Looking East and Marching West: Where China and India Meet

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Source: Flickr, Russ Neumeier, http://bit.ly/18cAaRq

By Ashlyn Anderson and Lauren Dickey

All eyes are on the meetings this week between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both regarded as decisive leaders.

As India “looks east” and China “marches west,” the timing of the meetings between the dragon and elephant powers is particularly auspicious. Although the focus of the meetings will be the forging of grand business schemes, the two leaders will likely highlight other avenues for expanded regional and international cooperation, all while tiptoeing around contentious issues.

India remains wary of China’s political motives, but nonetheless eager to attract Chinese investment to meet its infrastructure needs and narrow the trade deficit. President Xi Jinping is expected to ink a number of investment deals in industrial parks and railways this week. Today, the two leaders also set up a pact to develop Modi’s home state of Gujarat as the sister province to China’s Guangdong province. By drastically stepping up its economic engagement with India—with investment commitments expected to reach $100 billion–China hopes to gain strategic influence at a time when leaders across the globe are making efforts to woo Modi.

The Xi-Modi meetings this week also have the potential to yield action steps for increased cooperation in regional and international multilateral initiatives. While the United States will continue to play a strong security role in the region, Asian countries are increasingly looking to build up their own regional security architecture. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with its focus on security issues from counterterrorism to Afghan stability, has recently put finishing touches on procedures for new members: India, Pakistan, and Iran. With a memorandum for expanding membership now signed, India, a current SCO observer, has since submitted its application for full membership, a move intended to solidify India’s regional coordination through the SCO on security, energy, and economic issues. President Xi delineated a similar vision at the Conference on International and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in May, with China looking to India as a prime partner in developmental initiatives targeted at improving lives and narrowing the wealth gap in Asian societies. For both countries, sustainable regional development and economic cooperation are the foundation for regional security. But India has yet to decide just how much it wants to be involved in multilateral initiatives, including the SCO and CICA, when such bodies are closely steered by Beijing.

While China increasingly views India’s rise as an opportunity, recognizing common interests in the two countries’ economic visions for Asia and beyond, India is carefully balancing its engagement with China and other countries in the region. Although Modi’s development goals for India stand to gain from collaboration with China on its westward-looking projects, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor–a part of China’s larger New Silk Road vision–New Delhi is less enthusiastic about the expansion of Chinese influence in its neighboring countries, economic benefits aside. Plus, as a part of its “Look East” policy, India is actively involved in its own regional development initiatives with its neighbors and the ASEAN countries, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

A key priority for President Xi Jinping during his tour this week is to generate support for the new Maritime Silk Road (MSR), and Modi will likely use the opportunity to express New Delhi’s concerns. While the MSR would undoubtedly increase trade within the region and beyond, China’s strategy could also impinge on New Delhi’s economic role with its neighbors along the route. In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, port cities central to the MSR are seen by Indian strategists as a “string of pearls” intended to contain New Delhi’s regional reach. It is notable that India signed accords this week with Vietnam, one of China’s competitors in the South China Sea, focused on deepening security and energy cooperation just as President Xi visited Sri Lanka and Maldives.

At the multilateral level, if China asserts tight control or leadership of organizations and initiatives, India will be less likely to be an active participant. Indian engagement with China in multilateral organizations is a positive development; at the same time, such cooperation may also be seen as a means to sidestep – or even distract New Delhi from – other concerns such as China’s support to Pakistan, the Sino-Indian border dispute, and China’s influence on India’s periphery. Over the weekend, for instance, more than two hundred PLA soldiers crossed the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh to what India considers its territory, using cranes and bulldozers to build a 1.2 mile road. Indian soldiers challenged the Chinese to withdraw and promptly demolished the PLA’s road building efforts. Already, there is ample evidence that India is taking steps to ensure it does not become subordinated to Beijing’s regional sway, with Modi signing new defense cooperation agreements with Japan and Australia, and signaling greater engagement with neighboring countries.

Still, there is unusual optimism for the Xi-Modi meetings, mostly attributed to the current leadership of both countries. Indeed, President Xi Jinping remarked today in the Hindu, “China-India relations have become one of the most dynamic and promising bilateral [relationships] in the 21st century,” in advance of his trip. This week will provide a preview of what China-India cooperation might look like if the two countries can keep their differences at bay.

Republished from Indo-Pacific Review