Tensions have been mounting between the two Asian behemoths, but recent developments indicate a thawing of relations. Dealing with China be one of the major foreign policy challenges that confront India’s next government, making it worthwhile for the two to focus on their areas of cooperation, writes

by Rupakjyoti Borah

The participation of two Indian battleships – INS Kolkata and INS Shakti – in the International Fleet Review organised as part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s 70th anniversary celebrations last month could very well signal a thawing of relations between the two Asian behemoths.

The Indian Navy’s involvement coincided with Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to Beijing for regular talks with Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi. Last week also marked the first anniversary of the Wuhan Informal Summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

These developments stand in stark contrast to the mounting tensions in the India-China relationship in recent times.

Earlier this year, China put a “technical hold” on India’s bid to designate the founder of Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Masood Azhar, as a terrorist at the UN 1267 al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee. JeM claimed responsibility for the February attack in Indian Kashmir, which killed dozens of paramilitaries and prompted India to launch air strikes on training camps inside Pakistan.

Beijing’s ambitious belt and road infrastructure plans have also made New Delhi uneasy; India did not attend the inaugural 2017 forum and was once more absent at the second forum last week.

In turn, India’s participation in the “Quad” – an informal strategic dialogue that also includes Japan, the US and Australia – was not well received in Beijing.

However, India and China appear committed to charting a new course.

Modi is currently in the middle of general elections, but dealing with China will be one of the major foreign policy challenges that confront India’s next government.

This might entail new moves by the two sides to engage each other. Xi visited India – including a trip to Modi’s home state of Gujarat – in September 2014, soon after the prime minister took power.

New Delhi needs to stimulate economic growth and to that end will prioritise regional stability. It also requires Beijing’s support on a range of issues, such as its membership bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group – which seeks to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons – and curbing Pakistani support for anti-India militants.

Furthermore, the United States has cancelled a waiver allowing India to buy Iranian oil, ensuring New Delhi will be incentivised to maintain a flexible approach in its relations with other countries.

Certainly, India will not want to push Pakistan and China any closer together, considering the “all-weather friendship” that already exists between the two countries.

China has its own considerations. It would not welcome closer ties between India and the US. However, Beijing also realises India is a major export market for Chinese companies, which might force China to rethink issues such as its stance on Masood Azhar, the JeM founder.

In light of the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the two nations may find common cause there since India is already a big player – being one of the major international donors to Kabul – while both India and China share an interest in stabilising the country.

Other regional factors have also played a role in promoting cooperation between China and India. At the fleet review on April 23, Japan also sent a warship – a Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer – to China for the first since December 2011. Australia also took part in the fleet review, sending the HMAS Melbourne, a guided missile frigate.

On the other front, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently visited Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin. This could mean Pyongyang is trying to wriggle its way out of Beijing’s sole influence, and new players like Russia are entering the scene.

Meanwhile, the US has been bearing down hard on China, especially on the trade front, perhaps prompting Beijing’s outreach to New Delhi and Tokyo.

Despite their differences on a range of issues, Beijing and New Delhi are trying to focus on their areas of cooperation. This will give both of them greater leverage – not only in their bilateral ties, but also in their ties with other countries.