The India-China relationship is structured both by the economic promise of the future and the legacies of the past. Globalisers envisage that close economic ties between the two Asian giants will have a decisive influence on the world economy as the epicentre of global trade moves to the Asia-Pacific region. Conservative analysts, however, prefer to represent the relationship purely in strategic terms, seeing China’s ambitions as being essentially hegemonic. They see its foreign policy as practising a form of encirclement to contain India.
Bilateral developments tend to uncannily reflect those divides. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted President Xi Jinping last September with a view to inviting greater Chinese investment, but the visit was marred by simultaneous PLA incursions in Ladakh. Much has transpired since. India decisively moved closer to the United States, signing a joint strategic vision on the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. Mr Modi is due to visit Beijing before he completes a year in office. The Chinese side attempted to set the tone for the upcoming summit through remarks by foreign minister Wang Yi this week. While interacting with the Press on China’s foreign policy, Mr Yi reiterated the importance of bilateral ties, and exhorted the Chinese ‘dragon’ and the Indian ‘elephant’ to work for the “early revitalisation of two oriental civilisations, the common prosperity of two emerging markets and the amicable coexistence of two large neighbours”. He also framed the border dispute in slightly more positive terms this time, saying it had been “contained”, and pointed to progress in negotiations even if the “going is tough”. He made the case for strengthening bilateral cooperation in order “to enable and facilitate the settlement of the boundary question”.
These are useful forms of signalling that India will appreciate, particularly as it recognises the importance of ties with Beijing, notwithstanding greater strategic convergence with the US. India ought to be able to emulate the US, which is able to skilfully differentiate its concerns about the rise of China from the agenda of pursuing the opportunities it affords. Apart from big issues of investment and border negotiations, India and China need to have greater understanding of each other’s position on maritime strategy, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to name a few issues. India hopes that the tenor of Mr Yi’s statements will stay, at least till Mr Modi’s journey to China.