‘China’s relationship with India lies in India’s external environment’

At the second event of the series ‘India’s Place in the World’, a collaboration between The Indian Express and Financial Times, senior policy leaders spoke on India’s diplomatic position in the new world order, and its evolving ties with the United States and China.

Speaking on how the India-China stand-off in 2020 has put the relationship between the two countries in “crisis”, former National Security Advisor and former Ambassador to China, Shivshankar Menon, said that going back to old agreements would not bring back the trust and one has to wonder if the countries can achieve “a new equilibrium” after this. “I don’t know what the government is doing — there have been talks, discussions and disengagement — but there are still points where tensions are there. I think our Army Chief said the other day that we have almost 50,000 troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Let’s see when and how we actually get out of this. Saying we’ll restore the status quo is not the answer,” he said.

Menon was speaking at a panel discussion titled ‘India and China: Uneasy Neighbours’ along with Lt General SL Narasimhan, Director General, Centre for Contemporary China Studies, and Member, National Security Advisory Board, Government of India; and Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Director of China Program, Stimson Centre, which was moderated by Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Commentator, Financial Times.

They discussed the fraught relations between the two countries marked by an unresolved border dispute, how New Delhi is restricting Chinese investment and reducing economic dependence, Beijing’s growing political influence among India’s neighbours in the sub-continent, and how India is drawing closer to China’s strategic rivals, including the US.

Yun Sun said that one of the fundamental considerations in China’s relationship with India lies in India’s external environment and alignment choices, and most importantly, India’s relationship with the US. “When we look at their relations and the turbulence in the last couple of years, endogenous factors of that bilateral relationship have hardly changed, whether we look at the border, Tibet, Pakistan or the balance of power in South Asia. What has changed China’s position is what I call the exhaustion of external factors and the international environment. So, the Chinese would have believed that because of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the strategic value that the US is willing to attach to put India at its regional status, requires China to take certain actions to show India first that China will not be deterred or blackmailed, and that an alignment with the US will carry a certain cost,” she said.

However, Narasimhan and Menon both pointed out that the India-US relation has not been the only issue between India and China, and that tensions have been building up since 2012-13. “There is a risk of overestimating the US factor in India-China relations. My belief is that India-China relations are soui generis and self-driven. It is not a function of who’s in Washington or how Washington’s relations are with Beijing at any given moment of time, even though that’s the way most people tend to look at it, but India-China relations have their own timing, momentum and drivers,” said Menon.

“It is one thing to say that India is getting closer to the US but each country does what it wants to do, that suits its requirement… China has gone much closer to Russia than what we would probably like. One can’t tell China or Russia to stop doing this. It is all individual countries’ own choices, and the way they look at their interests,” said Narasimhan.

Yun Sun pointed out that from the Chinese perspective, China was believed to be in a “very dangerous and weakened position” internationally in 2020 because of the issue of the origin of the Covid-19 virus. It was blamed and held accountable for this since the beginning of global pandemic, so it was in a particularly provocable state. “It has a direct impact over how Beijing reacted to the border dispute in Ladakh because it felt we are, maybe, being perceived as a troublemaker by the international community, and now it could not be perceived as conceding to India’s push along the border,” she said.

She also mentioned that China is trying in its own way to improve the relationship with India. “China is trying to back off a little bit from its contentious position last year in order to show that as the largest countries, we should still work together,” she said.

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