Author :
03 Jan 2015

A four-member delegation from the Regional Institute of Indian Ocean Economics (RIIO), Kunming, China visited the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi, for an inter-institutional round-table discussion (RTD). 

Dr Vijay Sakhuja, Director NMF in his opening remarks welcomed the visiting delegation and emphasised the emerging contours of India-China relationship as a catalysing element, not only in a bilateral context, but also in the wider sub-regional, regional and the global environment. The discussions focussed largely on the economic/strategic aspects. The salient derivatives of the RTD are enumerated below.  

India and China are indispensable ‘part and partner’ of the ‘Asian Renaissance’. Lately, strong central leaderships have emerged in both countries as result of recent political transitions, which is somewhat of a ‘rare occurrence’.  The Indian side suggested this may be considered as an opportunity, which would need to be capitalized upon by the ‘current generation’ (vis-a-vis the ‘future generations’) on both sides to resolve outstanding disputes. The breadth, scope and content of vision articulated by both leaders could radically transform the bilateral relationship, which has not yet achieved the ‘requisite and optimal strategic connect’, despite enthusiastic forecasts. 

On the strategic issues, a mix of contending and corresponding views was voiced form both sides, including a constructive mix of nuanced variations on either side. One stream stated that the ‘territorial dispute’ has been the greatest constraint in moving India-China relations forward, and thus mandated immediate attention. The second perspective was that the resolution of the dispute – due to its historical and emotive content – would require sustained dialogue before a modus vivendi could evolve on this issue, and thus, cannot wait moving ahead on cooperative ventures. However, there was a consensus about the future trajectory of bilateral relationship, and about realisation on both sides of the imperative that persisting differences should not be allowed to overshadow cooperation. Among the possible options was to bifurcate the bilateral agenda, with contentious issues discussed separately so as to avoid an adverse effect on the cooperative agenda. However, the Indian side emphasized that for such an approach to yield the desired result, there needs to be a ‘demonstrated will and concrete progress’ (implicitly indicating the onus on China) to resolve the ‘territorial dispute’. This would provide a major boost to bilateral political trust, which is an essential prerequisite for imparting momentum to the cooperative endeavours. 

The imperatives of a stable external environment for continued development of India and China’s growth trajectories was a critical necessity. In this regard, it was paradoxical that shared vision statements and common language used in policy articulations coexisted in an environment of increasingly competitive analytical discourse. It was also accepted that cooperation and competition would always coexist in India-China relations but the larger aim should be to stop the possible negative spirals due to sharpening of strategic narratives from both sides. 

The importance of the interdependence between economics, security and stability was highlighted. The Chinese side while accepting the concerns about the growing trade imbalance and restrictive policies were of the view that India also needed to be more liberal and more balanced in applying China specific restrictive regimes (anti-dumping cases at WTO). In this regard, the key takeaway was to undertake a comprehensive mapping of the Indian and as well as Chinese economies to find out areas where the two countries could engage in bilaterally favourable commerce.

One noteworthy point emphasised by the Chinese delegation was the emerging shift in foreign policy from the hitherto emphasis on great power relations to a renewed focus on the immediate neighbourhood. This is expected to complement and could intersect in interesting ways with India’s ‘Act East’ policy. The issue of continued support to Pakistan in the face of failing governance and religious extremism was emphasised to the Chinese participants.  Further, the security situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan especially after the 2014 NATO drawdown will be of vital importance where a collaborative approach driven by regional imperatives needs to be crafted. 

Indian Ocean will continue to play a critical role in India as well as China’s strategic calculus with the centrality of India by its geographic location remaining undeniable. The visiting delegates explained in detail that the logic of improving economic infrastructure, and China’s maritime economic engagements across the Indian Ocean littoral through the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) concept were aimed at common regional good and the majority of prevalent ‘military or security centric discourses’ were misplaced. In their view, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) initiative for regional cooperation was seen as a win-win situation not only for largely agrarian and relatively underdeveloped regions of Southern China and India’s North East, but for the Bay of Bengal littorals as a whole. While the dialogue on this initiative has gained renewed traction, the implementation of BCIM remains slow. In the Chinese view, these engagements were in line with ‘One Belt - One Road’ vision articulated by the Chinese leadership. The Chinese side apprised that more details are likely to be released shortly on the MSR project. They expressed the hope that India would lend its support to the MSR, which would provide great fillip for this ‘Eurasian economic initiative’. 

The Chinese side enquired as to India’s expectation on the outcome of the meeting between the Chinese President and the Indian Prime Minister scheduled in February 2015. The Indian response evinced the hope that the meeting would go beyond merely ‘atmospherics’, and lead to tangible results in terms of cooperative endeavours and resolution of bilateral contentions. It was hoped that the meeting would lead to institutionalizing a ‘Maritime Dialogue’ between the two countries. The salient issues to be discussed at the Dialogue were also mentioned. One point highlighted was the adverse effects of the restrictive travel/ visa regimes on both sides, which was not only hampering institutional exchanges among think-tanks, but people to people contacts as well. This could be a matter for discussion at policy level for both countries.

In conclusion, while China-India cooperation has achieved significant progress in the past two decades, the true potential of bilateral relationship still remains untapped. Cross cutting academic research, greater engagement between the policy-makers – backed by appropriate policy initiatives on both sides – was essential for nurturing, developing and leveraging this important relationship.


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