The current tensions between India and China, facing each other in a military stand-off on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau, are dominating perceptions of the two countries’ increasingly hostile relationship. Yet this obscures the extent to which opportunities for cooperation between India and China exist.
There is, first of all, the regional plane, where China and India have notably strengthened their cooperation. China has acquiesced in India’s participation in the East Asia Summit and India has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. While Asia is devoid of meaningful security institutions, interlocking economic and trade relationships could knit China and India closer together.
But the two countries’ cooperation need not be confined to Asia. China and India have broadly similar interests and approaches on a wide range of international questions, from most issues of international peace and security to the principles of world trade and the ways and means of coping with globalisation. They have already begun working together in multinational forums on such issues as climate change and environment protection, and have no real differences on matters like encouraging biodiversity, promoting dialogue among civilisations, promoting population control, combating transnational crime, controlling the spread of pandemic disease and dealing with challenges from non-traditional threats to security. All of these areas provide a realistic basis for further long-term multilateral cooperation.
One exception, however, is the issue of combating international terrorism, where China’s indulgence of Pakistani terrorist groups at the United Nations (marked by its continued blocking of an otherwise unanimous decision to list Masood Azhar as a terrorist) is arguably not in its own long-term interests. But that can change, since China is not invulnerable to the siren calls of Islamist fanaticism in its own western areas.
China-India cooperation could also improve on the issues of piracy, oil spills and other international environmental issues. We share a mutual interest in keeping open the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean, since the goods that flow from there to China go past India as well. It is odd that instead of cooperating in joint anti-piracy patrols and other common arrangements, we look at each other’s navies with marked suspicion.
The same logic applies to other multilateral issues like nuclear disarmament and arms races in outer space, human-trafficking and natural disasters – all of which are issues on which the two countries could play mutually supportive roles, take joint responsibility and contribute to the establishment of new rules in the global system. Both India and China have been rule-takers in the international system and are ready to be rule-makers. Of course, this would require Beijing to be more open to India’s admission into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and similar international bodies.
Newer areas of cooperation could also emerge – wildlife conservation, for instance, where both countries could work together on issues like the smuggling of tiger parts to Chinese customers, or disaster management, where Asia’s two giants have much to learn from each other but have made no effort to do so.
Similarly, in the international economic system, there is no difference between us: we both aim to pursue long-term objectives of broad parity between the developed countries and the developing and transition economies in international financial institutions. India has strongly supported an increased weighted vote for China in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and backed China in creating the New Development Bank for the five major emerging national economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics), headquartered in Shanghai with an Indian banker as president.
Our burgeoning trade, at nearly US$70 billion, contributes to a positive atmosphere between our countries. If it grows, and is complemented with major investments in the Indian economy (which is growing at a faster pace than China’s) this economic interdependence could ensure that China has far too high a stake in the Indian economy to contemplate engaging in any military adventurism against its neighbour. There are some strategic advantages to offering a potential adversary a large market: it is more likely that the Chinese establishment will learn to see Indians as consumers rather than enemies.
I am not suggesting that India should, whether in Doklam or elsewhere, in any way prostrate itself before Chinese power. I wouldn’t flinch from recommending a military show of strength, taking proactive steps of our own to strengthen our border infrastructure and to deepen our maritime capabilities in the Indian Ocean while China is still focused on the northern waters closer to its shores.
But I would not seek conflict with China. Instead I would explore the many compatible areas of mutual interest of whose existence too many seem oblivious.
India’s and China’s broad strategic goals are essentially the same, to enable their own domestic transformations by accelerating our growth, preserving our strategic autonomy, protecting our people and responsibly helping shape the world. This cannot be achieved by conflict, but only through cooperation. It is time the two countries started talking to each other about how exactly they can accomplish that.
Former UN Under-Secretary-General and government minister, Shashi Tharoor currently chairs India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. The opinions expressed here are his personal views. ■