China’s Choice: In­dia or Pak­istan?

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Which South Asian ana coun­try is more im­por­tant for China’s fu­ture? Among China’s re­la­tions with Asian neigh­bors, its ties with the coun­tries in South Asia are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be the weak­est. Now, with Sino-Ja­pan ten­sions over the East China Sea and con­flict with many South­east Asian coun­tries, the role of South Asian coun­tries has be­come more prom­i­nent. South Asia is now a fo­cus in China’s re­gional strat­egy.

When it comes to South Asia, peo­ple think of In­dia and Pak­istan first. China has an “all weather friend­ship” with Pak­istan but an am­biva­lent, of­ten testy re­la­tion­ship with In­dia. But the fu­ture is some­times dif­fer­ent from both the past and the present. Mov­ing for­ward, which coun­try is more im­por­tant for China? Even with­out a clear an­swer, just puzzling through this ques­tion can help make many is­sues clear.

In fact, we only to need to an­swer two ques­tions to know whether In­dia or Pak­istan is more im­por­tant for China. First, which one is a ma­jor power? Sec­ond, which one can bet­ter help China re­al­ize its in­ter­ests?

Which is the ma­jor power, In­dia or Pak­istan? The an­swer is rel­a­tively sim­ple — In­dia. When it comes to in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence, In­dia is part of BRICS and the G20 and is a leader of the de­vel­op­ing world through the G77 and the Non-Aligned Move­ment. In­dia is well poised to be­come a ma­jor power in the world arena.

The an­swer is even more ob­vi­ous from the eco­nomic per­spec­tive. Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, In­dia’s GDP in 2013 was roughly $1.9 tril­lion. By con­trast, Pak­istan’s GDP was only $236 bil­lion, only about 12 per­cent of In­dia’s. In 2013, In­dia was the 10th largest econ­omy in the world in terms of GDP.

In­dia’s econ­omy is just be­gin­ning to boom; its growth rate in 2013 was 4.5 per­cent. Ex­perts be­lieve that In­dia to­day is like China in the mid-1980s, poised for rapid eco­nomic growth. De­spite many dif­fi­cul­ties, there is no rea­son for In­dia’s eco­nomic growth to come to a halt. By con­trast, Pak­istan has not en­joyed the same type of eco­nomic growth in the past decade. Of course, at 1.2 bil­lion, In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion is far greater than Pak­istan’s, but even when look­ing at per capita GDP In­dia out­ranks Pak­istan. The gap be­tween the two coun­tries will prob­a­bly widen in the fu­ture, plac­ing Pak­istan at even more of a dis­ad­van­tage when com­pared to In­dia.

Though the Sino-In­dian bor­der prob­lem has to be ad­dressed, it is fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from the Sino-Ja­pan con­flict over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Is­lands. The prob­lem has not be­come a pre­con­di­tion and im­ped­i­ment for bi­lat­eral de­vel­op­ment; it is in­stead viewed as one of many is­sues that are part of a nor­mal bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship be­tween two coun­tries. Looked at another way, ex­ist­ing is­sues in the Sino-In­dian re­la­tion­ship have not im­peded China’s im­por­tant strate­gic ini­tia­tive of “march­ing West.” Mean­while, the China-Ja­pan dis­putes have se­ri­ously im­pacted China’s strat­egy for oceanic de­vel­op­ment.

Since th­ese two coun­tries kicked off ne­go­ti­a­tions on bor­der is­sue in 1981, China and In­dia have es­tab­lished co­or­di­na­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion mech­a­nisms on a va­ri­ety of fronts, in­clud­ing of­fi­cial meet­ings at the deputy-- min­is­ter level, task-force meet­ings, meet­ings of diplo­matic and mil­i­tary ex­perts, spe­cial del­e­gate meet­ings, and the Work­ing Mech­a­nism for Con­sul­ta­tion and Co­or­di­na­tion on China-In­dia Bor­der Af­fairs. It’s safe to say that th­ese mech­a­nisms rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of war over the bor­der is­sue, even though so-called sen­si­tive in­ci­dents are of­ten hyped by the me­dia in both coun­tries. By con­trast, there are no such ma­ture com­mu­ni­ca­tion mech­a­nisms for China and Ja­pan in their dis­pute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Is­lands.

Given that In­dia is a ma­jor power and that the Sino-In­dia bor­der is­sue has not scut­tled bi­lat­eral re­la­tions, China has good rea­son to de­velop diplo­matic ties with In­dia. As top Chi­nese lead­ers are de­vot­ing much ef­fort to es­tab­lish­ing a pres­ence in the South Asia, this trend will con­tinue and in­ten­sify in the fu­ture. Beijing also hopes that In­dia can be­come a part­ner to support China’s in­ter­ests when it comes to in­ter­na­tional is­sues. For China, the po­ten­tial re­wards of such a strat­egy are huge.

For a coun­try of­ten seen as “iso­lated,” as China is, it’s ex­tremely im­por­tant to have a friend that shares the same stance on in­ter­na­tional is­sues. To play such a role, this part­ner should be eco­nom­i­cally strong with some clout in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. Be­sides Rus­sia, In­dia is the nat­u­ral choice to play this role in China’s for­eign pol­icy. Hence, the an­swer to my sec­ond ques­tion be­comes ev­i­dent – a Sino-In­dian part­ner­ship can help China achieve its na­tional in­ter­ests more quickly and eas­ily.

Chi­nese lead­ers are aware of this. After tak­ing of­fice, China’s Premier Li Ke­qiang paid a visit to In­dia as part of

his first trip abroad. Li also pro­posed es­tab­lish­ing the Bangladesh-China-In­dia-Myan­mar (BCIM) Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor, a sign of how valu­able In­dia is to China. Un­doubt­edly, In­dia was the most im­por­tant des­ti­na­tion dur­ing Pres­i­dent Xi’s visit to the South Asia. It is quite rare for both top Chi­nese lead­ers to visit the same coun­try so soon after tak­ing of­fice; this was China’s way of en­dors­ing Sino-In­dian friend­ship.

China and In­dia al­ready have sim­i­lar po­si­tions on a num­ber of is­sues, in­clud­ing their stances to­ward Syria, Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in Ukraine, and the need to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. To­gether with Rus­sia, th­ese three coun­tries have formed a kind of “quasi-al­liance” re­la­tion­ship. Th­ese three coun­tries al­ready work to­gether in the BRICS or­ga­ni­za­tion; now In­dia is get­ting ready to join the Shang­hai Co­op­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion (SCO). Th­ese are the foun­da­tions for China and In­dia to work to­gether as ma­jor world pow­ers.

Un­like In­dia, Pak­istan can­not be­come a top-level strate­gic part­ner of China in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs due to its limited ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the world arena. Pak­istan is not a ma­jor coun­try in a global sense, although it plays an im­por­tant role in re­gional af­fairs. De­spite this, for a long time, China has tried to con­tain In­dia diplo­mat­i­cally by in­ten­si­fy­ing bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with Pak­istan. This formed the foun­da­tion for China to form a “strate­gic al­liance” with Pak­istan in the 1970s. As China seeks more co­op­er­a­tion with In­dia, this ra­tio­nale for the China-Pak­istan friend­ship be­comes less im­por­tant.

At the same time, Pak­istan is be­com­ing more im­por­tant to China due to the fre­quent oc­cur­rence of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in west China. Pak­istan plays a big­ger role in fight­ing ter­ror­ism than In­dia, and Chi­nese lead­ers be­lieve that ter­ror­ism will be­come a ma­jor ob­sta­cle for China in de­vel­op­ing its western re­gions. In re­sponse, China has es­tab­lished an al­liance with the SCO to fight ter­ror­ist forces in north­west China; it also works with Pak­istan to do so in south­west China, giv­ing new mean­ing to the “strate­gic al­liance” be­tween China and Pak­istan.

How­ever, Pak­istan’s rise in im­por­tance brings both op­por­tu­ni­ties and risks for a sta­ble Sino-Pak­istani re­la­tion­ship. The strate­gi­cally ad­justed Sino-In­dian re­la­tion­ship and new de­vel­op­ments in anti-ter­ror­ist co­op­er­a­tion will pose con­straints for the de­vel­op­ment of China-Pak­istan re­la­tions.

The U.S.-Pak­istan re­la­tion­ship de­te­ri­o­rated sig­nif­i­cantly due to dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the fight against ter­ror­ism. China will have to be care­ful to avoid re­peat­ing the fail­ure in U.S.-Pak­istan re­la­tions when it comes to fight­ing ter­ror­ism. Based on my own in­ter­ac­tions with Pak­istani of­fi­cials, though they ex­pressed their support for fight­ing ter­ror­ism, they would not talk much about spe­cific co­op­er­a­tion and re­sults in this re­gard. Judg­ing from Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties and ide­ol­ogy, they face some ob­jec­tive and sub­jec­tive con­straints in fight­ing ter­ror­ism. That in turn could pose a con­straint for fu­ture China-Pak­istan co­op­er­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, the me­dia will ea­gerly pub­li­cize China’s pri­vately aired re­sent­ments in this re­gard to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Of course, there are also some con­straints for de­vel­op­ing Sino-In­dian re­la­tions. Beyond the bor­der is­sue, In­dia’s co­op­er­a­tion with other Asian coun­tries such as Ja­pan and Viet­nam could have a neg­a­tive im­pact on Sino-In­dia re­la­tions.

How­ever, the cri­te­ria to judge if the Sino-In­dian relation is healthy is to see if In­dia has the in­ten­tion to con­tain China in th­ese out­ward ac­tiv­i­ties. If In­dian out­reach to Ja­pan and Viet­nam is just part of nor­mal na­tional ex­change, China should be tol­er­ant. For ex­am­ple, Rus­sia’s sales of weapons to Viet­nam will not af­fect the strate­gic land­scape be­tween China and Rus­sia.

Any re­la­tion­ship be­tween ma­jor pow­ers in­cludes both co­op­er­a­tion and com­pe­ti­tion, and Sino-In­dia relation is not an ex­cep­tion. The com­pe­ti­tion be­tween China and In­dia, how­ever, is mostly about safe­guard­ing ter­ri­to­rial sovereignty. The con­flict be­tween China and Ja­pan, as a com­par­i­son, goes deeper and in­volves the two coun­tries’ dif­fer­ing out­looks on the in­ter­na­tional or­der. There­fore, the Sino-Ja­pan com­pe­ti­tion is more prob­lem­atic as each seeks to con­tain the de­vel­op­ment and in­ter­na­tional ex­changes of the other coun­try.

As China has be­come the world’s sec­ond largest econ­omy (and will soon be­come num­ber one), In­dia has lost its edge to com­pete with China eco­nom­i­cally. The In­dian peo­ple are quite re­al­is­tic about this. There­fore, the eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion be­tween China and In­dia will be­come less fierce in the fu­ture as In­dia fo­cuses on its own growth rather than com­par­ing it­self to China. In fact, the China-In­dia part­ner­ship can ben­e­fit as China in­creases its in­vest­ments and helps pro­pel eco­nomic growth in In­dia.

Po­lit­i­cally, China is al­ready ac­cepted as an in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant coun­try, one of the per­ma­nent mem­bers of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and a ma­jor voice within the ex­ist­ing in­ter­na­tional or­der. In­dia does not seek to chal­lenge to China’s po­si­tion. On the con­trary, In­dia seeks to work with China in cer­tain in­ter­na­tional plat­forms (such as G20, BRICS, and now the SCO) so as to at­tain greater in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence. China al­ready plays an im­por­tant role in th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions and can help In­dia do the same. In this sense, both coun­tries have stronger in­cen­tives to co­op­er­ate po­lit­i­cally.

In­dia is a ma­jor power with clear de­vel­op­ment prospects while Pak­istan is a re­gion­ally im­por­tant coun­try fac­ing an un­cer­tain eco­nomic fu­ture. China has to take this into con­sid­er­a­tion with de­vel­op­ing re­la­tions with In­dia. How­ever, this is not to say that Beijing should aban­don Pak­istan. It’s also in China’s in­ter­ests to main­tain friendly re­la­tions with Pak­istan, both to in pro­mote diplo­matic re­la­tions in South Asia and to fight ter­ror­ism.

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