China is so fixed on the US, it may lose India

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Two significant events related to China’s foreign relations took place in mid-June: a bloody clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers near the Galwan Valley along the disputed border, and a special meeting in Hawaii between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission.

The border clash has since dominated Indian news and public discussions but barely made headlines in China. Meanwhile, the Pompeo-Yang meeting, which focused on a variety of issues, from Hong Kong and Taiwan to trade relations, garnered much attention by Chinese official media and social media. China’s muted response to the border clash and its enthusiasm about the Hawaii meeting is quite telling of its diplomatic priority.

China is obviously of paramount importance to India’s foreign policy. China’s every move is scrutinised by Indians, and every issue with China magnified. China is the first benchmark for India’s aspiration to be a global power.

China, on the other hand, is fixated upon the United States in its foreign policy. Chinese officials and scholars publicly hail US-China relations as the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. Where India stands in the pecking order of China’s foreign relations is anybody’s guess, but there is no doubt China has not taken India seriously. This cognitive gap, together with all historical and diplomatic disputes, has exacerbated problems in the delicate China-India relationship.

Rising tensions

Three factors have contributed to the deterioration of China-India relations in recent years: historical legacy, security dilemma, and the involvement of third parties.

The 1950s was the golden era of India-China relations, when “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) marked the close ties. A border war in 1962 cast a long shadow on the relationship, from which the two countries have not recovered completely. The Line of Actual Control (LAC), the demarcation that separates the Indian and Chinese controlled territories, in the disputed areas is not clearly marked and has never been fully recognised. Attempts to alter the status quo and intrusion into the other side of actual control have been major problems along the border in recent years.

India and China are engaged in economic and strategic competition in South Asia and beyond. The two countries are stuck in a classic “security dilemma”. Whenever one attempts to consolidate its position near the border, the other side views it as a security threat. In addition, the involvement of third parties, such as Pakistan’s close ties with China and the US’s efforts to entice India into its new cold war with China, has made the situation more complex and difficult to handle.

These factors will not disappear anytime soon. A certain degree of rivalry is expected, but it will not necessarily lead to confrontation between India and China. The challenge for Indian and Chinese leaders is how to maximise their common interests and maintain cooperation in times of adversity.

As the two largest developing nations, India and China share many interests such as promoting domestic growth, safeguarding regional stability, combating persistent poverty, and dealing with climate change. Both also desire to play a more active role in international affairs. Their common interests obviously outweigh their differences. The last thing they need is a war which would doom both their domestic and international ambitions.

China’s ‘pivot’ to Asia 

In response to China’s rise, in the early 2010s, President Barack Obama’s administration developed a foreign policy strategy called “pivot” to refocus US diplomacy to the Asia Pacific region after a decade of the so-called war on terror in the Middle East.

It is now time for China to “pivot” to Asia, as US-China rivalry intensifies and the international environment becomes more hostile. It serves China’s interest to improve relations with its Asian neighbours instead of heavily concentrating on the US. India should be a priority of this new approach.

Global anti-China sentiment has reached its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and China’s assertive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. China already has frosty relations with Australia and Japan, faces challenges in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and is experiencing the lowest point in its relations with the US and Canada.

Like elsewhere, some Indians blame China for the spread of the coronavirus. The border clash further damaged its image in India.

What exactly happened in the Galwan Valley on June 15 that led to casualties of Indian and Chinese soldiers remains murky, with contradictory claims from the two sides. China must deal with a nationalistic neighbour prudently, as calls for boycotting Chinese goods and cancelling contracts with Chinese businesses grow louder in India.

Amid growing US-China rivalry, the Trump administration has attempted to consolidate the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as “the Quad”, with Japan, Australia and India. It has urged New Delhi to play a bigger role in Indo-Pacific affairs.

Unlike Japan and Australia, which are already firmly in the US camp, India has been cautious not to offend China, even as it beefs up ties with the US. If Beijing reacts to the border clash as raucously as New Delhi does, it runs the risk of raising animosity between the two countries and pushing India further into the US embrace, giving Washington an edge in boxing in Beijing. India’s formal participation in America’s new cold war against China will be a strategic nightmare for China.

To avoid creating too many enemies and pushing India closer to the US, China will have to de-escalate tensions with India. The Chinese leadership may not have a consensus on how to handle the border crisis, but no one wants to be blamed for “losing” India. It is possible that President Xi Jinping is trying to rein in aggressive impulses of some Chinese diplomats and generals.

The channels of communications are open between the two governments and the two militaries, and the leaderships on both sides seem cool-headed and are still committed to peacefully resolving the dispute.

To counter the perceived Western bias towards China, Beijing has launched the “Tell the China story” campaign globally. If India, a fellow developing country in Asia, finds the “China story” unappealing, how can China present it effectively to the world? The Chinese have a saying: close neighbours are dearer than distant relatives. Instead of a US-centric foreign policy, China should pivot to Asia now, with India being a critical component of this new diplomatic approach.