The Dragon and the Elephant: Communication Rebooted

Jennifer Loy

There is no doubt major clashes have affected Sino-Indian relations over the decades.  The 1959 Tibetan Uprising protesting Chinese rule resulted in Indian recognition and promised sanctuary of the Dalai Lama.  A disputed Himalayan border caused clashes with troops from both sides culminating a Chinese win in the 1962 Sino-Indian War.  Further border incidents occurred in 1967 and 1987.  Most recently, when China pursued building a road in Doklam, on the disputed Sino-Bhutanese border last year, another standoff ensued.  The Doklam Incident that began in June was quite reminiscent of 1962, but troops withdrew in August “shortly before Modi came to Xiamen for an emerging market summit.”

Borders are not the only issue between the two neighbors.  According to Dr. Siwei Liu of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, he believes third-party actors are also involved.  These include the Belt Road Initiative, the Quad, and the role of media. On the one hand, India is concerned with the growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and South Asia.  The BRI is the world’s largest economic endeavor potentially involving 60 nations and more than 4.4 billion people.  In recreating the famed Silk Road, Chinese investment has attracted many players, some of whom were strong benefactors of India.  After political upheaval in the Maldives, the island nation is looking more towards China for assistance than India.  Beijing garnered a 99-year lease of the Sri Lankan port Hambantota.  They are investing heavily in the Pakistani port cities of Jiwani and Gwadar, as well as the nation itself—perhaps the most concerning for India.  The late 2017 election of Communist Prime Minister Oli of Nepal also seems a blessing to China.  Perhaps India feels like Sinicization is closing in.

On the other hand, China’s third party actor may be with the Quad.  This potential alliance involves the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.  Dr. Liu writes, “these actors undoubtedly hope to make use of the contradictions and differences between China and India and seek their own best interests in the Indo-Pacific region and forcefully advocate for the revived ‘Quad’, a strategic alliance designed to have a negative impact on China.”  With the docking of the USS Carl Vinson in Vietnam and Trump’s recent tariffs on Chinese imports, Beijing may feel overwhelmed with a growing American presence.

Both nations also feel an increased negativity with the media, both domestically and internationally.  They fuel nationalist fervor and spread false information.  Dr. Liu explains, “his kind of reporting frequently and demonstrably results in…action traps for the respective leaderships, where compromise or even a basic explanation of positions to the satisfaction of the other is seen as retreat.Things seem to have reset.  In early March, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said to his Indian counterpart Vijay Gokhale, “‘the two sides should increase strategic mutual trust and accelerate common development based on the political consensus of the leaders of the two countries. It is hoped that India will handle sensitive issues with prudence and work toward the same goal of promoting healthy development of China-India relations.’”

In a South China Morning Post interview, Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale proves communication is consistent.  He explains that there is an existing Joint Economic Group between the two led by their respective commerce ministers.  “Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan will be in India later this week…where they will discuss how to improve the trade relations and investments between India and China.” He went on to explain that talks between foreign ministers would take place at the end of March and Prime Minister Modi will visit with President Xi Jinping in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). That March visit was a success according to Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu.  They celebrated Sino-Indian trade which reached a growth of 20.3% from the previous year resulting in $84.4 billion; China maintained its position as India’s largest trade partner.  In addition, Chinese investments in India have become one of the most significant.

Mr. Zhong, who co-chaired the 11th meeting of the India-China Joint Group on Economic Relations, Trade, Science and Technology with Mr. Prabhu, said a free trade agreement (FTA) between India and China would be negotiated in due course, which would be a breakthrough in ties.”  As this is a future endeavor, there were four other foci of the meeting.  First, the two would promote the BRI and Indian investment projects equally.  Various campaigns including “Make in India” and “Digital India” would be exploited to its fullest.  The second is to promote Indian exports to China to aid in the trade imbalance.  Next, “the two sides agreed to set up a special working group to draw a road map for developing two-way trade…The two sides supported the multilateral trading system and safeguard the interests of developing members.”  Finally, in November 2018, Shanghai will host the first ever China International Import Expo.  More than 180 countries will attend with more than 1500 companies.  “The Indian government has made clear that it would actively organize Indian business to participate in the expo.”

Both China and India are powerful nations.  Their histories go back millennia as well as their inspiration in Asia.  The modern norm has always been a South Asian following of Indian influence and stimulus, but that is changing.  As China meets the demands of trade and infrastructure, some nations are straying from India, but have not turned their backs completely.  Globalization is changing the status quo worldwide, so why would Asia be any different?  The poorer nations that once looked only to India will grow immensely having two solid partners.  Standards of living will increase, and millions of lives will improve.  Pakistan, India’s greatest concern, will no doubt be forced by China’s BRI to quit harboring terrorists.  This win-win would be beneficial to all. These meetings appear to have given both Modi and Xi a solid footing in June.  In the end, regardless of Doklam, the increase in Chinese presence surrounding India, the potential for the Quad, other third-party actors, or the concerns of the neighboring countries, the Dragon and the Elephant must not get lost in translation.

Jennifer is Research Associate at Nepal Matters for America.

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