Indian Decade

The China Big Picture

India shouldn’t see its developing relationship with Vietnam simply as a way of countering China.

A few months ago, I wrote about the Indian ‘truck’ and the Chinese ‘Ferrari,’ and argued that the media in and outside India wastes too much time focusing on India-China rivalry. Indeed, many in the Indian establishment, including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have openly rubbished the idea that India and China are inevitably going to be rivals. But while senior Indian policymakers have noted that the world is big enough for both countries, the question remains whether China’s leadership sees things the same way.

The recent spat between the two countries over India’s exploring energy reserves with Vietnam in the South China Sea certainly raises some doubts. Even if it’s the Chinese media that has hyped the differences between India and China, it would still have been useful for someone from the Chinese establishment to go on record to defuse tensions.

Doing so is ever more important bearing in mind the growing economic ties between the two countries. And, to be fair, there are some encouraging signs that both sides recognize what is at stake economically. The two countries recently held their first-ever Strategic Economic Dialogue, an idea first proposed by Singh, during which the two sides held in-depth discussions on water and energy, among other subjects. After a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, it was announced that a second round of talks would be held within six months, rather than waiting the previously anticipated year.

It’s also worth mentioning that recent territorial disputes notwithstanding, the two countries have also been able to find common ground over issues such as climate change, when Beijing and Delhi found common cause during UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

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But the potential for conflict persists, especially with India increasingly looking for opportunities in Asia, and it can only be hoped in Delhi that Beijing will offer India the leeway in exploring East Asia the same way that Delhi has stayed quiet as China has expanded its interests in the region and beyond.

One problem may be that China simply isn’t used to India’s more assertive diplomatic stance, which has been pursued not only with Vietnam, but also Mongolia. For years, India’s diplomacy has been reactive, and tied to domestic considerations. But Manmohan Singh’s government has brought out a paradigm shift in this regard. In spite of failing on the domestic front, the United Progressive Alliance government has taken some bold and astute policy steps. In particular, overtures towards Afghanistan and Iran in the west, Bangladesh to the east, and Vietnam in Southeast Asia have conveyed a clear message that India has learnt from some of its past mistakes and is willing to be more pro-active.

All this means that India needs to take a broad approach to its foreign policy. One of the biggest mistakes Delhi could make would be to see the Indo-Vietnam relationship as simply a means for countering China. If it did, it would be no better than the much-criticized China-Pakistan relationship, which seems to be as much about circling India as anything else.

India’s policymakers need to stick with the big picture, not tit-for-tat.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.