C Raja Mohan writes: India should not talk to China — even if Biden talks to Xi


As India’s Quad partners — Australia, Japan and the US — renew their high-level political engagement with China, should Delhi rethink its current approach to engaging Beijing? The last few weeks have seen Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visit China after a period of prolonged tensions. Last week, US President Joe Biden met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in San Francisco on the margins of the APEC summit. President Xi also sat with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in San Francisco.

India, on its part, is unwilling to resume political and economic dialogue with China until the military confrontation in the Ladakh frontier, which began in the spring of 2020, is resolved to its satisfaction. India’s senior army commanders and diplomats have sat down several times to address the mutual concerns. While there has been some progress, grudgingly allowed by China, many outstanding issues remain to be resolved. China wants India to put the border question aside and resume normal political and economic engagement. India refuses to budge and insists that the “state of the relationship will depend on the state of the border”. India’s continual military dialogue with China is part of a three-fold strategy: the other elements are an effort to reduce India’s economic interdependence with Beijing and keep political engagement on hold.

Two kinds of arguments call for a change in India’s current approach to China. The first is diplomatic and tactical. It suggests that India should not be the only Quad nation or a significant power not engaged in a dialogue with China. On the face of it, this argument makes sense. But it does not stand scrutiny.

It is premised on the argument that the Quad is all about China, and its members will align their diplomacy towards Beijing. Although balancing China is a key strategic ingredient of the Quad’s objectives, none of its members want to give up their right to pursue diplomacy that best suits specific circumstances.

India does not follow its Quad partners on all steps they take in relation to China. Delhi, for example, has not joined the Quad’s freedom of navigation operations in the western Pacific. The geopolitical considerations of India’s China policy have an independent logic. Australia and the US are at a considerable physical distance from China — they have no direct territorial conflicts with Beijing. Japan has maritime territorial disputes with China, but those pale compared to the scale and intensity of Beijing’s territorial challenge to Delhi. That brings us back to the logic behind India’s suspension of political and economic dialogue with China’s wanton destruction of the agreements that ensured more than three decades of peace on the disputed frontier. Delhi, in effect, is reminding Beijing of a Chinese aphorism: “he who tied the knot must untie it”.

Festive offer

Renewing political and economic engagement does not solve India’s problem of rebuilding peace and tranquillity on the disputed frontier. Only credible military arrangements can. In any case, China is not promising to quickly restore peace on the border if India resumes political and economic dialogue. Beijing merely calls for separating the border dispute from the rest of the relationship. Beijing’s emphasis on putting the border dispute in its “proper place” — a euphemism for the back burner — is unacceptable to Delhi. Limiting the economic exposure and suspending the political dialogue are among the few cards Delhi has in persuading Beijing to restore trust and stabilise the border.

The second argument for rethinking the China policy is seemingly strategic but may be rooted in India’s perennial nervousness about Beijing’s relations with Washington. Renewed engagement between the US and China, the argument goes, marks a significant shift in Washington’s relations with Beijing. And the US-China dialogue would reduce Indian strategic salience for Washington and weaken Delhi’s position in relation to Beijing. The argument concludes that India must reopen political and economic dialogue with China.

Renewing economic and political engagement with China to cope with the presumed shift in great power politics without resolving India’s boundary concerns will only normalise the results of Beijing’s aggression on our frontiers. There is much misreading in India of the current dynamic between China and the US. Summits between leaders rarely translate into significant breakthroughs. Recall the much-celebrated summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi at Wuhan in 2018 and Chennai in 2019. The hopes for a reset in bilateral relations after the 2017 Doklam crisis crashed in 2020 when China sought to alter the territorial status quo in eastern Ladakh unilaterally.

Two summits (in Bali and San Franciso) between Biden and Xi over the last year do not mean there is a change in the structure of the intensifying US-China rivalry. These summits are an effort to prevent an escalation of a conflict rather than reconciling the current contradictions. Even Biden and Xi want to make the US and China friends again, undoing a series of measures that both sides have taken against the other will take years of sustained effort. We are not there yet.

This does not mean the current state of hostility between Washington and Beijing is permanent. Since the Second World War, US-China relations have gone through multiple phases of hostility and bonhomie. So have the relations between China and Russia. To be sure, there will be a change someday in how the US and China relate to each other. Should India then paralyse itself, fearing a fresh turn in US-China relations? Assessing shifts in great power relations and responding to them is an integral part of any nation’s foreign policy. The traditional fears in Delhi swing between two familiar extremes — that India will either be “entrapped” or “abandoned” by the US in dealing with China. These fears overlook one crucial fact — the absolute increase in India’s comprehensive national power.

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The relative rise in the international system makes India more self-assured in dealing with the great powers. Rather than wring its hands about potential shifts in US-China relations, Delhi should focus on seizing the current opportunities with the US and the West to accelerate India’s rise in the global power structure, reduce the strategic gap with China, and enhance the military deterrence against Beijing. As an exponent of realpolitik, Beijing understands power shifts much better than others. Xi’s current outreach to India’s Quad partners is based on two facts. One is the slowdown in China’s rise, and the other is the manifest cost of his geopolitical overreach.

This is a moment for India to stay the course with its current approach to China. Firm patience gives Delhi a better chance of convincing Beijing to rethink its India policy than rushing to alter the terms of engagement with China.

The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express


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