Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress (NPC) of the need for greater cooperation between China and India, and the necessity for resolving differences between the two countries. 

“Despite some tests and difficulties, the China-India relationship continues to grow… The Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other,” he said. “If China and India are united, one plus one will become eleven instead of two.”

Wang Yi said he was also skeptical about the narrative of the term “Indo-Pacific’” - China is more comfortable with “Asia Pacific” - and the Quad alliance consisting of the US, Japan, Australia and India. He dubbed it “like the foam on the sea”.

While stating that such an alliance (Quad) was not in sync with the geo-political realities of the time, Wang Yi said he would go along with members of the alliance who said it was not meant to target any one country (ie China).

Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Raveesh Kumar echoed Wang Yi, saying India was keen to explore commonalities between the countries, rather than focusing on disputes.

“We are willing to work with the Chinese side to develop our relations based on commonalities, while dealing with differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s interests, concerns and aspirations.”

Rise in trade

What is interesting to note, is that in spite of the Doklam standoff, differences over issues like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and China’s continuous blocking of efforts to declare J-e-M leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist at the United Nations, trade between the two increased to US$84.44 billion in 2017 (an 18 percent rise from the previous year).

After the Doklam stand off, a number of organizations spoke vociferously in favor of boycotting Chinese goods. The government imposed anti-dumping duties on 98 commodities, including certain fibers and chemicals along with a number of other commodities, as was stated in a response by the Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, CR Chaudhary to the Rajya Sabha.

The Indian government, however, realized that the narrative with regard to a boycott of Chinese goods was not a pragmatic decision. 

Recent steps

While both the Chinese foreign minister’s statements, and bilateral trade figures are interesting, given the ultra-nationalist narrative which emerged last year amid tensions between the two countries, what has also drawn the attention of the strategic community in general, and China watchers in particular, is a circular issued by India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale not to attend events being organized to commemorate 60 years of the Dalai Lama in India. As a result, the Tibetan government in exile has shifted the event from Delhi to Dharamsala.   

“We’ve lived in India for 60 years and would like to express our gratitude,” said the exiled government. “But we also understand India’s position. We took relevant note of reports and decided that it would be best if we just rescheduled the event.”

Gokhale issued the circular before he departed for his first visit to China (February 23-24), and while some have criticized his move, others feel it is a pragmatic decision and is driven by India’s national interest. During the visit it was decided to take forward dialogue, and address all contentious issues through increased engagement.

Commenting on the outcome of the foreign secretary’s visit, during which Gokhale met with Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (Indian government) said: 

“Both sides agreed upon the need to expedite various dialogue mechanisms in order to promote multifaceted cooperation across diverse fields of India-China engagement.”

Some high level interactions are likely to take place over the next few months. April 2018 will witness the China-India strategic economic dialogue. While Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan or his deputy will attend a ministerial meeting organized by India’s Ministry of Commerce to discuss WTO related issues.   

Guo Yezhou, Vice Minister in the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will also be visiting India. 

China support for India 

Apart from Gokhale’s circular, it was also interesting to see China, which was initially unwilling to support a US led motion to put Pakistan on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)  - an international financial watchdog which seeks to combat money laundering and terror financing - finally giving in. India’s support for China’s bid for the vice-presidency of the organization did the trick. Interestingly, the US supported Japan for the same position.

What is this recent thaw driven by?

From the Indian point of view, a better relationship with China helps because New Delhi can pressurize Beijing to push Pakistan to act against terror groups like Jamaat-Ud-Dawaah (JuD), and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT). While the US has also been telling Islamabad to do more against terror groups targeting India, China, given its massive investments in Pakistan, has great leverage. 

If one were to look at the bilateral context, China should seek to strengthen economic linkages with states in eastern India like West Bengal and Odisha and look beyond southern and western India. Chinese presence at the recent Investors Summit organized by the West Bengal Government is a clear indicator. China has also extended an invitation to Mamata Banerjee to visit China. 

Common ground

If one were to look beyond the bilateral relationship, there are issues like trade tariffs and climate change where both countries are on the same page. While in the strategic sphere, India’s ties with the US may have strengthened on these issues, but both countries need to work together closely.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a policy analyst, commentator and writer. He is an Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and a visiting fellow at AIDIA, Kathmandu. Twitter handle: @tridiveshsingh 

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