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Welcome to “the new normal” in India-China ties

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As the new 5th generation leadership takes charge in Beijing this week, India has ruled out rivalry with China as “inevitable,” reflecting what National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon has described as “the new normal” in the India-China relationship.

Amid off-and-on projections of rivalry and conflict of interests in the maritime domain, an impression that was bolstered after verbal duelling over the South China Sea last year, Menon, a Mandarin-speaking former ambassador to China, has underlined that the Sino-Indian maritime rivalry is not inevitable. Speaking at the launch of Samudra Manthan: Sino-India Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, a book authored by strategic expert C. Raja Mohan March 4, Menon stressed on how potential rivalry can be mitigated by cooperation and dialogue.  “In my view Sino-Indian maritime rivalry is not inevitable… Both India and China have a common interest in keeping the sea lanes of communication through the Indian and western pacific oceans open. These lines are vital to Indian’s trade and energy flows. So are they for China,” he said.

What needs underlining in Menon’s speech is his emphasis on what he called the “new normal,” the crossing of the navies of India and China into waters that were traditionally considered beyond their domain. “Last decade or so, Indian presence in waters east of Mallaca and Chinese presence in west of Mallaca has become the new normal. It is a reality and has come without apparent friction,” Menon said. “That is reality that has happened simultaneously on both sides of the Strait without apparent frictions. These are natural consequences of development of India and China. As we both globalise this will happen… I think these are natural consequences,” he said. Menon cited the cooperation between the navies of India and China in anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden  as refutation of theories of confrontation and rivalry.

Raja Mohan also underlined the imperatives for cooperation that override scenarios of confrontation.  “The book goes into why we need to be aware of the danger of it and how to mitigate the rivalry through cooperation and dialogues. As India’s economy becomes globalised, the maritime domain will draw us more and more and will pose extraordinary challenges to our thinking that has traditionally been of a continental culture,” he said.c_raja_book

The formulation, “the new normal,” deserves a closer scrutiny and amplification as it aptly describes a peculiar situation in global realpolitick when the two rising Asian powers have not managed to get over their trust deficit, but are simultaneously expanding their trade and consulting closely on a host of multilateral issues. If one keeps this perspective in mind, many of the apparent paradoxes of this challenging relationship start making more sense. On the one hand, many influential figures in India’s strategic-diplomatic establishment see China as India’s number one national security threat – the March 5 decision to hike defence budget by China’s new rulers should provide more fodder to these theorists. On the other hand, India and China pool in their rising clout and diplomatic acumen to shape the outcome of the international climate change negotiations, as happened in Copenhagen in 2009 and again in Rio in 2012. The lingering strategic distrust, a residue of the unresolved boundary question and memories of the 1962 Chinese aggression in India’s strategic unconscious, has not prevented the two powerful economies from scaling up bilateral trade to over $75 billion and launching a strategic economic dialogue on macro-economic issues.  In a pioneering initiative, two of Asia’s top-performing economies have decided to launch maritime dialogue.

This “new normal,” the juggling of dissonance on some strategic issues with the imperatives of cooperation and dialogue, is now being increasingly embraced by the strategic establishment of both sides. In a visit to China in December last year in the middle of the leadership transition, this writer was told by many influential analysts that India needs to move beyond the 1962 war to forge a modern and pragmatic relationship with China. Well, India is not going to lower the guards because of all this sweet talk – the spectacular military modernisation of China poses its own challenges which needs to be countered by systematic and incremental upgrade of India’s military capabilities. Mercifully, after years of wasted opportunities Nehruvian romantic illusions are out, and a new realism is shaping the India-China relations, and this paradigm needs to be welcomed. The inflated and sentimental rhetoric of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ is being replaced by ‘Hindi-China buy-buy,’ reflecting the power of trade and economic diplomacy to shape the course of diplomatic engagement in the 21st century world.

Yes, there will be points of contention and friction, but if one accepts that there will be elements of cooperation as well as elements of competition, even rivalry, in Sino-Indian engagement, much of hysteria orchestrated from time to time by hawks of both sides can be successfully supplanted by win-win outcomes. Welcome to the new normal in India-China relations!


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Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-magazine focused on international affairs, emerging powers and the India Story.

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