Beijing seems set to miss another opportunity to change the cold wind that blows through its bilateral relationship with New Delhi. The Chinese foreign ministry indicated it would continue to block India’s attempts to sanction Masood Azhar. Just to rub it in, the ministry also indicated it would continue to oppose India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Superficially these are both about China’s closeness to Pakistan, arguably Beijing’s closest thing to an ally in the international system. But they are also further evidence, along with China’s opposition to India’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat, that Beijing is more than willing to be seen as an active and open opponent to India’s global aspirations.
India-China relations should not be seen as being in a state of crisis. They are competitive, and increasingly so, but in a largely well-managed way. The India-China border is in a permanent state of friction, but one both have designed not to catch fire. The two governments work together opportunistically in areas like climate change, some trade issues and in emerging economy fora like Brics. The two Asian giants have impermanent interests in common and so have impermanent points of cooperation as well.
The problem, as is increasingly apparent, is that with India’s power trajectory beginning to mimic that of an earlier China the traditional policy of administrative band-aids will struggle to bind down the widening geopolitical differences between the two countries.
China is increasingly abandoning its earlier stance of trying to publicly stay aloof from India-Pakistan differences. New Delhi is taking harder stances on issues, like endorsing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, that ruffle Beijing’s core concerns. This new-found openness means official differences these days become reflected in hostility in the public opinion of both countries. Over time, this will make bilateral relations even more difficult to handle. It now seems clear that both countries will become ever more vociferous in their criticism of areas that no common ground can be found — most of which touch Pakistan in some way. India will seek to play a deck of geopolitical cards that include Japan and the United States. China, ever more confident of its superpower status, is likely to ignore such gambits.
In the meantime, the two countries are beginning to see a nascent but fast-growing investment relationship. They may also start to see some genuine interoperability in areas like climate change as their clean energy programmes pick up steam. But India and China are set to ride a roller-coaster of relationship in the coming years. The trick will be to keep it from going off the track, despite ups and downs, before the two reach a certain plateau in their own geopolitical development.