China's Choice: India or Pakistan?

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Among China’s relations with Asian neighbors, its ties with the countries in South Asia are generally considered to be the weakest. Now, with Sino-Japan tensions over the East China Sea and conflict with many Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea, the role of South Asian countries has become more prominent. South Asia is now a focus in China’s regional strategy, as shown by President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the area.

When it comes to South Asia, people think of India and Pakistan first. China has an “all weather friendship” with Pakistan but an ambivalent, often testy relationship with India. But the future is sometimes different from both the past and the present. Moving forward,  which country is more important for China? Even without a clear answer, just puzzling through this question can help make many issues clear.

In fact, we only to need to answer two questions to know whether India or Pakistan is more important for China. First, which one is a major power? Second, which one can better help China realize its interests?

Which is the major power, India or Pakistan? The answer is relatively simple — India. When it comes to international influence, India is part of BRICS and the G20 and is a leader of the developing world through the G77 and the Non-Aligned Movement. India is well poised to become a major power in the world arena.

The answer is even more obvious from the economic perspective. According to the World Bank, India’s GDP in 2013 was roughly $1.9 trillion. By contrast, Pakistan’s GDP was only $236 billion, only about 12 percent of India’s. In 2013, India was the 10th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP.

India’s economy is just beginning to boom; its growth rate in 2013 was 4.5 percent. Experts believe that India today is like China in the mid-1980s, poised for rapid economic growth. Despite many difficulties, there is no reason for India’s economic growth to come to a halt. By contrast, Pakistan has not enjoyed the same type of economic growth in the past decade. Of course, at 1.2 billion, India’s population is far greater than Pakistan’s, but even when looking at per capita GDP India outranks Pakistan. The gap between two countries will probably widen in the future, placing Pakistan at even more of a disadvantage when compared with India.

Of course, it’s worth asking the obvious question: as India becomes a major power in the international stage, will it necessarily be friendly toward China? Indeed, not all major countries look kindly on China — just look at Japan. However, Sino-Indian international cooperation far outweighs the disputes between two counties. This is the point where they can carry out friendly cooperation. China’s top leaders understand this clearly.

Though the Sino-Indian border problem has to be addressed, it is fundamentally different from the Sino-Japan conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The problem has not become a precondition and impediment for bilateral development; it is instead viewed as one of many issues that are part of a normal bilateral relationship between two countries. Looked at another way, existing issues in the Sino-Indian relationship have not impeded China’s important strategic initiative of “marching West.” Meanwhile, the China-Japan disputes have seriously impacted China’s strategy for oceanic development.

Since these two countries kicked off negotiations on border issue in 1981, China and India have established coordination and communication mechanisms on a variety of fronts, including official meetings at the deputy-minister level, task-force meetings, meetings of diplomatic and military experts, special delegate meetings, and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India Border Affairs. It’s safe to say that these mechanisms rule out the possibility of war over the border issue, even though so-called sensitive incidents are often hyped by the media in both countries. By contrast, there are no such mature communication mechanisms for China and Japan in their dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Given that India is a major power and that the Sino-India border issue has not scuttled bilateral relations, China has good reason to develop diplomatic ties with India. As top Chinese leaders are devoting much effort to establishing a presence in the South Asia, this trend will continue and intensify in the future. Beijing also hopes that India can become a partner to support China’s interests when it comes to international issues. For China, the potential rewards of such a strategy are huge.

For a country often seen as “isolated,” as China is, it’s extremely important to have a friend that shares the same stance on international issues. To play such a role, this partner should be economically strong with some clout in international politics. Besides Russia, India is the natural choice to play this role in China’s foreign policy. Hence, the answer to my second question becomes evident – a Sino-Indian partnership can help China achieve its national interests more quickly and easily.

Chinese leaders are aware of this. After taking office, China’s Premier Li Keqiang paid a visit to India as part of his first trip abroad. Li also proposed establishing the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor, a sign of how valuable India is to China. Undoubtedly, India was the most important destination during President Xi’s visit to the South Asia. It is quite rare for both top Chinese leaders to visit the same country so soon after taking office; this was China’s way of endorsing Sino-Indian friendship.

China and India already have similar positions on a number of issues, including their stances toward Syria, Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and the need to protect the interests of developing countries. Together with Russia, these three countries have formed a kind of “quasi-alliance” relationship. These three countries already work together in the BRICS organization; now India is getting ready to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These are the foundations for China and India to work together as major world powers.

Unlike India, Pakistan cannot become a top-level strategic partner of China in international affairs due to its limited capabilities in the world arena. Pakistan is not a major country in a global sense, although it plays an important role in regional affairs. Despite this, for a long time, China has tried to contain India diplomatically by intensifying bilateral relations with Pakistan. This formed the foundation for China to form a “strategic alliance” with Pakistan in the 1970s. As China seeks more cooperation with India, this rationale for the China-Pakistan friendship becomes less important.

At the same time, Pakistan is becoming more important to China due to the frequent occurrence of terrorist attacks in west China. Pakistan plays a bigger role in fighting terrorism than India, and Chinese leaders believe that terrorism will become a major obstacle for China in developing its western regions. In response, China has established an alliance with the SCO to fight terrorist forces in northwest China; it also works with Pakistan to do so in southwest China, giving new meaning to the “strategic alliance” between China and Pakistan.

However, Pakistan’s rise in importance brings both opportunities and risks for a stable Sino-Pakistani relationship. The strategically adjusted Sino-Indian relationship and new developments in anti-terrorist cooperation will pose constraints for the development of China-Pakistan relations.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship deteriorated significantly due to different approaches to the fight against terrorism. China will have to be careful to avoid repeating the failure in U.S.-Pakistan relations when it comes to fighting terrorism. Based on my own interactions with Pakistani officials, though they expressed their support for fighting terrorism, they would not talk much about specific cooperation and results in this regard. Judging from Pakistan’s military capabilities and ideology, they face some objective and subjective constraints in fighting terrorism. That in turn could pose a constraint for future China-Pakistan cooperation. For example, the media will eagerly publicize China’s privately aired resentments in this regard to the international community.

Of course, there are also some constraints for developing Sino-Indian relations. Beyond the border issue, India’s cooperation with other Asian countries such as Japan and Vietnam could have a negative impact on Sino-India relations.

However, the criteria to judge if the Sino-Indian relation is healthy is to see if India has the intention to contain China in these outward activities. If Indian outreach to Japan and Vietnam is just part of normal national exchange, China should be tolerant. For example, Russia’s sales of weapons to Vietnam will not affect the strategic landscape between China and Russia.

Any relationship between major powers includes both cooperation and competition, and Sino-India relation is not an exception. The competition between China and India, however, is mostly about safeguarding territorial sovereignty. The conflict between China and Japan, as a comparison, goes deeper and involves the two countries’ differing outlooks on the international order. Therefore, the Sino-Japan competition is more problematic as each seeks to contain the development and international exchanges of the other country.

As China has become the world’s second largest economy (and will soon become number one), India has lost its edge to compete with China economically. The Indian people are quite realistic about this. Therefore, the economic competition between China and India will become less fierce in the future as India focuses on its own growth rather than comparing itself to China. In fact, the China-India partnership can benefit as China increases its investments and helps propel economic growth in India.

Politically, China is already accepted as an internationally important country, one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and a major voice within the existing international order. India does not seek to challenge to China’s position. On the contrary, India seeks to work with China in certain international platforms (such as G20, BRICS, and now the SCO) so as to attain greater international influence. China already plays an important role in these organizations and can help India do the same. In this sense, both countries have stronger incentives to cooperate politically.

India is a major power with clear development prospects while Pakistan is a regionally important country facing an uncertain economic future. China has to take this into consideration with developing relations with India. However, this is not to say that Beijing should abandon Pakistan. It’s also in China’s interests to maintain friendly relations with Pakistan, both to in promote diplomatic relations in South Asia and to fight terrorism.

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