“... not too optimistic about the outcome of the China-India talks”

January 31, 2021

The ongoing tussle between India and China along the Line of Actual Control has no end in sight. To understand the driving forces in India-China relations and does a tiff between two of Asia's largest economies spells for the peace and prosperity of the region, TNS spoke with academic and former diplomat, Ambassador Iqbal Ahmad Khan. Excerpts:

The News on Sunday (TNS): What, in your opinion, are the real driving forces in India’s China policy and how is the current military standoff affecting their economies, two of Asia’s largest?

Ambassador Iqbal Ahmed Khan (IAK): India and China were born to be rivals. Both possess all the determinants of power that instill ambitions in nations to establish their writs beyond their geographical frontiers. A billion-plus people, a multi-trillion dollar economy and a rich and old civilisation have propelled India to expand its influence from the Gulf of Aden in the west to the Strait of Malacca in the east and from the Himalayas in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. Historically, Indian leaders and diplomats have considered this region to be their natural sphere of influence. This soaring ambition brings India in direct competition with its northern neighbour with whom it shares a disputed border more than 3,000 kilometres long. So, the Thucydides Trap is manifestly at work in the region - a rising power, India, attempting to challenge an established power, China. It is not in India’s interest to take on China because of the power disparity. While India can continue to harbour wildly extravagant megalomaniacal designs, it simply does not possess the capacity to bring them to fruition. India perhaps realises this. But sometimes, events move so fast that national governments are reduced to mere bystanders.

This environment of deadly competition and possible physical confrontation is bound to have a dampening impact on Asia’s economic rise, particularly India’s. With the two Asian giants locking horns, the multi-billion dollar investments that annually flow into the two continental sized countries are likely to be diverted to more peaceful and conducive climes. Foreign direct investments play a critical role in economic development. And this is not the only factor to be negatively affected. Tourism will dry up, and outsourcing will be inhibited. China’s $15 trillion economy is relatively better placed to absorb the shock than India’s struggling $2.5 trillion economy. It is noteworthy that the Covid-19 pandemic has proved to be a major setback to India’s economic growth; China has not only weathered the storm but also registered a more than 2 per cent growth.

TNS: India did focus, for some time, on strengthening its relations with China. However, the situation is dramatically different today. Do you see a chance for talks to pay off anytime soon?

IAK: The whole purpose behind diplomacy and negotiations is to resolve issues peacefully without resorting to force or violence. For such negotiations to be successful, one needs to approach them with honesty and sincerity and fully prepared to accommodate the other party’s viewpoint and legitimate interests. In a short period of talks with the Chinese, Pakistan was able to arrive at a negotiated and mutually beneficial settlement of its un-demarcated border with China. This led to the Pakistan-China border agreement of March 1963. Since then, there has been no problem with the Chinese at this border. India has been talking to China for more than six decades without reaching an agreement. The primary cause of this is Indian rigidity and intransigence, as a result of which it has engulfed itself in a disastrous war, numerous skirmishes and perpetual tension. We can understand all this. We have had terrible experience with India. It has reneged on its promises on Kashmir and Siachin, not to speak of backtracking on many of the commitments made on the division of assets of British India in 1947. So, unless India embarks on a practical, sincere, and forward-looking path to collaborative and cooperative ties, I am not too optimistic about the outcome of the China-India talks.

TNS: China’s rising military power has been a concern for many, including India and the US. During the Trump presidency, the two signed multi-billion dollars arms deals. What does India’s shifting focus towards building a military economy hold in store for its ties with its neighbouring countries?

IAK: India has every right to strengthen itself economically and militarily, and the manner it chooses to do so is also its business. In the past five years, it has been one of the biggest - if not the biggest - importers of military hardware globally. At $70 billion annually, its defence budget is among the highest among major powers. Its indigenous defence production has expanded manifold. While these are sovereign decisions of a sovereign country, the problem arises when such militarisation creates a propensity within the Indian establishment to exercise coercive diplomacy, particularly with its immediate neighbours. It has also resulted in massive violations of human rights by the 600,000 security forces stationed in illegally occupied Kashmir and converted into the most militarised zone in the world. So, foreign powers who are instrumental in providing India this military hardware should weigh the pros and cons of the harmful impact of their policies in a nuclearised South Asia.

TNS: The Modi administration faces a challenging situation at the domestic front with escalating tensions over the new Farm Bills and the Kashmir lockdown. At a time like this, it appears India’s focus should be domestic affairs, but the border tensions continue to take precedence. The strengthening of India-US ties can affect India-China relations. Meanwhile, India runs a trade deficit with China. How do you view the new alliance impacting the future of the India-China politico-economic situation?

IAK: India’s military might notwithstanding, there is no denying that it is a country with the largest number of poor people worldwide. One only has to cast a cursory glance at the unending rows of slums in its commercial capital, Mumbai, and the country’s capital, Delhi, to realise the subhuman conditions in which large swathes of Indians are eking out an existence. Instead of using their resources to extricate its people out of poverty and illiteracy, the Hindu nationalist and xenophobic Indian leaders have chosen to dazzle them with fancy military hardware and a jingoistic foreign policy that has triggered an arms race in the region and created tension and mutual suspicion. India’s close embrace of the United States and its participation in various Western strategies directed at the containment of China are more than likely to foster tension, mistrust and hostility. India is playing a dangerous game in a region where the borders of three nuclear powers meet and where there exist age-old disputes over which wars have been fought. India would be well advised to engage in peaceful, meaningful, and sincere negotiations to resolve these problems.

The writer is a staff member

“... not too optimistic about the outcome of the China-India talks”: Ambassador Iqbal Ahmad Khan