In view of recent developments, specifically China’s reservations over India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to New Delhi seems to be an effort to improve relations ahead of three major multilateral engagements in China, India, and Laos. Wang Yi’s visit, which resulted in an agreement to conduct talks on India’s candidacy for NSG, was possibly aimed at managing the negative reaction in New Delhi to China’s recent non-cooperation with India.
With the G-20 Summit in China and the 11th East Asia Summit in Laos in September, followed by the BRICS summit in India in October, a call for talks could be seen as Beijing’s attempt to persuade India to not take an adverse position on the South China Sea dispute. The recent ruling by the Hague-based tribunal nullifying Beijing’s historical claims in the South China Sea and limited support for its confrontational response to the ruling has left China feeling insecure and alienated. While China, through Cambodia’s support, successfully blocked any mention of the South China Sea at the recent meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vientiane, doing so at the upcoming East Asia Summit in Laos, in the presence of the United States, Japan, and Australia, could prove difficult. Clearly indicating Beijing’s cautious approach, Deputy Foreign Minister Li Baodong stated that China wants to avoid sensitive diplomatic issues during the G-20 summit. With the United States and regional stakeholders almost certain to raise the issue, China would seek to alter the response of those it can sway through bargain. Thus, Beijing may be looking at floating the possibility of concession on India’s NSG bid as a way to reduce opposition at multilateral fora including the East Asia Summit, thereby preventing embarrassment.
As the news of Beijing agreeing to hold talks with India on its NSG application broke, the Indian strategic community was palpably skeptical. On the one hand, the success of the dialogue will largely depend on China’s willingness to accommodate India’s economic and security concerns that are inevitably linked to its stand on the South China Sea. On the other hand, any compromises that China might be willing to make will be pegged to India’s capability to make allowances on the South China Sea and other issues of bilateral importance.
It is also important to note that this perceived change in policy on Beijing’s part comes at a point when China’s relations with regional stakeholders have hit a dead end. The categorical arbitration against its expansive claims in the South China Sea has deteriorated its relations with the ASEAN, the installation of THAAD anti-missile systems has affected its relations with South Korea, India’s gone ahead with tank deployment in Ladakh while Vietnam has deployed mobile rocket launchers in the SCS. And then there’s the trust deficit with the United States in the wake of recent naval maneuvers, such as the freedom of navigation patrols (FONOP), that seem to have pushed China on the defensive.
Though unlikely, it would be interesting to see if China, which blocked India’s NSG bid citing its non-signatory status to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), backs off from this argument, thereby putting India on track for concessions on the South China Sea issue. An Indian concession on the South China Sea would require New Delhi to tone down its concerns, or toe China’s line—both of which are a non-option for New Delhi. There are two basic reasons as to why India will not move from its principled position that calls for freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of the dispute. Firstly, the Southeast Asian littorals form an important part of India’s Act East Policy and are pivotal to India’s economic development. The SCS not only facilitates the passage of over 50% of India’s trade with Asian partners, but also links the country to economic resources in the Pacific. Secondly, the SCS is an indispensable part of India’s security architecture in the Indian Ocean since it acts as a strategic buffer between the South Asian littorals and China. Operating from a position of strength in the SCS, China could exercise control over a long range of maritime operations in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi understands the adverse effects of this interference in the Indian Ocean Region, and, therefore, it is highly unlikely that it will arrive on a compromise with Beijing.
China’s refusal to withdraw economic investment in the area of Kashmir that New Delhi claims as its “integral” part, and India’s rejection of visa extension requests for Chinese journalists are likely to create hurdles in the relationship. Amidst the current uneasiness in Sino-Indian relations, Yi’s unusually long visit to pacify India could set the right tone for upcoming engagements in the G-20 and BRICS. However, longer term security and economic concerns must be addressed to allow for positivity in the bilateral relationship. With growing military and economic asymmetry and degrading strategic balance between China and India, it is important for New Delhi to look for options in the form of inter-regional relationships based on strategic autonomy, and to carefully balance the elements of competition and cooperation in its relationship with Beijing.
Image 2: Pool-Getty Images News, Getty