Almost unnoticed in the general hurly burly, senior commanders of India and China have had a meeting on the border with the aim of reinforcing the structure of peace and tranquility, and strengthening existing confidence-building measures. Their meeting was part of an ongoing series that brings together military commanders at regular intervals, to exchange views, keep relations in good repair and ensure that there should be no unwonted difficulties. So well established is this process that it takes place without undue fuss and bother, part of a regular routine that serves to reassure both sides.
The India-China border has not been disturbed for many years even while political relations have had their fluctuations. Such border tranquility is not something that came about on its own and is the result of sustained effort by the two countries which have succeeded in reducing friction and establishing conducive border management practices. Better communication between the militaries and well-thought out measures to avert possible misunderstanding have helped, as for instance the agreement on the eastern border in Arunachal Pradesh to keep deployed troops outside “eyeball range”, thereby reducing the risk of inadvertent incidents. Though the border itself remains unresolved it is calm, and both sides have ensured that this should be so.
While the situation on the ground is carefully managed, political differences between the two countries can crop up, leading sometimes to testy political exchanges. The latest, such a matter that has been much discussed in recent days, was India’s decision to permit a visit by a Uighur dissident to attend a conference in India. China expressed its resentment and the matter became more complicated when the visa was rescinded — even now the issue continues to reverberate, with contested statements from the Indian authorities and the organisers about whether or not the event was held at all. Yet what could have escalated into a nasty exchange of recriminations has been kept under control by the restrained official response from both sides, and the recent round of border talks was able to conclude on a positive note, with the two sides expressing satisfaction not only at the situation along the border itself but also at the general state of the bilateral relationship.
This is not to suggest that the two countries see eye to eye on everything, or even on many of the most significant issues before them: Asia is in the process of change, with new concepts and ideas demanding a response, and this can present new challenges that can be divisive in their effect. The important mover of change is China which, after some decades of extraordinary economic transformation at home, is now stretching its wings further and promoting far-reaching developments that can transform other parts of the continent.
The revived Silk Road concept is a major initiative in that direction, digging as it does into dimly recalled history to try to develop modern-day trade and economic connections that straddle the continent. Already some sections of this notional thoroughfare dating back to medieval times have been identified and connected, and long-distance carriage of goods between far-flung regions once connected by the Silk Route has become feasible. In the earlier era India was very much part of the wide-ranging Asian caravan trade, as revealed by the extensive remains in the cities and oases of Central Asia. Overland movement of goods from southern China to India also took place, and there was a lively exchange of goods between the two regions. Looking to these past commercial links, it is evident that India can have an important interest in the revival of the ancient trading connections, as an active participant in expanding regional growth and prosperity.
There is a maritime dimension to China’s present thrust outwards which can raise some difficult questions. Here, too, the roots are ancient, for China once had a formidable naval presence in the Indian Ocean and its littoral, but in this case there can be no seamless revival of the re-imagined past to conform to present-day aspirations. There are rival sovereign claims over the seas, especially the South China Sea, and where they are backed by sabre-rattling measures, as China has done from time to time, the situation can become fraught and tense. Though the South China Sea is somewhat removed from India, developments in India’s near waters, where the Chinese naval presence has been growing, is constantly under India’s watchful eye.
Nor is China the sole, or even the most prominent, agent of regional change, for the US with its new-found doctrine of a “pivot” to Asia now bids to raise its profile significantly in the region, with a potential impact on regional alliances and associations. Fresh rivalries between these two countries have taken shape on a number of issues where their respective views and plans do not harmonise, and something of a “Great Game” between them is sometimes discerned by observers of the Asian scene. What draws attention is the clash of contending ideas promoted by some of the leading actors. The US seeks partnerships among the democratic countries, while China strives to develop mutual economic advantage with historical associates that are now re-emerging. Relations between these two principals can be edgy but they can also cooperate on many matters of shared interest that bring them together.
At the same time, there are other major countries in Asia that cannot be left out of the picture, Japan prominent among them, but none of these is currently identified with a singular idea or cause — there is no Japanese pivot or Silk Road. Nor is India similarly identified with an overarching message. Earlier, in its dealings with the post-war world, the dominant idea associated with India was non-alignment, but that is a concept that appears to have run its course, to judge from the lack of creative thinking it generates today even in its country of origin. Yet it has been argued that non-alignment is not the irrelevance that some would wish to believe; its global significance may have been reduced but regionally, and especially in the Indian Ocean region, non-alignment can still be regarded as an important element of Indian policy.
In this play of rival concepts taking shape in Asia, one should not lose sight of an ambitious Indian initiative known as the “Mausam Project”, a concept aimed at developing links between countries that experience the annual monsoon. These countries have much in common and can benefit from close association among themselves. However, having come up with the idea India has done little to take it forward, maybe there is room for it in the current quest for bigger, cementing ideas in Asia.
The Statesman / India
Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2016