There’s just so much that smiles and one state visit can do to avoid a full estrangement between India and China.
The ties between China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, have a long and chequered history dating back thousands of years. The two neighbours fought a short border war in 1962 and since then, although much water has flowed down the Yangtze, a sense of mistrust has consistently dogged their bilateral ties.
Sparks flew when in the days leading up to India’s second round of nuclear tests in May 1998, the then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, termed Beijingas India’s “potential enemy No 1”. Meanwhile, China has not supported India’s pitch for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and is the only one of the P5 members trying to stymie India’s bid.
Though relations between these two Asian behemoths warmed up in the aftermath of the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014 and the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China in May 2015, the relations have once again hurtled downhill as they pursue their respective foreign policy agendas.
Beijing is trying to move into what New Delhi has traditionally seen as its own backyard. Through the “Maritime Silk Road” initiative, China has been trying to reach out to countries such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, right in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
Besides, of late, relations between China and Nepal have warmed up, particularly in the aftermath of the visit to Beijing by the Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli.
Although China has asked India to be part of the Maritime Silk Road, New Delhi is in two minds over whether to join. Some Indian analysts feel that it could be a ruse for China to increase its strategic presence in the region without arousing the suspicion of India and other nations.
While it is unlikely that India will be a part of any Western-led attempts to bandwagon against Beijing any time soon, it is sine-qua-non that New Delhi comes up with some out-of-the-box diplomatic moves to ensure that Beijing does not seize the initiative in India's backyard.
Moreover, China put a “technical hold” over India’s attempts to designate the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Maulana Masood Azhar, as a terrorist at a United Nations committee. Azhar has been seen to be the mastermind behind a host of terror attacks in India, with the most recent being the Pathankot terror attacks in early January this year.
Meanwhile, China’s relations with its “all-weather friend” Pakistan are at an all-time high, with Beijing announcing that it will invest $46bn in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will connect Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province with the port of Gwadar in Pakistan.
Additionally, the recent years have seen India and United States cosy up to each other. During the recent visit of the US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to India, the two nations decided “in principle” to sign a logistics support agreement, which will allow the United States and Indian militaries to share facilities for refuelling, supplies and spares.
Part of the reason for the growing bonhomie between India and the US is China’s growing belligerence.
Both India and the US have a common interest in ensuring the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication in the Indo-Pacific region which was reflected in the joint statement released by the two sides during the visit of the US President Barack Obama to India in January last year.
The US-India Joint Statement notes that they “affirm the importance of safe-guarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”
And under Modi, India has slowly, but surely, moved away from its traditional stance of non-alignment to multi-alignment. He has given a vigorous push to India’s “Act-East Policy” which aims at improving India’s ties with its neighbours in Southeast and East Asia. His first visit outside the Indian subcontinent after taking charge was to Japan, which has seen frayed ties with Beijing, of late.
Finally, in the economic arena too, New Delhi reels under a huge trade surplus in favour of China. The bilateral trade between the two countries stood at $70.4bn last year with India reeling under a huge trade deficit of $52.67bn (PDF).
Not all is lost
On the positive side, India has been cooperating with China in many areas. It was one of the first countries to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Besides, India and China are part of the BRICS, along with Brazil, Russia and South Africa. They have also teamed up at global forums on climate change to resist demands from developed nations to agree to binding emission cuts. China and India, however, fear that agreeing to binding emission cuts would force them to jettison their ambitious growth targets.
It is also clear that New Delhi is loath to take on Beijing directly. This is seen in the recent case of India cancelling the visa issued earlier to a Uighur activist, Dolkun Isa, the Executive Committee Chairman of the World Uyghur Congress to attend a conference in India.
The granting of the visa to the Uighur activist was seen as New Delhi’s riposte to being snubbed by Beijing on the Masood Azhar issue. Though New Delhi managed to wriggle out of a very uncomfortable situation by cancelling Isa’s visa – who has an Interpol red corner notice against his name – it has shown that New Delhi is wary of upsetting Beijing, especially given its enormous clout at international forums as a permanent Security Council member.
So, while it is unlikely that India will be a part of any Western-led attempts to bandwagon against Beijing any time soon, it is sine-qua-non that New Delhi comes up with some out-of-the-box diplomatic moves to ensure that Beijing does not seize the initiative in India’s backyard.
Rupakjyoti Borah is currently a research fellow with the Tokyo-based Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.