The dormant differences in India-China ties have once more flared up in recent days, due inter alia to their lack of agreement on how to deal with Pak-based terrorist Masood Azhar. India has been on a long quest to bring that individual to book, for his record as a perpetrator of attacks against India is not in doubt. India has campaigned hard for suitable action at the UN and elsewhere to place curbs on him, and there is growing international readiness to back the effort, but the campaign has been blocked by China's refusal to support it ~ indeed, to oppose the effort to list this individual among those who need to be placed under sanctions and restraint. That China has adopted this course has less to do with the credentials of the individual, for whom there is no credible defence, than with the geo-political interest of the countries that have shielded him, and this is the latest manifestation of the nexus between China and Pakistan that provides a haven for persons like Masood Azhar. As may be expected, India has been indignant and has cautioned China against ignoring the growing international opinion against terrorism in any guise, but China has not been deterred, and this issue, not for the first time, continues as an irritant in the India-China relationship.
There are other recent developments that have added to bilateral complications, as for instance the implications of the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), which is the major cooperative project between those two countries and has important implications for the region as a whole. CPEC has been launched with a flourish, but as it traverses parts of POK to which India has legal title, the project has been controversial from its inception. The sponsors of CPEC have not paid heed to India's objections ~ indeed, a Chinese spokesperson said India should not be opposed to it but should itself join in.
Another issue of long standing that has once more been highlighted by China is the status of the Dalai Lama who recently visited New Delhi where he met the Indian President and also took part in a public function organized by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi. China took strong exception and its spokesperson voiced public criticism of India's actions, showing thereby that China remains unyielding on this issue and is always ready to object when the Dalai Lama is accorded courtesies that are widely deemed appropriate for a person of his status and international prestige. Not long ago a meeting for him with President Obama drew an indignant Chinese response though the two individuals went ahead with their meeting. The recent incident is a reminder that the status of Tibet and the vocal support of Tibetan exiles in India for an independence movement have been a running sore in India-China relations and the issue flares up from time to time, as it has now with the Delhi visit of the Tibetan leader.
There are some other Tibet-related issues that have also come up at this time, once more to disturb relations between the two countries. For quite some while now, China has been describing Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet, and claiming thereby that it should rightly be considered as part of China. Within Arunachal Pradesh, a special Chinese bid has been made in respect of Tawang, initially through raising the matter of its status in a series of non-official forums, and later through more formal proceedings. Such initiatives have not been followed up by actions on the ground but they do have the effect of projecting this matter as a sensitive point in India-China relations.
To be noted, too, is the more strident tone recently adopted by Chinese spokespersons in some of their statements about India, as well as actions like cancellation of visas for Indian officials from Arunachal Pradesh. China's high sensitivity to the international travels and other activities of the Dalai Lama was also witnessed in Mongolia where the Tibetan pontiff had recently been on a visit and where China made unavailing attempts to have the visit called off. India was inadvertently drawn in when its large loan offer of $1billion to Mongolia was described as a 'bribe' in Chinese official media and derided as an entirely inadequate counter to the much greater Chinese support for the Mongolian economy.
To this list of issues of open differences between the two sides should be added the cautionary warning from Beijing that there will be endless trouble if India sees development of trade ties between China and Nepal as a threat to its own commercial interests. In recent years, China has made large investments in its economic relations with Nepal, including infrastructure development, and has tried to establish alternative access to the world through Chinese territory for this landlocked neighbour. The observation about Nepal addressed to India asks it in effect to keep out of the way of growing Nepal-China ties and is of a piece with China's more active and thrusting regional policy in the Himalayan belt. China-supported development is now to include joint military drill and security exchanges with Nepal, something that will no doubt invite considerable scrutiny from New Delhi.
With all these China-related developments currently taking place all around it and in its immediate vicinity, India needs to find a proper response, for the region is shedding its historic remoteness and will be affected by the larger regional movements now taking place. Notwithstanding the occasional rumblings, of which the media is always cognizant, bilateral India-China relations are basically equable and their economic exchanges continue to flourish, with every prospect of further advance. But there are apprehensions among some expert observers that China's galloping run as global pacemaker may now finally be slowing. This could demand adjustments of economic policy, not in that country alone but also in its important partners like India, entailing a different pattern of growth as they both climb further up the economic ladder. Also required would be much greater engagement between policy makers and economic managers to help take matters into the new and more demanding areas of cooperation where they must now advance.
No less needed would be sustained effort to mitigate current problems that divide the two countries. The leadership on both sides has shown readiness to advance in that direction, as evidenced in the recent successful top-level visits in both directions. More top-level exchanges will doubtless take place in the coming months, for both sides have much at stake and have shown the intention of maintaining the balance in their relationship while strengthening mutual confidence. In these circumstances, despite the occasional setback, keeping India-China relations in good repair must be a priority task for Indian diplomacy.
(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)