India's Foreign Secretary has just been on a visit to Beijing where he participated in a strategic dialogue with his Chinese counterpart. Intensified exchanges between the two countries, of which the meeting in Beijing was an important part, reflect the joint desire of the leaders to add momentum to the ongoing dialogue and speed up the effort to solve problems and strengthen cooperation. As has been frequently reiterated in recent days, this is a time of strain in India-China relations, due not so much to direct clashes between them as to issues involving third parties. The most obvious matter of contention is that involving Pakistan where India's efforts to hold that country to account in international forums for supporting terrorist activity have been effectively negated by China. This is a real concern for India, but it was not what drove the Foreign Secretary to visit Beijing: the diplomatic channel between the two countries is active and they are able to communicate with each other as and when required without sending special envoys from one capital city to the other.
The strategic dialogue could have grown out of the need to find responses to the changing global situation which has brought a number of new challenges before India, China, and other global players. Change has been dramatized by the new priorities of the White House which is trying to give a radically new direction to some aspects of US foreign policy, but even before Mr. Trump took office important indications of change were already visible. USA has been in the process of reducing its commitment overseas for some time now, in a slow retreat from its heavy involvement in regional affairs since the very active years that saw its armed forces extensively engaged abroad, most directly in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere too. As the human and material cost mounted, public support for this sort of engagement ebbed away and the government was blamed for the 'imperial overstretch' of excessive commitment to distant problems.
While US policy makers were drawing in their horns, others were advancing to fill the newly available space, none more actively than China. China is seen as the rising power, economically and also militarily, and its influence is on the increase. It has been chafing at some of the features of the international system set up in the aftermath of the second war and has already taken important steps to amend it in a manner that, in its view, better reflects present-day realities. For instance, China would like to see its currency used as an international medium of exchange, so that the US dollar may not be the pre-eminent medium for this purpose. China is also working to set up long distance overland trading routes across the Eurasian landmass, harking back to the medieval Silk Road, with a maritime version also taking shape. These initiatives have been much described and discussed, and seen as important steps towards the new order. China seeks to promote, multi-polar rather than something where one country enjoys preponderant status.
In these circumstances, rivalry between the two powers seems to be growing, with considerable international consequences. USA is still at the apex of an international order that has many adherents, especially among relatively more vulnerable countries that feel their security is best served by the established international instruments, and they may not share the concept of multi-polarity as envisaged by China. There is also some concern that China may not always be ready to play by the rules, as for instance in the South China Sea, where it is involved in a number of maritime disputes with its neighbours. Indeed, the South China Sea has emerged as a potential regional hotspot with overlapping claims and multiple disputes. Though there have been a few incidents of armed confrontation on the high seas, there is little to suggest that any of the parties seeks to try to resolve differences through military intimidation: it is more a matter of laying down markers to establish claims while gradually edging out other contenders.
The rivalry between the major contenders has had some consequences for the broader configuration of the region. China's greater assertiveness and its steady ascent have disturbed some of the others who may fear that their own concerns could be overshadowed. To try to 'contain' China may be too ambitious a concept, and it would bring unwelcome echoes of the defunct Cold War, but yet some of the regional countries may be minded to come together in some sort of alignment to defend what they regard as their common interests, including liberal democracy and rule of law. This idea came up in discussions and attracted some interest for a while, without crystallizing into practical form. What has drawn a certain amount of attention lately, in a variant of the earlier theme, is the idea that regional 'middle powers' should make common cause and thereby stand up against hegemonic tendencies of major powers that subscribe to rather different values. These concepts that seem to favour collective understanding among some of the more prominent countries of the region are obviously intended to act as a check on Chinese aspirations. As of now, the 'middle power' concept is not much more than a notional effort to balance China and may never acquire much practical significance but it shows considerable uneasiness at the continued rise of China.
The changing international configuration that can bring new combinations into being and seek alternative solutions to old problems can give new impetus to the strategic dialogue between India and China. At this time of change it is necessary that these two major Asian entities, each advancing strongly according to its own lights, should take counsel with each other, for they are countries that will be instrumental in shaping the future. Current preoccupations in India are necessarily centred on the threat it faces owing to the actions of its neighbour Pakistan in giving succor to terrorist groups and the ambiguous response of China has become a real anxiety for India. But it remains important that through their dialogue the two countries should look for mutual understanding and accommodation even on contentious issues so that they can play a proper part in regional and international affairs. This is the challenge of the strategic dialogue on which they have embarked. The areas of common interest between them are obvious enough, ranging from matters of maintenance of peace and order to enlarging the good economic relations they have developed among themselves. Now, in the changing world, the challenge is to build further on what has been achieved through many years of careful effort.
The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.