Relations between Asia’s two neighbouring giants, China and India – with the latter just a few years away from eclipsing the former in population – are still bedevilled by a variety of problems. A recent report by the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on External Affairs, which I chair, has raised serious issues on Sino-Indian relations, which deserve consideration on both sides of the two countries’ disputed frontier.
Discussion of the report in New Delhi think tanks in the waning weeks of India’s current parliament has brought some of the issues sharply into focus.
China’s frequent reiteration of territorial claims on the north-east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing dubs “South Tibet”, are in clear violation of an agreement both countries signed in April 2005. One of the guiding principles of the agreement was that settled populations would not be disturbed. There are more than 1.6 million Arunachalese, all Indian citizens. But China’s position is that when it acquires the territory the settled populations would not be “disturbed”, they would simply become Chinese. The parliamentarians have called for India to “prevail upon China” to respect the agreement and stick to it.
On the 72-day stand-off two years ago on the Doklam peninsula, disputed between Bhutan and China, which saw Indian and Chinese soldiers facing each other near the tri-junction of the three countries’ borders, the report noted that the written agreement in December 2012 was clearly violated by China.
While India’s handling of the situation sent a clear signal it would not accept Chinese attempts to change the status quo by force at any of its boundaries, the parliamentarians expressed concern that Chinese infrastructure close to the tri-junction had not only not been dismantled but had been reinforced. With permanent structures being erected in North Doklam for a significant military build-up, the Chinese appear to be keeping their powder dry for possible future use.
Among other things, the report urged caution on the “inconsistencies” displayed by China in bilateral negotiations on the border and noted there was no mutually agreed Line of Actual Control, allowing each country to have its own interpretation and creating room for misunderstandings.
The Indian government should have a comprehensive Border Engagement Agreement that would guide its engagement with China on border disputes, the report said, as these are now taken up through a variety of mechanisms and channels.
The parliamentarians also called for improvements to border road infrastructure, using even the prime minister’s village road development scheme – as what’s on the Indian side is inadequate and cannot withstand military traffic. Infrastructure projects had stalled due to difficult terrain, delays in environmental clearance, and inadequate equipment and resources, with the Border Roads Organisation too often found wanting.
On defence cooperation, the committee noted that while exchanges between India and China had substantially increased, they were suspended in 2017 in the wake of the Doklam incident and differences on China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – an infrastructure project which includes the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The committee noted that resumption of defence cooperation would be in both countries’ long-term interests, and recommended that the government resume defence exchanges with China.
On the belt and road plan the committee, despite having a large number of opposition MPs, supported the Indian government’s rejection of the initiative, noting that the CPEC is not acceptable to India as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, violating India’s territorial integrity. Belt and road projects also created a heavy debt burden on recipient countries, with long-term strategic implications. The report recommended that India accelerate its own connectivity projects under various initiatives to counter the belt and road, including using the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS Development Bank to fund infrastructure projects that improve connectivity in its neighbourhood.
The committee noted that bilateral trade between India and China is expected to cross US$80 billion in 2017. However, it remained concerned at the virtually colonial terms of trade, with China extracting raw materials from India and sending back finished goods that were swamping Indian industries.
Right wing Indian activists protest against a Chinese decision to suspend the pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar, believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, from Nathu La Pass following
India had found it near-impossible to penetrate the Chinese market thanks to non-tariff barriers imposed by China, which, linked to the dumping of cheap goods and lack of investment by China, had created a serious trade and economic imbalance. The committee recommended that India should persuade Chinese companies to bring more investment into India. (Though it did not specify the areas, it is noteworthy that the Modi government has thrown open its doors in all sectors to Chinese investment, lifting its predecessor’s restrictions on sensitive sectors like ports, communications and power). Further, the committee opined that efforts should be made with China to lower trade barriers.
The report suggests relations with China should not be seen only through the prism of conflict, as collaboration is possible on a wide range of issues. The countries share an interest in keeping open the sea lanes of communication between the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, since Chinese goods must sail past India to reach the Malacca Strait. Yet possibilities of initiatives like joint anti-piracy patrols in these waters have not been explored. Cooperation at the UN, in environmental forums and on non-political issues, could also be promoted.
The report marked a welcome first step in prompting the government to carry out an in-depth assessment of the ties between India and China so that a national consensus is evolved on how to deal with China. If a similar exercise were carried out on the Chinese side, even allowing for the differences in the parliamentary systems, it could lay an interesting basis for people-to-people dialogue. The relative paucity of student and tourist exchanges and the vast areas of ignorance that divide the two countries and militate against mutual understanding continue to cast a shadow over Sino-Indian relations. Clarity on each country’s hopes and fears, and on ways that these could be addressed, could help dispel the clouds.