Once the sensitive anniversaries in 2019 are over and if there’s a truce in US-China ties, expect Beijing to return to familiar tactics aimed at keeping India off balance.
Jabin T Jacob
India-China relations went through a year of relative calm in 2018. This was the result of the so-called Wuhan Spirit — after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in the Chinese city in April to attempt to sort out tensions in the ties following the several months-long standoff in Doklam (Dolam) in Bhutan in mid-2017.
However, this respite must be considered unusual given the goal that China under Xi has set itself of racing to the top of the global hierarchy seeking to overcome both the United States and the international order informed by democratic, liberal ideals — and India is certainly a stakeholder in the latter. The respite, however, came about because of a confluence of interests — the Chinese were under pressure from the trade war initiated by the US and in India, Modi needed to focus on domestic politics with just concluded state elections, and general elections next year.
While the 90-day truce in the trade war called by the US and China at the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires may or may not be extended, what is certain is that Beijing will eventually return to its confrontational path. For India, the ability to counter will depend really on both sustained economic growth, including jobs growth as well as domestic political stability in the wake of the general elections.
The year 2019 is a period of sensitive anniversaries in China. The first is the 100th anniversary of the May 4th Movement of 1919 led by students in Beijing against the Chinese government giving up territory to the Japanese following the end of World War I. Among other things, it encouraged the rise of Chinese nationalism and played midwife to the eventual birth of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1921. The second one is the 30th anniversary of the June 4th Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. These anniversaries are likely to keep the CPC’s focus strongly on stability on the home front, at least in the beginning of the year.
However, as an ambitious global power, China must also balance its domestic and external priorities. Thus, 2019 will also see the second edition of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum, possibly in April.
After India refused to attend the inaugural Forum in May 2017 and became cheerleader for criticism of BRI projects around the region, Beijing is hopeful that the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ will ensure New Delhi’s participation this time around. While this looks unlikely, the fact remains that India’s entrepreneurs and its manufacturing industry need the volume and the risk-taking that differentiates Chinese capital from Western capital. This capital will not flow without the say-so of the CPC and that in turn depends on the nature of the relationship between India and China.
For the moment, India’s absence of the necessary military reforms and modernisation, as well as its grossly inadequate diplomatic corps suggest to Beijing that New Delhi’s bark is likely to be worse than its bite for the foreseeable future.
This suggests that once the sensitive anniversaries are out of the way, and if the truce with the US continues or US President Donald Trump likely runs into his own series of problems at home distracting him from China, Beijing is likely to return to familiar tactics aimed at keeping India off balance. This will mean continuing transgressions along the Line of Actual Control as well as sticking to and even expanding the BRI in India’s immediate neighbours and greater involvement in their domestic politics — further impinging on India’s foreign policy interests.
What is worse, India’s lack of economic take-off — the conflict between the central government and the Reserve Bank of India have also not gone unnoticed by China’s fund managers and financial analysts — and the meandering pace of its regional infrastructure projects suggest that New Delhi’s hands remain tied in terms of mounting a substantial and sustained challenge to China’s economic pre-eminence in Asia.
That said, 40 years since the launch of its economic reforms and opening up in December 1978, China finds itself at a crossroads requiring still more opening up to market forces as well as political reforms, neither of which appear to be on the anvil under Xi. Rather, things appear to be headed in the opposite direction.
While this offers India the chance to promote itself as an alternative to China, it also shows up India’s lack of preparedness for such a role.