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Neighborly Conduct
The general trend of China-India relations remains positive despite recent issues
By Cheng Xizhong | NO.16 APRIL 19, 2018

Local staff work at a manufacturing plant of China's Haier Group in Pune City, India's Maharashtra state, on December 24, 2017 (XINHUA)

Despite ups and downs, the Sino-Indian relationship has generally maintained a friendly and cooperative orientation in past decades. After experiencing a border stand off last year, the two countries' bilateral relations are gaining momentum.

Low ebb

Last June, a border stand off erupted between the two sides when Indian military personnel entered Chinese territory in the Donglang area from India's Sikkim State in the west, intervening in construction work by Chinese border forces. In the aftermath, regarding the incident as having harmed its territorial integrity and national security, China conducted firm negotiations while showing respect and restraint, which ultimately resulted in a peaceful solution without direct military confrontation.

Thereafter, there have been several further acts by India which have continued to harm the development of the two country's bilateral relationship. On January 12 ahead of the Indian Army Day, General Bipin Rawat, Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army, said at a press conference that "We felt they [China] will try to claim the whole Donglang … It was also posing a threat to us as it was changing the status quo." He went on to say that "China is a powerful country but we are not a weak nation," explaining that "the time had come for India to shift focus to its northern border."

On February 15, the day before the Chinese Spring Festival, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the so-called Arunachal Pradesh, an area of southern Tibet occupied by India. In the same month, General Rawat made another inflammatory statement, this time in New Delhi, claiming that a "planned" influx of people from Bangladesh into India's northeastern region was underway as part of a proxy war being waged by Pakistan with support from China to destabilize the area.

There have also been reports about India joining the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and playing a more active role in the informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. These events signal a recent low point in the Sino-Indian relationship.

Positive diplomacy

Yet in spite of these recent troubles, China has insisted on pushing toward positive change. On December 11, 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj on the sidelines of the 15th Russian, Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers' Meeting in New Delhi. Eleven days later on December 22, then State Councilor Yang Jiechi attended the 20th round of talks between Chinese and Indian special representatives on boundary issues in the Indian capital. These two exchanges both helped to move the bilateral relationship onto a positive track.

India also responded with amicable gestures of its own. From February 23 to 24, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Beijing for diplomatic consultations. During the visit, Gokhale held talks with senior Chinese officials, including Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi. Yang said that China is willing to work with India to implement the consensus reached by the two countries' leaders, maintain high-level exchanges and enhance strategic communication and practical cooperation. Wang also expressed his hopes that India will handle sensitive issues with prudence and work toward the mutual goal of promoting the healthy development of China-India relations. The good will of both Yang and Wang was positively received by Gokhale.

In early March, India's Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that India is "willing to work with the Chinese side to develop relations based on commonalities while dealing with differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other's interests, concerns and aspirations." He added that as "two major countries and large economies, relations between India and China are not just important bilaterally, but also have regional and global significance." In response, Lu Kang, spokesperson of China's Foreign Ministry, stressed that the Chinese side "wishes to work with India to take the important consensus between the two leaderships as guidance to improve mutual trust, enhance mutually beneficial cooperation, manage differences and ensure the correct track for the development of relations."

On March 20, Modi congratulated Chinese President Xi Jinping on his reelection and expressed his hope of working with China to enhance high-level exchanges, deepen bilateral ties, and strengthen coordination and cooperation in international affairs to foster a closer developmental partnership.

On March 24, in an interview with the South China Morning Post, Indian Ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale outlined India's policy stance toward China, stressing that India does not see China as a rival or competitor but rather as a partner in progress and development. On March 22 and 23, the 11th Meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs was held in New Delhi. The two sides vowed to continue enhancing communication and coordination in a constructive manner, strengthen frontier defense exchange and cooperation, push forward the building of trust measures, and properly handle border issues so as to jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas and create favorable conditions for the healthy and stable development of Sino-Indian relations.

Also on March 24, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry jointly organized a promotional event in New Delhi for the China International Import Expo to be held in Shanghai in November, and a signing ceremony for India-China trade cooperation projects. During the function, a total of 101 trade agreements worth a total of $2.4 billion were signed. At the invitation of Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry Suresh Prabhu, Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan attended the 11th India-China Joint Economic Group meeting on March 26 in New Delhi, exploring ways to deepen practical bilateral trade cooperation. Indian representatives expressed interest in the experience of China's special economic zones and welcomed investment by Chinese firms.

Mutual interests

Throughout the development of Sino-Indian relations over the past 68 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two sides, China has made significant contributions to the geniality of the present situation by sticking to principles of friendship and hard work. China has sustained friendly cooperation with India, encouraging positive aspects of the relationship while reducing negative ones.

While some disputes remain between the two countries, bilateral ties have seen considerable developments across recent decades. In 1972, China introduced the principle of "shelving disputes and developing relations" to improve Sino-Indian ties. In 1988, after 16 years of patience by the Chinese side, then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid a visit to China, marking India's overdue acceptance of this basic concept. By 2017, the volume of trade between the two countries reached a record high of $84.4 billion, in sharp contrast with almost zero in the early 1980s. Now the two sides enjoy frequent high-level exchanges, close ties between peoples and coordination on major global issues. Moving forward, in light of sensitive issues such as border disputes, some small degree of friction in the development of bilateral ties cannot ruled out, but friendly cooperation will likely remain the core of Sino-Indian ties.

At present, the deepening of political trust between China and India is needed most. The two countries should continue to develop their tradition of amiable exchange, pushing for trust, dialogue and cooperation while controlling disputes and dropping suspicions. In order to improve political trust, India must change its old mindset. China poses no threat to India, and China's friendly and cooperative relations with other South Asian countries bring no harm to Indian interests.

In fact, India is seeing with increasing clarity the intention of external forces, heightening vigilance toward the Trump administration's foreign and military strategies and emphasizing its traditional independent stance in its diplomatic practices. This will mark a return to a balanced strategy in India's diplomacy with major powers. At the same time, India stands against U.S. trade protectionism. With a "trade war" between China and the United States developing, there is little room for optimism about the world's economic future, and India's economic growth would be hard hit by damage to free-trade principles and shrunken markets.

New Delhi's recent cordial gestures toward China also demonstrate India's recognition of China's global importance and the significance of the Sino-Indian strategic and cooperative partnership. After all, regardless of strategic choices or diplomatic needs, both nations benefit from stabilizing ties and solving disputes. This year, the two countries' top leaders will meet at platforms including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, the BRICS Summit and the G20 Summit, suggesting that the relationship between China and India is set to improve even more.

The author is a member of the Chinese Association for South Asian Studies and a senior researcher at the Charhar Institute

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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