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China-India relations

Why India is walking away from its tit-for-tat China policy

Prateek Joshi says after bilateral relations hit a low point last year, New Delhi has realised there’s little to gain from a hostile relationship with Beijing. That doesn’t mean it won’t still hedge against China’s influence by nurturing stronger relationships with others in the region

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 2:39pm

After relations between China and India reached a new low during last year’s Doklam stand-off, New Delhi’s China policy has taken a sharp turn this year, in what could be interpreted as a reversal of its previous stance. In recent months, India has not only supported China’s vice-presidency in the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental agency combating money laundering, but Delhi also withdrew its support from a commemorative event marking the 59th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising. And, in a bid to stabilise ties, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is expected to visit China next month. 

The change in India’s approach has triggered a backlash in academic and strategic circles at home, with China sceptics expressing concern that Delhi was “surrendering” to Beijing. Such an observation isn’t entirely accurate.

First, it’s important to understand the factors driving this change. Last year, besides the tensions over Doklam, New Delhi’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and its criticism of Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” also significantly damaged bilateral ties. On its part, Beijing has been deepening its strategic ties with Pakistan, and it continues to oppose India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as well as its attempt to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar added to an international blacklist of terrorists. This has prompted New Delhi to look for a counterstrategy. 

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The agent of change has been India’s new foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, a former ambassador to China. Under his leadership, New Delhi realised that its aggressive tit-for-tat moves were self-damaging and could not be sustained for long. 

Meanwhile, an intensification of geostrategic competition in the region is playing out in the background. In Nepal, the Beijing-friendly communist alliance easily defeated the traditional Indian ally, Nepali Congress, in elections last November. In Sri Lanka, the running of the Hambantota port was handed over to a Chinese company. And the Maldives became a new site for strategic competition, with the current regime aligning itself with China. 

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No wonder New Delhi is correcting course in its approach to dealing with China. 

At the same time, it appears to be compensating for this tactical retreat by aligning itself with a larger regional alliance. India has thrown its weight behind the Quad grouping, also comprising  AustraliaJapan and the United States, in its quest to reshape the Indo-Pacific balance of power. 

The China factor remains a focal point in India’s foreign relations. During French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India this month, both sides welcomed a joint strategic vision for cooperation in the Indian Ocean. A bilateral agreement allowing reciprocal access to each other’s bases in the region was interpreted as a China-centric move. 

Ties with Vietnam gained traction with the Vietnamese president’s visit early this month, and the nature of the agreements once again pointed towards India’s growing resolve to increase its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region. 

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To be sure, India’s scepticism of belt and road plan has not dissipated, and it is open to entering alliances which offer a credible alternative to the China-driven development plan. The Quad powers were reportedly mulling over the idea. 

For now, India’s policy shift has raised some expectations as well. There are hopes, for example, that a friendlier attitude may earn New Delhi China’s support in its efforts to join the nuclear grouping and get Masood Azhar blacklisted by the United Nations.

Now that New Delhi is doing away with its reprisal-driven China policy and cutting down on irritants in their bilateral relationship, Beijing’s ability to deliver on New Delhi’s expectations would go a long way to defining the agenda for future relations.

Prateek Joshi is a research associate with VIF India, a New Delhi-based public policy institution. Previously, he worked on a project with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a think tank funded by the defence ministry