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India-China SCO ‘cold war’ shows we have different ideas of normality—military or economic

Perhaps it is time to take a page or two from the Cold War textbooks, suitably translated into an Asian language of choice.

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The Shanghai Cooperation summit 2022 is over, and frenzied speculation of a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping remained just talk. The media overdrive was largely due to the disengagement at Ladakh’s Gogra post, which seemed to indicate a step towards normality. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has, however, repeatedly said that ‘normal’ relations are not possible without peace and tranquillity, preceded by disengagement and then de-escalation. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statements, however, merely called for a policy to ‘handle and manage’ differences together with steady bilateral ties; Clearly, there’s quite a gap in the perception of what ‘normal’ should be.

This question of normality

A ‘normal’ relationship between nations obviously includes trade and other economic activity, full diplomatic representation and visits, cultural exchanges, and most of all, friendly military-to-military talks—all of which arises from a degree of peace and trust between the two. Total trust is abnormal, given that national interests are competitive in nature. For instance, France and Germany have strong differences on a variety of subjects, including security policy, but are core to the European Union. ‘Normal’ relations may occur even when there are frictions on issues like trade—as between India and the US. Or in terms of water, as with Bangladesh. Or even contested territory as with Nepal or earlier with Bangladesh.

In fact, China provided conventional and nuclear weapon assistance to Pakistan and contrived an ‘economic corridor’ through contested Kashmir—which it accepts as disputed—all without disrupting normal relations. The break came after the Galwan skirmish in 2020 and the subsequent stepping up of Chinese presence across the entire border.

Also read: Modi govt is mastering the art of balancing Quad and SCO, ‘sanctioned’ nations and democracies

Disaggregating the relationship—diplomatic aspects

Since Galwan, diplomatic ‘big ticket’ visits have dwindled into nothing, barring one unannounced visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Delhi this year. The visit did not see the usual courtesies, nor did he get an audience with the Prime Minister. However, the meeting did discuss all subjects, itself a break from the post-Galwan silence. In later months, Jaishankar met his Chinese counterpart, on the sidelines of the G-20 Foreign Ministers meet in Bali, Indonesia. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met his counterparts at a virtual meeting of BRICS ( Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as did Prime Minister Modi later.

More significantly, India backed China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, while officials visited Beijing in preparation for BRICS, as well as other multilateral forums. A meeting of the SCO counter-terror body saw Chinese officials in Delhi. As India takes on the SCO presidency, these visits will increase. But a listing of these bilateral visits does show a complete full stop. So, a ‘normal’ in bilateral ties would translate into a resumption of discussions on trade, climate change, and other baskets that are discussed with other countries.

Vision of Asia

There is also a clear chasm between how the two sides see Asia.  Deng Xiaoping talked of the need to cooperate for an ‘Asian century’ with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. More recently, Chinese media raised the question of the Asian Century before President Xi’s visit to India in 2019. Jaishankar’s vision of an Asian century was initially welcomed by the Chinese. Subsequent expansion of this vision by the Indian Foreign Minister showed his desire for true multipolarity and engagement not closed to ‘outsiders.’

China’s vision is of an ‘Asia for Asians’ with no place at all for an ‘Asian NATO’ as it dubs the Indo-Pacific Quad. Strictly speaking, these differing visions don’t stand in for a normal relationship, except that Beijing would like India to be a junior partner in Asia. India wants none of it. When this is carried into policy, friction is certain.

Also read: Modi-Xi ‘cold war’ at SCO proves member relationships strained. India must stand on its own

Normality from a military angle

Normality from a military perspective has a Line of Actual Control (LAC) and an Indian Ocean Region (IOR) component. Though trust levels post Galwan have plummeted, transgressions along the LAC are at minimal levels due to maximum manning. While 16 rounds of Corps commander-level talks have led to disengagement at most places, standoffs at Depsang and Demchok continue. Military infrastructure development is progressing unabated across the LAC along with villages being built more for military purposes than for inhabitation. Both forces are seeking a new normal along the LAC.

In the short term, India’s concept of a new normal would-be reversion to status quo ante on the LAC as of February 2020, and full patrolling rights up to its perception of the LAC, especially in the Depsang sector. China will be happy to freeze the LAC where it is. Notably, both sides will not be happy with the buffer zones they have created since it induces a new solidifying element in the LAC to dilute each other’s long-term claims. Then come differences on territories like Arunachal and India’s claim on Aksai Chin. These have, however, not prevented summits and overtures of friendship in the past. Neither has Galwan, and our position on normality prevented India from taking part in military exercises with China under the SCO umbrella.

Meanwhile, India strongly objects to the movement of Chinese warships or spy ships in the Indian Ocean Region, while China is attempting to create a new normal by establishing base(s) at Gwadar, Hambantota or Kyaukphyu in Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Myanmar respectively. India will also seek to minimise the collusive threat from China and Pakistan and plug inroads that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) constantly makes into Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar through salami-slicing. While a ‘normal’ is possible along the border if China resolves the stand-offs, the Indian Ocean Region is likely to see continued friction. That could be the ‘normal’ in the year ahead.

Also read: ‘Will support India in doing good job’ — Xi’s trip to Samarkand had a clear message

Economic aspects

Statistics show that while Indian exports have increased at an annualised rate of 18.5 per cent in the last 25 years (till 2020), the trade deficit is becoming a sensitive issue. Interestingly, Trade has picked up post-Galwan, with exports to China down by 36.9 per cent  (YoY) in the first 5 months, and imports going up by 28.9 per cent, thereby increasing the trade deficit by 62.65 per cent (YoY). When taken together with trade with Hong Kong, this deficit accounts for some 3 per cent of the GDP. That’s a lot. The fact that a group of Indian traders braved gruelling Covid protocols to travel to China indicates the importance of this at the ground level. So, cutting off trade with China is well-nigh impossible, and a desired Indian ‘normal’ would need a significant step up in exports that will actually strengthen ties. That needs more than diplomacy. It needs industrial strength. Meanwhile, Beijing’s normal is presumably to keep up the leverage.

Neither is the picture very bright in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The World Investment Report 2022, while applauding the global increase in FDI after Covid scare, notes that while FDI inflows to China (plus Hong Kong) went up from 14.5 per cent to 20.3 per cent, the investment to India shrunk from 3.4 per cent to 2.8 per cent. In other words, the declared intention to diversify from China is yet to take off; and none of that is anyway coming to India. Further, data shows that China has not been a major FDI investor in India from 2017 onwards. Unless Chinese money is coming in from a third country—which is possible—there’s nothing much to leverage. Again, while the ban on Chinese apps and games like TikTok and PubG (100 million and 50 million users respectively) would have had an impact, a similar ban in February 2022 is assessed to have had little effect due to low usage. In other words, that door is closed.

India’s position is clear on the requirements of ‘normality’. It may even be that a gradual disengagement agreement will lead to a quasi-recognised LAC that may promote greater confidence. But as the recent coldness at the SCO summit shows, progress is likely to be at snail’s pace, if at all. Though meetings at multilateral venues may have increased, the lack of bilaterals is likely to worsen perceptions of the other, even as India lacks the leverage to force changes at the military level. Meanwhile, India’s Indo-Pacific ventures are likely to raise temperatures away from normal, even while there is no indication that this has delivered in terms of reducing dependence on China.

The US needs to take heed of this as it manoeuvres around the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. While Delhi’s position is praiseworthy, it is worth recalling the cold war practice of constant interaction between Soviet and US officials at various outside locations to lower tensions, which finally led to a critical summit. Perhaps it is time to take a page or two from the Cold War textbooks, suitably translated into an Asian language of choice.

Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Lt Gen P.R. Shankar (retd) is former DG Artillery and presently professor at the Aerospace department, IIT Madras. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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