How to manage China's rise

Shyam Saran

India, Nov. 11 -- There is a continuing spate of commentaries marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Sino-Indian border war of 1962.

This reflects a contemporary concern with the implications of China's rise for India's interests rather than a preoccupation with history. So what lies ahead for India-China relations?

Indian and Chinese civilisations enjoyed benign co-existence in Asia for most of their history. There was considerable interaction between them.

The spread of Buddhism to China from India is one example. There is historical precedent for Asia being home to two major civilisations and economic powerhouses, without conflict being inevitable. But there are new elements in the contemporary equation.

Firstly, the earlier pre-eminence of India and China was the culmination of long-term and gradual historical processes. Their current re-emergence is telescoped in a much shorter timeframe. Adjustment to such rapid but significant change is likely to be complex and uncertain.

Secondly, despite being outward looking at various stages of their history, both countries were relatively self-sufficient and self-sustaining economies. Currently, their rapid economic growth is linked to their continuing integration into an increasingly inter-connected regional and global economy.

As their respective economic and security profiles expand, the points of intersection will multiply. These could become triggers of conflict or of cooperation. Both countries should seek mutual accommodation. The alternative could be a costly rivalry that could also draw in other powers with their own political agenda.

India-China relations did enjoy a decade of friendly relations from 1949 to 1959. There was an early promise of their working together to transform the geopolitical landscape.

This positive phase ended with the controversy over the Dalai Lama's entry into India in 1959 and the subsequent border conflict in 1962.

The compulsions of national consolidation within modern conceptions of boundaries, in place of what had remained for centuries, more loosely defined zones of overlapping ethnicities and cultures, overwhelmed the brief spell of solidarity.

Positive engagement

Expanding trade and investment relations between the two countries is one. Trade volume is already $70 billion and targeted to reach $100 billion in 2015.

Two, the countries have institutionalized high level official interaction. They have established a Strategic Economic Dialogue to parallel the annual Strategic Political Dialogue.

Their leaders have been exchanging annual visits and meet regularly at regional and international fora. These reduce the chances of misunderstanding.

Three, India and China have assumed a decisive role in tackling a whole series of global issues. Both at multilateral trade and climate change fora they have worked together to safeguard their interests and those of developing countries in general. At the G-20, they consult regularly and, wherever possible, coordinate their positions.

Points of uncertainty

The long-standing boundary issue has defied solution. The two countries have generally maintained peace and tranquillity along their borders through a series of confidence-building measures. But continued failure to resolve the issue will act as a constraint on relations .

Two, despite India having acknowledged Tibet as an autonomous region of China, the latter still harbours suspicions about Indian intentions.

These misperceptions get heightened whenever there is unrest in Tibet. There is growing radicalisation of Tibetan youth in India and China and this could have adverse repercussions. A regular exchange on this sensitive issue may help in keeping India-China relations on a positive track.

Thirdly, India has major concerns over Chinese hydropower projects on several cross-border rivers. While there is some limited information sharing on the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra, we need an overall agreement covering all cross-border rivers.

Fourthly, there is concern over how China will treat issues of sensitivity to India. The Chinese often speak of the need to maintain "balance" between India and Pakistan, and justify their support to Pakistan on that basis.

And yet China would be the first to reject any attempt by any power to "balance" China itself. China is also ambiguous about India's candidacy for permanent membership of the UN Security Council and refuses to acknowledge India as a state with nuclear weapons. This prevents any meaningful dialogue on issues of nuclear confidence building.

China has expressed concerns over India's role in the South China Sea.

India does not take a position on the territorial issue, but it does have a legitimate interest in the freedom of navigation and security of sea lanes in the interconnected Indo-Pacific region. China, too, has legitimate concerns since much of its overseas trade and energy supplies are carried over these ocean routes.

The most effective way to promote mutual reassurance is through an open, inclusive, transparent and balanced security architecture in the region rather than through unilateral military, in particular, naval build-up. It is encouraging that India and China have put maritime security on the agenda of their strategic dialogue.

As the dust settles on China's leadership transition, India must pursue a strategy of engagement which enables an effective management of the China challenge.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and currently chairman, RIS, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.