Last week, India and China held the first round of an upgraded strategic dialogue in Beijing. The deliberations, led by Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Executive Vice Minister in the Chinese foreign ministry Wang Yesui, reportedly lasted several hours. However, though they were described as fruitful and productive by government sources, there is little to show in terms of progress on the ground.
Specifically, there seems to have been no movement on the two main sticking points on the agenda: China blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and China shielding Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar at the United Nations Security Council. In both cases, the official reason for Chinese obstruction has been couched in principled terms—the sanctity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime in the first case and the absence of adequate proof against Masood Azhar for him to be sanctioned in the second case. However, in reality, both positions are driven by geopolitical concerns. As long as these concerns and considerations continue to define the bilateral, it is difficult to see how the two countries can embark on a strategic partnership of any consequence.
India and China have had a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity since 2005, but there are “no true areas of strategic convergence” yet. Instead, the bilateral agenda for both countries has consistently focused on the settlement of the boundary dispute and the strengthening of economic and trade ties.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to somewhat modify the template during his 2015 visit to China, as evident in the joint statement, stating:
“This constructive model of relationship between the two largest developing countries, the biggest emerging economies and two major poles in the global architecture provides a new basis for pursuing state-to-state relations to strengthen the international system.”
Interestingly, the statement also had a section on “Shaping the Regional and Global Agenda”:
“As two major powers in the emerging world order, engagement between India and China transcends the bilateral dimension and has a significant bearing on regional, multilateral and global issues. Both Sides agreed to… coordinate their positions and work together to shape the regional and global agenda and outcomes.”
Last week, after the dialogue, Jaishankar echoed these sentiments. However, there is little evidence suggesting that it will fructify any time soon. China is simply not interested.
India may want to play with the big boys in Beijing, but China sees no reason to change the status quo. As far as China is concerned, India is a regional power and simply not in the same league as itself. Hence, when India demands a seat at the global high table, which is essentially what something like membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group is all about, China will do whatever it takes to keep India out. This is also why China will continue to indulge, support, and shore up Pakistan—so as to counterbalance India in the region. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that China has refused to remove its shield protecting Masood Azhar at the UN.
That said, as China’s global profile grows and it increasingly seeks to present itself as a rule-shaper and rule-keeper, it will be interesting to see if China eventually perceives its public defense of a proscribed terrorist as embarrassing enough to merit a change in strategy. Nevertheless, as of now, Beijing does not feel compelled to change its position on Masood Azhar anytime soon.
However, in several interviews this author has conducted over the past month as a Stimson Center South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow, China experts at various American think-tanks have speculated that China may be privately pressuring Pakistan to address the issue of terrorism. China is investing upwards of $50 billion in building an economic corridor through Pakistan that will connect to its own Xinjiang province, and it is imperative that Pakistan put its house in order if the project is to be effectively implemented.
In India, as argued here, the key question is whether Pakistan’s effort to clamp down on terrorism at home will extend to anti-India groups. It seems that China has no good reason to push Pakistan on this in the present context. On the contrary, Beijing will not mind at all if Pakistan—having managed the situation at home—continues to keep the pot boiling in the subcontinent. For long, China has used Pakistan to undercut India’s influence in the region. Today, as India’s economy races far ahead of Pakistan’s, the latter’s disruptive influence has waned. While it still retains some nuisance value vis-à-vis India, terrorism emanating from Pakistan cannot derail India’s growth, just as Pakistan’s anti-India narrative on Kashmir cannot prevent India from joining the big boys club. China may be aware of this changing dynamic, but for the time being it has chosen to continue dealing with India as a middle power that must be shown its place in the world order.
Image 1: Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, via MEA India on Twitter
Image 2: Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, via Raveendran (Getty Images)