India and China, two economic powerhouses of Asia are not only the key drivers of the economic renaissance that Asia is undergoing in the global economy but central to redefining the global economic order and heralding the Asian Century as well. However, an Asian century, in real terms, to be sustainable not only needs a continued economic surge by countries of the continent, it needs the evolution of a shared vision, values and culture that will help keep peace and stability and forge integration across the continent.
A study commissioned by the Asian Development Bank, “Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century,” projected that Asian countries will keep growing and eventually account for more than half of global gross domestic product by 2050. But it did not necessarily indicate a rise of a shared sense of Asian values and ascendancy of shared perceptions and values in the realms of geopolitics, conventional and non-conventional threats and regional integration.
It is pertinent that the two big powers of the continent maintain multi-dimensional relationships, assist smaller powers in their rejuvenation and play significant roles not only in integrating economies but generating shared perceptions on security. In this context, the late Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee emphasized about a decade and a half ago: “The 21st century will become the Century of Asia if China and India can build a stable and lasting relationship.” Ashok Kantha, director of the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, is of the view that “it is debatable if the world could really enter an Asian age or an Asian century without the joint efforts of China and India, the two countries with the largest populations and a mission to maintain peace and stability in the region and achieve its prosperity and rejuvenation.”
The Asian Century would be meaningful if engagements within the continent were extensive as well as intensive enough to keep Western hegemonic influences at bay. India and China share a common interest in the rise of a multipolar world order and democratization of the international trade and financial system, as well as the global energy market. The two countries have demonstrated their ability to cooperate effectively in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), where India has become the second-largest investor after China. Assumably, they share common interests in strengthening cooperation under the frameworks of BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Group of Twenty as well.
India and China also need to engage with each other and with other willing partner nations, particularly in the East Asia-Pacific region in order to dent hegemonic Western geopolitical influence. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could be a forum to realize this objective. Similarly, both countries need to cooperate in South and Southeast Asia through regional and sub-regional cooperation.
Perceptual divergences on geopolitical issues have pushed both countries into irreconcilable positions such as India’s unwillingness to facilitate China’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and China’s reluctance to strengthen the Bangladesh China India Myanmar sub-regional initiative
However, perceptual divergences on geopolitical issues have pushed both countries into irreconcilable positions such as India’s unwillingness to facilitate China’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and China’s reluctance to strengthen the Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) sub-regional initiative.
While references to explore “China-India Plus one” or “China-India Plus X” cooperation to achieve mutual benefits and win-win outcomes between China and India were very often resorted to, no substantive headway was made in this direction. For instance, cooperation on Afghanistan was agreed upon when the leaders of India and China met in Wuhan in April last year. Similarly, both shared similar views on climate issues and cooperated in some instances to secure energy supplies. The US-China trade war also induced India-China cooperation in some areas of trade. However, India-China cooperation has been occasional, fleeting and issue-specific, and they differ in their perceptions on geopolitical objectives as well as means to attain these. Both also carried varied perceptions on threats as well.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping carried a vision to see his country playing a larger role in global affairs, which was evident in his announcement to turn China into a leading nation in terms of national power and global impact by 2050 at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party in October 2017, his unflinching focus on the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) pointed to his country’s strides toward this direction. However, to Indian strategic thinkers and policymakers, geo-strategic designs underlying the BRI are discernible.
Discontent with the BRI in some Asian countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar raised more speculation and inspired less trust as to Xi’s claim that the BRI is purely a commercial venture without strategic designs. The Sri Lankan government’s leasing out Hambantota port to China for 99 years under debt pressure must have corroborated the Indian contention that the BRI is not merely an infrastructural and connectivity project without military and strategic undercurrents.
Referring to India’s security concerns in its strategic periphery, some of India’s strategic experts argue that the “BRI is primarily South Asia- and Indian Ocean Region-centric, as is evident from the number of projects in these regions – CPEC, CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor), ‘Nepal-China Trans Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network’ including a Nepal-China cross-border railway, besides significant projects in Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The Maritime Silk Route encompasses major ports such as Kyaukphyu in the Bay of Bengal and Gwadar in the Arabian Sea. On completion of the above ventures, China will enjoy a competitive edge in the region.”
Some experts on strategic affairs preferred to argue that while New Delhi believed “connectivity in Asia must be consultative, and guided by transparent financial guidelines, principles of good governance, internationally recognized environmental and labor standards, and respect for sovereignty. China, on the other hand, is intent on shaping a unipolar Asian order that will be defined by deference to the Middle Kingdom and its increasingly imperial rulers.”
Apart from stressing the need for rule-based transparent financial engagements under the BRI, India has expressed specific concerns as regards the mega-project’s violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity, particularly with reference to inclusion of the Gilgit-Baltistan region into the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.
Juxtaposing China’s BRI and India’s efforts at creating overseas infrastructure, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was reported to have remarked that India believed in a “softer and collaborative diplomacy” and India’s ways of executing projects stem more from a sense of partnership rather than an “all mine” attitude. He said: “The manner in which we do things is more aggregated and more organic.”
However, some Indian experts representing a minuscule body of analysts underline the overall popularity and success of the BRI and suggest that New Delhi reconsider its stance. They also argue that the long-term success of the BRI also needs India’s support. The demographic factor that China’s working-age population is projected to shrink by 200 million people by 2050 while in India the working-age population would increase by 200 million is considered one of the reasons India as a source of influence, investment and market must be key to the regional exercise of connectivity and infrastructure-building in the long term.
It has been argued that the BRI “is evolving towards standards of multilateralism, including through linkages with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The International Monetary Fund describes it as a ‘very important contribution’ to the global economy and is ‘in very close collaboration with the Chinese authorities on sharing the best international practices, especially regarding fiscal sustainability and capacity building.’”
India and China have failed to share common perceptions on threats, geopolitical objectives and integration. While the history of adversarial India-China relations cast a lasting impact on Indian threat perception, as the military clash of 1962 was viewed by many within Indian strategic circles as a breach of trust and the spirit of the Panchsheel Agreement signed between the two countries in 1954, the more recent Doklam standoff in the high Himalayas not only pointed to a continuing trust-deficit between the two countries, it raised a geopolitical question as to how both could reconcile their positions in “overlapping peripheries.”
Beijing’s non-recognition of the McMahon Line as the international border between India and China and assertion of sovereignty in Arunachal Pradesh also long served to shape the Indian perception of China. China’s increasing arms supplies to some of India’s neighbors corroborated the perception that the former was incessantly engaged in multiplying its influence in what the latter considers its strategic periphery.
On the other hand, the Chinese perception of India was shaped by factors ranging from controversial border issues to New Delhi’s act of providing asylum to the Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader who claimed autonomy for Tibet. India’s commitment to a strategic partnership with the US on the one hand and attempts at forging bilateral ties with China on the other also did not convince China that the strategic partnership was not directed at undercutting Beijing’s geopolitical influence.
In this context, some experts have argued: “China would be more flexible in dealing with India if it is convinced of India’s equidistance with the US on China-US disputes involving distant places such as Taiwan and South China Sea islands.”
India-China relations cannot truly herald the Asian Century until they make sincere attempts at engendering shared views on geopolitical objectives and threat perceptions.