India and China continue to be at a loggerheads on a range of bilateral issues, as China shows no signs of budging on key issues that matter to India. Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar visited Beijing recently for the China-India Strategic Dialogue, but nothing much came out of his visit. Though Jaishankar suggested that he came with “a very strong sense of commitment to maintaining our relationship” and China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi underlined that he believed relations had seen “positive growth” in 2016, it was evident at the end of the dialogue that the two sides had failed in bridging their fundamental differences. There was no change in Beijing’s stance on blocking efforts to get Pakistan-based militant Maulana Masood Azhar listed as a terrorist under UN resolutions as well as Beijing’s ongoing opposition to India gaining entry to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. New Delhi has also been left asking Beijing to explain how it can take part in the Silk Road summit being held in China when the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir violates India’s sovereignty.
There was, however, some positive engagement on the unlikeliest of issues: Afghanistan. China reportedly expressed its admiration for India’s assistance efforts in Afghanistan and the two sides explored the possibility of joint development projects. This came against a backdrop of the growing threat the Islamic State (ISIS) poses to China. ISIS released a video last week of Chinese Uyghurs vowing to return home and “shed blood like rivers” even as the Chinese military displayed its might in a show of force in Xinjiang. A rattled China is calling for greater global cooperation against ISIS, which is also a reason why China has joined ranks with Russia in a bid to engage the Taliban in Afghanistan. But even in Afghanistan, there remain some major differences as the foreign secretary was careful to underscore. On the Taliban he suggested that “[China’s] characterization was that there were elements of Taliban which are very extreme. In their view there were also elements of Taliban that can work with [the] international community and Afghan government.”
As Beijing and New Delhi struggle to manage their complex relationship, India has become more nuanced in its approach in dealing with its most important neighbor. Even as it seeks to engage China on a range of issues despite differences, there is now a new realism in New Delhi in acknowledging and articulating these bilateral differences. The diffidence of the past has been replaced by a new self-confidence in asserting India’s vital interests vis-à-vis China.
This self-confidence is reflected in the manner in which India is gradually bringing Tibet and Taiwan into its bilateral matrix with China. Shrugging off Beijing’s protests, the Dalai Lama will be visiting the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as part of its own territory, and where Indian government representatives will meet the religious leader. Chinese government has suggested that the Dalai Lama’s visit will cause “serious damage” to China-India ties, as “China is strongly opposed to Dalai Lama visiting disputed areas.” Beijing argues that “the Dalai clique has long been engaging in anti-China separatist activities and its record on the border question is not that good.” India seems to be taking it in its stride. Kiren Rijiju, Union minister of state for home affairs who is from Arunachal and is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s point man on Tibetan issues, will be meeting the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the Buddhist monastery at Tawang after an eight-year interval.
Taiwan is also increasingly part of the Indian foreign policy discourse. A three-member women’s parliamentary delegation from Taiwan visited India last week amid signals that the two sides might be getting serious about enhancing their bilateral engagement. The leader of the delegation, Kuan Bi-ling, underscored that Taiwan is “totally independent.” She said that the one China policy “is a de facto reality…We suffered a lot because of the one China policy. We have crafted a pragmatic approach in our diplomatic engagement with major countries, including India, despite these difficulties.” This visit was in contrast to last year, when India reportedly backtracked from sending representatives to the swearing-in ceremony of then Taiwanese president-elect Tsai Ing-wen. China lodged a diplomatic protest with New Delhi asking it to deal “prudently” with Taipei-related issues so as to maintain sound Sino-Indian ties. India brushed off these protests from China, saying the trip was not a formal one.
What is clear is that Sino-Indian relations have entered uncharted territory as New Delhi seeks on engage Beijing strictly on reciprocity, resetting the terms of bilateral engagement. The future of Asia, in more ways than one, depends on how the two regional giants relate to each other in the coming years. The Modi government wants to ensure that India is not the one to blink first.