter stand against BRI, has finally begun to be mirrored in India as well. The Wuhan summit this year between Modi and Xi was a turning point in this regard.

It has by now come to be known as the ‘Wuhan consensus’. China – having found the present government in India receptive – has repeatedly sent out a message saying that diplomatic obstructions will not be allowed to sully the relationship between India and China. Most recently, a Chinese minister emphasized, in this context and in the context of the BRI that, “We are neighbours, we are partners. Historically we were together and in the future, I never believe that anybody can separate India and China…China has repeatedly stated the CPEC is an economic initiative. Implementing CPEC does not jeopardise China’s position on Kashmir” (Hindustan Times 2018).

This is, yet again, a clear reiteration of China’s consistent position on India and the CPEC. The two countries have also pursued, in accordance with the ‘Wuhan consensus’, active cooperation in other third countries.

While such promises and declarations of joint engagement are mostly superficial and are often seen in most bilateral agreements, in this case, they were pursued more robustly, with the initiative coming from China. When Nepal’s Prime Minister, Mr. Oli, visited China last month, to appease China and seek investments, China highlighted the fact that Chinese activities and investments in Nepal would follow a ‘2+1’ model viz. China and India jointly engaging a third country like Nepal. Later, this was once again stressed in the context of Afghanistan as well. This ‘2+1’ model is being applied as a new foreign policy instrument for joint China-India engagement in any third country in the South Asian region.

The immediate implication was that this has brought in immense stability to India’s relationships with its neighbours. These relationships have been on a turbulent course – as was to be expected due to India’s pursuance of a competition-based model ingrained by the West – for a long time now. It has been so since after Nehru’s death. India has always been resented for its ‘big brother’ attitude towards its neighbours. The Indian governments’ behaviour implying the complacent suggestion that being the heart of the India subcontinent, India has the right to raise objections to economic and foreign policies of countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, has been resented by the latter countries.

This sense of privilege has historically come from the fact that, inevitably, it is in India that regime changes in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal are determined. Politicians from these countries invariably rush to India to win the latter’s graces before their elections, even as the public in these countries seethe against Indian hegemony. The last elections in Bhutan were, in fact, fought on the issue of India’s say in Bhutanese affairs. Similarly, Bangladesh’s public opinion is sharply polarized on the question of India – the advantage that India could have gained through the 1971 war was somewhat diluted due to India’s high-handedness. In Nepal, the antagonism is very obvious, especially after the 2015 Madhesi agitation.

Under such conditions, when China – in its natural course of pursuing foreign investments in upcoming markets with a huge consumer base and cheap labour and flexible terms and conditions – started making heavy investments in these countries, India was initially unwelcoming. In recent years, China and Bangladesh have developed a close economic relationship which has now turned into a defence partnership as well – Bangladesh’s first and only such partnership. A similar pattern of investments is being pursued in Nepal and in Bhutan, China has left no stone unturned to gain the trust of the Bhutanese leadership. None of this was done to counter India. But for a country that has historically retained its regional fiefdom, this was immediately perceived as a threat. That India’s forays into these countries was not based on good will, but on their unwilling dependency on India, did not seem to matter.

However, while India may not actively acknowledge it, these changes have actually made India a more mature democracy in the region, rather than being just a dominant power, privately resented by its neighbours. After 2015, India’s relations with Bangladesh have touched new heights, especially in the area of counter-terror cooperation. Bhutan and Nepal too have seen a winding down of anti-India rhetoric, like in Bangladesh. China’s entry has lent more dynamism to the region as a whole, encouraged better India-China relations and an actual implementation of the spirit of cooperation and solidarity across South Asia. 

In this context, China’s proposal of a new format of ‘2+1’ model shows that it is serious about following a cooperative approach with India. It is important to remember that had China so chosen, it could have simply retained the status-quo – since it is much more equipped with resources and has India’s neighbours much more favourably disposed towards itself – yet such rational wisdom is beginning to lose out to the approach of the larger spirit. China has rarely been predisposed towards regional antagonisms or competition. While in words, the country has always reiterated the support for joint cooperative action involving all countries, it has also been implementing it in action. When China proposed this format to Nepal, the latter changed its mindset and stopped subtly playing India and China against each other. These are the kind of changes that are necessary for the dream of Asian resurgence to even begin to realise itself – the old mentality of division has to go, and in current times, the developing relations between India and China have become an instrument for that.

The pursuit of shared Indo-China interests in Nepal has already revealed the areas where they have natural synergies. One of the major common goals of all three countries is to resist the spread of West-funded evangelical missions in Nepal. Nepal has been under intense pressure to amend its Constitution to allow conversions. The British ambassador in Nepal, in 2014, demanded that the country include “right to conversion” as a fundamental right. This would make easy the mission of Christian missionaries working relentlessly in the Hindu-majority country. According to a report, “At 10.93, Nepal has the fastest average annual growth rate of Christian conversions in Asia. Currently comprising 3.8 per cent of the Nepali population, the proportion of Christians is expected to double by 2020” (Ghimire 2018).The West has deployed endless human rights organizations and NGOs who can promote the cause of Christianity.

The Nepali government officials have alleged that in the wake of the 2015 earthquake, several Bibles and other religious materials were distributed tactfully along with “aid” by these NGOs. Things have reached such a point that, in June this year, the Nepali government shut down the controversial United Nations Department of Political Affairs (UN-DPA) operating in its territory, for subversive activities to fund secessionism in the Tarai region and for inflating the Maoist insurgents. Nepal also told off the EU for its recent temerity to suggest that the government remove the privileged castes and groups from the list of beneficiaries in representation to elected bodies. The country has now also stopped receiving donations from Western governments (Ghimire 2018).

Nepal has had little room to assert itself against the West, due its immense poverty and heavy dependence on development aid given by the UN and Western agencies and NGOs. Under this immense pressure from the West, Nepal has strengthened the efforts to push the Western interventionist activities out of the country because of China-India cooperation in helping Nepal and since neither China nor India are favourably disposed towards sinister evangelical spread in the nation and Western influence in their backyard.

The Nepalese case was important to highlight. Keeping Nepal’s unwanted compulsions in mind, can we still resent Chinese efforts to invest in the country? At the very least, there is a certainty that the Chinese will not change the Hindu-majority character of Nepal. For some reason, India has not been able to keep the West out of Nepal. The process has only started now.

It is the same in Muslim countries as well. The BRI has done a great service in ensuring that Muslim extremism and terrorist expansion in the region remains in check. Today, not only are Muslim countries not protesting against China’s efforts to keep its Uighur Muslims in check, but are even actively helping China to crackdown on this population. The expansion of Chinese projects in Muslim countries like Pakistan and the developing relationship of China with these countries, will likely keep the extremist tendencies under control.

If today, countries like Egypt, Kazakhstan and Turkey and Saudi Arabia – which traditionally used to export Wahhabism to Asia – are instead helping China in keeping Islamic extremism in check, that means an immense positive change is underway. Tomorrow, Pakistan may also finally follow such a trajectory. Closer relationship of Pakistan with China will increase Pakistan’s cooperation in cracking down on terrorists instead of encouraging them – as it has traditionally done.

For India, such a scenario would be particularly useful towards better relations between India and Pakistan. Already, as a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the two countries agreed to participate in a joint military exercise and contribute to peace in the region.

Another area where India will benefit from greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan, where China is playing a pro-active role. Much to the chagrin of the West, China seems to have disregarded the US’s historical Afghan ultimatum and policy that any engagement with Taliban has to be an Afghan-led process – a policy which has led to a stalemate, since Taliban refuses to recognize the Afghan leadership and would rather talk directly with America. Filling this vacuum, China, which would prefer to ensure that its BRI investments are not threatened, has started talking to Taliban. The US has further been sidelined.

For India, the increasing Chinese role in Afghanistan is good news, especially in the aftermath of the cooperative spirit heralded by the Wuhan summit. To bring peace in Afghanistan – which is a precursor to any economic investments – China would not only neutralize Taliban, but also other Pakistan-sponsored terror groups in the region, like Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – terror groups whose infestation is a threat to India, as much as to Afghanistan.

The US’s shoddy approach, since Obama days, had brought things to such a pass. Therefore, Chinese presence in Afghanistan should not only be welcome, but is the need of the hour. China can also broker peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with Russia – which has been accused of supplying arms to Taliban – and Iran, which would drive out these terror groups to an extent.

At the Wuhan summit, India and China jointly signaled to work together in Afghanistan. India gets more leverage through the Chinese approach than via the US. So far, India has displayed a reluctant, purely minimalistic economic approach in Afghanistan and would like to see peace in the country. The US’s obstinacy was a hindrance and resulted in a multiplication of terror groups, right in India’s backyard, while Russia continued to selfishly exploit the situation. Any solution will have to involve Pakistan. Under this broken scenario, the efforts by China to bring all on board, is a boon for India. India can never play a direct role in Afghan affairs due to its limited access, and such an ambition is not needed currently.

The benefits of India-China relationship have already been seen in the context of big changes it can bring in countries like Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan and changing India’s attitude itself in the neighbourhood. These are just a few visible cases where the effects of the Wuhan summit are slowly becoming visible. This trend will further grow as India and China keep deepening their relationship and China has always treated India as an equal and, in many respects, as its cultural superior – which cannot be said of China’s relationship with any other country.

India is tangibly reciprocating China’s efforts, now. The positive effect of the Wuhan summit is being seen in several other areas of engagement as well, such as India’s decision to not join the US-led trilateral launched on July 30th, along with Japan and Australia, to counter-balance China BRI’s in the Indo-Pacific. India’s refusal to endorse US’s Indo-Pacific proposal was a good decision. The figure of ‘$ 113 million’ that the US – in a high profile event – supposedly committed to digital economy, energy and infrastructure development projects in the region is a miniscule, token amount, and certainly nothing to rival the BRI. It is just as well that India has seen through their insincerity and token approach and is keeping out of it.

The Wuhan summit – and a series of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries after that – have taken their relationship to the best level in so many years and a degree of goodwill that was last seen only during Nehru’s initial years. The power-packed India-China relationship – as seen through the above cases – has the potential to solve many of the ills of the region, as well as mitigate many of India’s troubles such as terrorism and the historically troubled relationship with the Pakistani military. This engagement must continue to retain the present momentum, to stabilize the changes happening now.

Bibliography:

 

Ghimire, Yubaraj. 2018. South China Morning Post. July 21. Accessed August 14, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2156198/how-india-and-china-are-keeping-west-out-nepal.

Hindustan Times. 2018. Hindustan Times. August 28. Accessed August 29, 2018. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/china-seeks-to-delink-india-ties-and-contentious-cpec/story-2AxVFyPXlpdF6Uuv65vXOP.html.

Sawhney, Pravin. 2018. The Wire. July 6. Accessed August 15, 2018. https://thewire.in/diplomacy/wuhan-summit-modi-xi-india-china.

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