India vs China :: Modi govt hopes to gain in 2017 as Donald Trump presidency plays out its cards



By Seema Guha

There has been much noise about a Pakistan Lieutenant General Aamir Riaz asking India to become a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Consider for a moment that India agrees, Pakistan itself will regret the invitation. As a much bigger economy, India will become a key player, and take some of the shine away from Pakistan. 

The strategic equation in Asia as we know it at present would go into a tailspin and could even finally hit the "all weather" China-Pakistan friendship as the entire region would be transformed. In an ideal world, this would be a game changer as countries become stake holders for peace.

But even a leader like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given to thinking out of the box, cannot risk this bold initiative so long as anti-India terror groups continue to target Indian forces in Kashmir. Without bringing the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror strikes, the Uri and Pathankot kingpins to book, no Indian leader can risk making peace. Modi as the leader of a nationalist right-wing party, who had long decried the UPA’s soft approach to terror, cannot dream of it now with tension escalating and daily killings across the Line of Control (LoC).

India-China and India-Pakistan ties are unlikely to change dramatically in the next few months, with Pakistan especially, till such time as elections in UP, Punjab and other states are done and dusted. Modi's greetings to Nawaz Sharif on his birthday is an indication that Modi wants to leave a door open to his counterpart. India-Pakistan ties are more emotive than its relationship with China, but with Pakistan becoming a key element of President Xi Jinping’s pet one-road-one-belt project, Beijing, much more than earlier is an integral element in the relationship.

Though India is a member of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), it has never warmed up to the New Silk Road project. Beijing had earlier been keen for India to join its one-belt-one-road scheme but with the $46 billion investment in Pakistan, it is impossible. India has often protested that some of the CPEC infrastructure will be passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which India claims as its own. China and Pakistan’s friendship has been further cemented by the $46 billion investment in the CPEC.

India-China ties have also taken a hit in the last one year. China has halted India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), it is cool to Delhi’s ambitions of being a member of an expanded UN Security Council. It has also blocked Pakistan-based terror group leader Masood Azhar from being declared on the UN list of terror, though his organisation, the Jaish-e-Mohammed is a designated terror outfit. All this on "technical grounds" according to China. More acrimony in India-China ties lie ahead.

The visit of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh in February is likely to further hit India-China ties. Not that this will be his first visit. He was in the Tawang monastery in 2008 also. But now the Chinese are slightly more nervous. US President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call to Taiwan’s president has made China uneasy and Beijing will be watching closely whether Washington's new incumbent will continue the long accepted one-China policy which the world seemed until now to have accepted. Taiwan and Tibet are key elements of the one China theory. The Dalai Lama’s visit to any country, remember Mongolia, leads to loud and angry protests by Beijing. The fact that most of its neighbours, aware of China’s economic and military power finally gave in, has emboldened Beijing.

The Tibetan leader’s meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan has elicited similar noise from China. US ambassador Richard Verma was given rare permission to travel to Arunachal Pradesh. Now, when it is already vulnerable about Taiwan, a visit to the state, which China claims as an extension of South Tibet, will lead to more raucous protests from Beijing.

China usually is circumspect and has long-term policy visions, but over both Taiwan and Tibet it is ultra sensitive. With an unknown individual ready to shake up the Washington consensus China remains nervous. Moreover, it has been closely monitoring the growing warmth in India-China ties and believes the US is using New Delhi to balance China’s clout in the Asia-Pacific region.

All this does not bode well for relations between the two Asian giants. China is also aware that Modi is not the run of the mill Indian leader, and can take extraordinarily bold decisions and can even be adventurist if required.

China’s one-road-one-belt policy is hard to resist for most countries in the neighbourhood. Everyone needs funds for infrastructure, whether it is Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal or the Maldives. China’s footprints are writ large around India’s neighbourhood. This is of concern to India. But India’s frustration should not lead to arm-twisting of smaller neighbours. 

What it needs instead is a viable development alternative, something much more than the Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec). So long as China is flushed with funds, its influence in the region will remain intact. But as many economists predict, China is living in a bubble and chances of the bubble bursting in the next couple of years are high. Without the abundance of cash, Beijing’s competitiveness will dim for awhile. India needs to think of a viable option to carry its neighbours with it. 2017 is likely to be an interesting year as the Trump presidency plays out its cards. India is hoping it will gain in the process

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