Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to India â€” from 17-19 September â€” generated a lot of interest, even anxiety. Indian Premier Narendra Modi rolled out the red carpet for the visiting president. The two sides signed as many as 12 agreements committing $ 20 billion Chinese investment in India over the next five years. China is to help India in introducing high-speed trains and redo railway stations. The two sides also agreed to start talks on civilian nuclear cooperation.
How this visit would impact Pakistan is a matter that warrants a serious analysis of the ongoing regional situation.
Before setting out on his tour of three South Asian countries, during a meeting with Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, President Xi sought to dispel any misgivings Islamabad might have had about policy change, saying â€œthis relationship [between Pakistan and China] is insulated from developments around the world. We should, therefore, not be concerned in this regard.â€ That holds good for now.
To put things in perspective, trade between India and China is heavily skewed in China’s favour. India has been pressing China to lower duties on its exports to reduce the bilateral trade gap that increased from $18.65 billion in 2009 to a whopping $36.86 billion in 2013. Enhanced market access is aimed at reducing the trade imbalance. It is important to note that China’s key political rival, the US, is also its biggest trading partner after the EU. And thanks to its spectacular success in international trade, Beijing owns the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves. So, China needs to spend some of its vast forex reserves. India’s huge market is an attractive place to invest some of this extra money. As for the prospects of civil nuclear cooperation, New Delhi already has a major deal with the US. It recently received an offer from Australia for collaboration in the field. Talks with China on this question will not add a dangerous dimension to the issue. In any event, China has long been providing assistance to Pakistan for energy projects and other activities in the field.
Despite the bonhomie on display during President Xi’s visit, there is reason enough for the two sides to regard one another with suspicion. Ranting against China during his election campaign, Modi had said the country would have to get rid of its â€œexpansionist mindset.â€ India’s preferred policy, nonetheless, would be settling the border dispute with China through peaceful means.
More worrying from New Delhi’s perspective is that, aside from helping Pakistan build the deep-sea naval port at Gwadar, China has acquired naval facilities in Sri Lanka and the Maldives – the two countries President Xi visited before arriving in India. Ostensibly, these are meant for trade and commerce; to some, they are aimed at encirclement of India. Whatever the purpose, the tensions underlying Sino-Indian relations are to persist in the foreseeable future.
The experts believe that Xi’s India visit marks a new stage in relations between the two superpowers. It was China’s first top-level visit to India in eight years, and it signifies the two countries’ increasing interest in strengthening bilateral cooperation, which they see as having strategic importance for them.
Testifying to that was the signing of three MoUs and 12 agreements covering trade and investment, industrial and infrastructural development, science and technology, and environmental protection. To meet those goals, China pledged $20 billion to India within five years, enabling Chinese investors to fortify their position in the growing Indian market and allowing India to obtain the financing it needs to modernize the country.
It is hard to refute that the conflict of interests between the two sides still exists. The territorial issue in the Himalayas remains unresolved, and the countries are still at odds on cross-border water resources, Tibet and the visa regime. Even so, the main conflict of interests plays out politically in the Asia-Pacific region, and it is linked to each country’s ambitions of political leadership in the region. India, whose GDP is only one-fourth to that of China, cannot yet provide genuine economic competition for China in South and Southeast Asia, but the expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence here causes concern among India’s leaders and is viewed as a threat to national security.
Indian society, too, retains its distrust and suspicion toward China, as shown by a recent opinion poll. Asked which country poses the biggest threat to India, the vast majority of respondents ranked China second, just after Pakistan. China, in turn, looks negatively on the latest agreement between India and Vietnam. China and Vietnam have been fighting for control of the Paracel Islands, as joint oil drilling is planned for the Islands’ offshore waters. China has let it be known that it considers the agreement to have no legal force because it deals with sovereign Chinese territory.
In contrast to his predecessor, Modi is not afraid to follow a policy of rapprochement between countries that are strategic rivals with China for influence in the Asia-Pacific region by leveraging national security interests, which could be threatened by China’s accelerating military modernization and the expansion of its presence in the Indian Ocean. That ties in to India’s willingness to seek alliances with Japan and the United States, where the Indian prime minister made an official visit shortly afterward. But India is hesitant to join the Japan-US alliance aimed at countering the growing influence of China in the region. And China, which is extremely wary of the emergence of an anti-China coalition in the Asia-Pacific region, openly supports Pakistan.
India and China are more likely to be rivals and competitors than allies, despite sharing a number of common interests and being like-minded on many international issues. But national security interests will dictate a pragmatic approach to broadening the economic facet of bilateral cooperation. And that in turn will help maintain the stability in the region.