Xi faces balancing act in New Delhi

2014-09-09 18:02Asia Times

Xi Jinping this month faces one of his most difficult foreign policy challenges. On his official visit to India, the Chinese president will have to boost ties, while striking a balance between the growing relationships with India and Japan, a country with complicated connections to China and huge investments in India. Can Xi offer India more? - Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - In the third week of September, Chinese President Xi Jinping will face one of his most difficult challenges in foreign policy so far. During his visit to New Delhi, he will have to boost ties with China's giant neighbor, India, while striking a balance between the growing relationships with India and Japan, a country now with complicated connections to China.

It is also seems in the interest of the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to improve India's bond with China. In fact, at the beginning of September, in the same hours that Modi was in Tokyo for a state visit, Indian Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was in Beijing to prepare for Xi's forthcoming trip. If India "sells" itself to Japan, then it can raise the stakes for China and vice versa, playing, rightly, on their international competition. If, conversely, India were to lose influence with one of these two countries, China or Japan, its residual "price" and leverage with the remaining country would be lower.

This objective situation pushes every country in the region to heighten tensions with neighbors up to a point, and unruffle feathers up to a point. A certain level of regional anxiety in fact can be beneficial in extracting advantages from one another and from the two main powers and rivals in the region: the United States and China. This is a  dispassionate factor pushing all nations in the area to keep the two countries both present and rivals in Asia.

With this in mind, Xi will have to match and possibly trump what Modi got in the past days in Tokyo, while Beijing's attachment with Delhi in comparison with Tokyo-Delhi entente, has unmatchable geographic advantages and disadvantages.

Tokyo offered a huge economic package to Delhi: an investment of more than US$33 billion over five years. In two years, Japan will invest more in India than it has from 2000 until now. Moreover, Tokyo has pledged a massive civil and military technology transfer, something that should help to rapidly upgrade Indian industry. India in return lifted limits on ownership and management of infrastructure and railways with the aim apparently to build a new network of bullet trains across the country modeled on the Japanese system.

In theory Xi could offer even more, up to a point. Its cash resources are vaster than Japan's; its railway experience, beefed up by the support of German machinery, is perhaps not second to Japan's. While its industrial technology is generally behind Japan's, the huge promise of its markets may lure many Indian companies to China. What will make it or break it between China and India is an agreement on the contested border.

It is no mystery that China and India have been playing for years with the idea of linking themselves via two railway lines: one that would go straight north to Tibet and the rest of China and other to the east, which would cross Burma, reach Thailand, and then move up to the Chinese province of Yunnan. But to get going on both lines, the two demographic superpowers have to solve the border issue that has been straining bilateral ties for over 50 years.

This is not so much a problem of drawing a map on the ground but of the handling of respective public opinion, both very nationalistic. In 1962, the Chinese won a short war against India and invaded part of the contested territory, but despite maintaining the claim, they withdrew to the prewar lines. Mao made the decision, and thus it is hard for any future Chinese leader to undo it. That is, it would be tough to actually defend the theory of conquering back the abandoned territory (the present Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh). But it is equally not easy to give up on the theoretical claim without looking weak with foreigners - especially now, at a moment when Xi is decapitating the security and military apparatus in an unprecedented corruption probe.

And yet for China the issues are not just of trains and economic development. In a recent essay, Wang Jisi [1] warned of the risks China is running in taking on the US and Japan at the same time, as ties with both are deteriorating simultaneously. This is the first time it has happened since Mao opened to America in 1971. Wang was courageous in taking on this theme at a time when in some Chinese circles are full of nationalist braggadocio that inflates Chinese achievements of the past three decades while overlooking the many faults the country still has.

In this situation with US and Japan, it should be impossible to freeze ties with India as well. India in theory was held in check for decades by the threat of Pakistan, China's old-time ally. However, the long Afghani war has reduced Pakistan to an almost failed state. Pakistan's old support to China in checking potential Uyghur terrorists is dwindling, as the country is losing control of its territory and security agencies. These are growing more independent from the intention of the government, each with its own agenda.

India's concern now is possibly not so much to contain or not be contained by Pakistan, but to prevent the complete dissolution of its neighbor. In this situation, India has a freer rein to become a strategic and economic containment to China. With its population and size India is de facto now the only arresting presence for China in the region. This should make China fully aware it should go out of its way to build a new neighborly relation.

In fact, this may also be in the interest of Delhi. Its history, size, and population boost India's ambition to be much more than a puppet in other people's hands to contain - or however one wants to put it - China. This in turn should warn China and its rivals that India is much more than a pawn in a containment strategy. Modi apparently wants to use the new regional tensions and rivalry to boost India's economic growth. If he manages to do it and reduce even marginally the distance in GDP's size with China, something very likely and to be hoped for the good of the Indians, the result in a few years could be much more complicated than a simple global concern for China's ambition and rise. One would have not one but two demographic hyper states with growing global ambitions challenging the old world order.

This perspective in turn should call for more cooperation and consultation with China, America, and Japan. Yet the present tensions  prevent it, and Xi is left to walk this tightrope alone in a few days.

1. See here


+MoreOther Commentary