Posts Tagged ‘China-India’

It has been over a month since I posted anything here, but do not worry I have not been idle. To those who receive this via email, please forgive the coming blast as I want to catch up on myself a bit. Will save all the media discussions until the last one. First up is a short blogpost for Reuters about China-India-Afghanistan, very much building on the bigger project on the subject that have been a big focus of work for some time.

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A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the rotor wash of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 20, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

Landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, Afghanistan sits in between superpowers. Previously this was Russia and the United Kingdom, using its territory as a chessboard across which they would plot intrigue against each other.

During more recent history, it became a covert battlefield between Russia and the United States as the wider ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was played out. Nowadays, however, a new momentum is building behind cooperation between two superpowers whose domestic security is linked to Afghanistan’s stability.

Beijing and Delhi’s ability to cooperate in Afghanistan is likely to be a key axis through which long-term Afghan stability will come.

Both China and India are already active players in Afghanistan. In November last year, Vice Premier Li Yuanchao visited Kabul and offered a package of $79 million for housing construction in the city. Just over a month later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city to inaugurate the Indian built Parliament building.

China has taken an increasingly prominent role in helping broker peace talks between the warring factions in Afghanistan, while both countries have offered differing levels of support for Afghanistan’s security forces. China has provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with non-lethal support while India has instead provided attack helicopters and discussed the idea of reviving arms factories with Russian support.

Both are major aid providers to Afghanistan and have played important roles in the so-called ‘Heart of Asia Process’, and while current commodity prices (and the current uncertain political and security situation) have made it less attractive at the moment, both are hosts to large state-owned extractives firms who have the capacity, scale and appetite to try to mine Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attend a signing ceremony of mutual agreements in Kabul, Afghanistan November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/Files

Both have similar interests in Afghanistan — an eagerness for the country to have a stable heart of its region — and both have enunciated a desire for any peace process in the nation to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Whilst they might share extremely different relationships with key outside player Pakistan, they share a surprisingly concurrent view on some of the security problems within that country.

Cooperation between them at a more strategic level has long been moving in a positive direction – President Xi Jinping has made reaching out to India a priority, while Prime Minister Modi has reciprocated through a targeted effort to connect with China. Beyond rhetoric, joint counter-terrorism training exercises, positive border dispute discussions and cooperation on the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) all show how this relationship is one that goes beyond geopolitical rhetoric.

Yet notwithstanding these similarities, cooperation and collaboration on Afghanistan has remained remarkably limited. There have been some discussions, but little action. Both have continued to undertake their efforts in parallel while they have laid out much larger visions for a broader pattern of regional engagement — China under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision while India through the Connect Central Asia strategy. But neither has particularly addressed the question of where Afghanistan fits into this, and have in fact enunciated visions that can go around Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the ‘Belt and Road’ can flow cleanly through Central Asia, across Russia or the Caspian to Europe, or go straight from Kashgar to Gwadar, turning Pakistan in a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods. For Delhi, the investment into the Iranian port Chabahar can be read as an attempt to create a route for Indian interests and investments to get out of Central Asia bypassing Afghanistan. In other words, both are developing regional visions that can go around Afghanistan.

But at the same time, both realize that notwithstanding their ability to develop routes around the country, an unstable Afghanistan is going to be something that could destabilize the larger visions. And this is where greater cooperation is important. Focusing on playing a complementary role in supporting Afghanistan’s security forces through providing funding and undertaking niche training rather than solely the equipment provision they are currently undertaking would address a gap that the West is eventually going to want to stop providing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/Files

And this points to a larger question which China and India both seem to recognize bilaterally, but have not engaged with enough together. Both see that the West’s appetite and attention in Afghanistan is waning, and while this may irritate them and only serve to reinforce a belief in the fickle nature of Western foreign policy, it fails to resolve the fact that Afghanistan sits in their neighbourhood.

The age of competitive geopolitical games is by no means over, but in Afghanistan there are the outlines of a future cooperative relationship between two of Asia’s great emergent superpowers. Both have a key interest in Afghanistan and have a different set of relations with Kabul that if handled correctly could be complementary. Beijing and Delhi are already re-shaping the world through their sheer size and growing clout in international affairs — in their immediate neighbourhood they could direct this weight to help Afghanistan find some stability at the heart of Eurasia.

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Catching up on a lot of old posting, here is a report for my home institute RUSI that has been the culmination of a lot of work with Chinese and Indian researchers and RUSI colleagues (Emily and Edward) looking at the potential for Chinese and Indian cooperation in Afghanistan.

Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Engagement in Afghanistan

by Shisheng Hu, Raffaello Pantucci, Ravi Sawhney and Emily Winterbotham

The politics of Afghanistan remain precarious. But if undertaken correctly, regional engagement by China and India can play a positive role in consolidating security and the economy

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Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino–Indian Engagement in Afghanistan  concludes a research project which brought together influential thinkers and experts from China, India, Pakistan, the UK and Afghanistan in a number of workshops in London, Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and outlines areas of common interest between China and India in Afghanistan. The project spanned several years, starting in 2012. While participants’ opinions and responses were therefore likely influenced by developments in Afghanistan at the time the workshops were held it is, however, still possible to draw out the key commonalities and divergences between each country’s participants to map out policy ideas for co-operation and ‘burden-sharing’ between India and China in Afghanistan.

Both China and India have unique and strong relationships with Afghanistan and, in addition to co-operative efforts, both countries can play a number of bilateral roles. This paper presents some ideas for thinkers and strategists in Kabul, Beijing and New Delhi on how to help Afghanistan move forward and achieve stability.

Another short op-ed in between longer pieces of work, this time for Reuters looking at the China-India-Pakistan trilateral relationship and all its complexities. Reflects a number of views I heard on recent trips to all three capitals.

Untangling the web of India, China and Pakistan diplomacy

By Raffaello Pantucci
May 25, 2015

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

On the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, Xinhua published a rare opinion piece by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The obvious choreography of the visit and article shows the delicate balance in relations between China, India and Pakistan.

For Beijing, both powers are important if it is to realize its ambitious strategy of trade and economic corridors emanating from the Middle Kingdom under the rubric of the Silk Road Economic Belt. For current governments in Islamabad and New Delhi, Beijing’s economic miracle offers a way of helping develop their economies. Yet we are some way off before this trilateral relationship will be able to live up to its potential as the economic powerhouse at the centre of Asia.

Islamabad reaped substantial benefits from President Xi Jinping’s delayed visit to Pakistan. The formalization of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the tune of $46 billion signalled a major investment by China into Pakistan’s future (even if one takes a skeptical view that the money was repackaged old deals and multiple-year contracts conflated for a public announcement).

The current outline for the CPEC is a multistage strategy starting with the development of Pakistan’s parlous energy infrastructure and the redevelopment of its road, rail and pipeline network. A series of economic zones will be established along the CPEC route in Pakistan to attract industry that is finding itself increasingly priced out of Chinese markets. As envisaged, the corridor will not only open up China’s western regions to the seas through Gwadar Port, but also create a latticework of prosperity across Pakistan.

India has traditionally seen a close China-Pakistan relationship as a source of concern. Seeing it as a relationship that is built on the foundations of anti-Indian sentiment, hawks in New Delhi are concerned by this proximity. But the new government of Narendra Modi has appeared willing to open up a new conversation with Beijing, one that tries to look beyond these historical tensions to build stronger economic ties, resolve long-standing border disputes and helps reshape the global order to the advantage of the two Asian giants. China has also offered a direct link to India in one of the numerous trade corridors it is pushing out from Beijing — in the form of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

But underlying these optimistic perspectives are a number of fundamental problems, the most central of which is regional security. In the context of CPEC, security in Pakistan (in the form of growing sectarianism, terrorism, as well as separatists in Baluchistan) and in neighbouring Afghanistan pose major threats to the route. And while India may be interested in the BCIM as a potential concept, it remains concerned about encirclement by China through the Maritime Silk Road and the network of relationships China is building in the Indian Ocean as well as the ongoing border tensions in Ladakh. India has continued to keep China out of SAARC and Modi’s Project Mausam is a direct pushback to China’s maritime strategy, in contrast to the country’s willingness to engage on the BRICS Bank, AIIB and to work on joint projects in Iran.

And bringing the trilateral complexity of these relationships into focus are incidents like theattack on the Park Palace Hotel in Kabul. While it remains unclear what the ultimate target was, the potential presence of the Indian Ambassador and Indian casualties immediately painted the incident as part of the shadow war between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban on the one side, and Afghan intelligence and their Indian supporters on the other. Such incidents stoke paranoia on all sides and complicate efforts to try to forge a regional peace and stability.

The China-India-Pakistan trilateral relationship is a complicated one. All three need each other to succeed, but do not believe this to be the case, remaining fiercely independent in their outlooks and jealous when the other two appear to be moving closer together. On the one hand, China has the potential to act as an honest broker, offering economic investment to all while trying to help offer a platform for discussions. But in reality, China wants no part of a situation where it ends being responsible for brokering peace in such a fractious part of the world, and it continues to take advantage of opportunities to assert its dominance over its Asian neighbours. For India and Pakistan, history continues to be stuck in the legacies of partition.

Yet this is a trio of countries that together account for about a third of the world’s population and where future prosperity is likely to come from. The danger at the moment is the assumption that economic development and prosperity will resolve everything and is the goal that needs to be achieved for regional stability. In reality, all three powers need to shed their historical legacies, and find ways of ending the paranoid tensions that underlie their global outlooks. Until this has been achieved, the CPEC, BCIM and any other regional economic framework will be undermined and no long-term stability will be found in the heart of South Asia.

 

Been travelling so quiet for a while, but a longer Occasional Paper I have been working on for a while as part of a bigger project finally lands with my institutional home RUSI, it offers some practical ideas for Chinese and Indian cooperation in Afghanistan. More on this topic to come. Related, I spoke to the BBC (and featured on the Today show) about Uighurs, Xinjiang and the incident in Kunming earlier in the year. On Syria/Iraq and jihad, I spoke to NBC about ISIS online and music strategy, with CNN about ISIS leader Omar al Shishani, with Belgian outlet Knack about foreign fighters, with the Sunday Mail about plotting coming back to the UK from Syria, with the Birmingham Mail about recruitment to Syria and links to previous plots in the UK, and with Voice of Russia and Daily Beast about the emergence of the Caliphate in Iraq/Syria.

A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Co-operation in Afghanistan

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As NATO and Western powers begin to take a backseat in Afghanistan’s future, one of the most pressing questions is what role regional powers, particularly China and India, can play in helping the country to become a prosperous and stable nation.

Download the paper here (PDF)

Numerous efforts are already underway through multilateral and bilateral forums, yet the key to regional co-operation in securing Afghanistan’s future lies through closer interaction between Beijing and New Delhi.

This paper – which draws on a research project spanning a number of workshops in Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and involving influential thinkers and experts from China, India, the UK and Afghanistan – maps out specific ideas that policy-makers in Beijing and New Delhi can explore as avenues for co-operation.

Post-2014 Afghanistan will remain a major regional concern for at least the short to medium term. The earlier that China and India can develop workable collaborative undertakings, the sooner they can forge a stable and prosperous neighbourhood.

The paper is co-authored with Dr Shisheng Hu, Director of South Asia and Oceania Studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations and Lieutenant General (Rtd) Ravi Sawhney, Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation. Many thanks to RUSI colleague Edward Schwarck for his support in drafting this paper.

A pair of articles in the English and Chinese language press focused on a subject I am doing a growing amount of work on China and India in Afghanistan post-2014. It is part of a bigger stream of work focused on China in Central Asia that I am doing with Alex, but has a particular focus on trying to understand how the great adjacent powers will take Afghanistan in their stride.

A version of this in Chinese was published by 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) that can be found here. An english version featured in the Diplomat and is re-posted below.

China and India: Time to Cooperate on Afghanistan

By  Raffaello Pantucci
October 26, 2013

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Two Asian giants met in Beijing this week, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a reciprocal visit to Beijing. The focus of the trip was economic cooperation and plans to get China-India trade to $100 billion by 2015, although it was the border disputes – and in particular the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement designed to defuse tensions – that captured the public attention.

What was missing from the agenda, however, was Afghanistan, a country in which Beijing and Delhi both have substantial mutual interests and where the two Asian giants could demonstrate their ability to responsibly manage the regional order.

Next year has the potential to be an inflection point in Afghanistan’s modern history. The Western withdrawal of combat troops from the nation after more than a decade of conflict will leave the freshly constructed administration to find its own feet. While a residual Western force will remain, it will be focused on training and counter-terrorism efforts. The emphasis from Western capitals will more than ever be on the administration in Kabul tending to its own affairs, looking to regional partners to help provide support and assistance. Whether they like it or not, local powers like China and India will be at the forefront of this effort, something already clear from the fact that the two nations are responsible for the largest economic investments in the country, in Hajigak and Mes Aynak.

Yet while both China and India are significant players in the country, there has been little evidence of direct cooperation or much forward planning in considering what is going to happen post-2014. This is unfortunate, as both nations are underestimating the degree to which they will find themselves having to seek cooperation with each other to guarantee a positive outcome in Afghanistan. Neither may want to shoulder the burden of a weak state pressured by a strong insurgency, but they will quickly find themselves as the powers with the greatest capacity to exert influence in an Afghanistan that continues to have the potential to be a regional spoiler. The best solution for all stakeholders is for China and India to work together to ensure a smooth transition to some semblance of stability.

Cooperation should focus on three pillars: economics, regional balancing and security assistance. All three will be key to guaranteeing Afghanistan’s future. Whichever government takes power in Kabul after President Hamid Karzai will find itself seeking support in each of these domains.

The economic sphere holds the most obvious potential for cooperation between Delhi and Beijing. Both may be fundamental competitors in the long run for Afghanistan’s natural resources, but both face substantial short and medium-term problems in securing access to them. Practical considerations like cost, government cooperation or security and, in India’s case, an inability to directly access Afghan territory, mean companies from both countries have made huge investments in the country with little evidence of tangible outputs in the near-term horizon. Still, Afghanistan’s touted $1 trillion worth of natural resources promises a welcome treasure for Chinese and Indian economies needing raw materials to fuel growth. At this early stage of Afghanistan’s opening, cooperating to ensure a level playing field will guarantee smooth access later on and provide both Chinese and Indian firms with a less complicated operating environment.

In practice, this means getting Chinese and Indian state-owned enterprises, those making the largest investments in Afghanistan, to ensure that their practices adhere to rigorous and ethical guidelines that are supervised by their respective central governments. When competing, they should both make sure they play by the same rules and therefore set themselves up for fair competition. Moreover, exploring ways in which to jointly develop infrastructure and coordinate projects will help all stakeholders profit from Afghanistan’s mineral boom.

Regional balancing complicates bilateral cooperation between India and China. It requires that China find a way to persuade Pakistan to accept a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, with India in return demonstrating a greater willingness to accept Pakistan’s inability to manage its domestic problems and to refrain from inflaming those problems.

The key here is regional dialogue and discussion, with forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation better empowered to discuss the regional dynamics around Afghanistan post-2014. One positive move would be for Chinese and Indian research institutions to co-host a pair of conferences at which they bring together regional thinkers to discuss the post-2014 regional order. Providing policy leaders with a forum in which they can sensibly think through the future regional dynamics surrounding Afghanistan could open some avenues for discussion.

The final element of security is in many ways the toughest one, and yet the one without which neither of the other two pillars can stand. Without a secure environment in Afghanistan, economic investment will be impossible and regional dynamics will be irrelevant in the face of internal chaos. A strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) needs to be built and the onus is on everyone to find a way of supporting it until it is able to stand up on its own. Until now this has rightly been a Western responsibility – in the wake of the U.S. and NATO invasion – but now others must contribute.

The U.S. and NATO will of course continue to provide support, but China and India need to find ways to increase their own contributions. For China, a paltry 300 police being trained is an unworthy sum compared to the economic investments China’s firms have made in Afghanistan – these investments will struggle to produce a return if insecurity prevails. India does offer some military training, but it is understandably restrained given Pakistani paranoia of Indian domination in Afghanistan. The answer is a joint effort whereby Chinese and Indian forces find some way to offer cooperative training missions, or at the very least parallel ones. This will both assuage Pakistani concerns (given its proximity to China), but also double the support that the ANSF is getting from outside powers. One possible focus could be an expansion of the security forces that are being developed to specifically protect mineral extraction at Mes Aynak. The development of a national natural resource protection unit, dedicated to providing security at extractive industries sites, might both offer a local employment vehicle while help develop security for Chinese and Indian investments.

China and India are two rising Asian giants. Both have already demonstrated a willingness to talk about Afghanistan in multilateral forums and at a bilateral level. The time is right to strike and lay out a joint agenda for Afghanistan’s future post-2014.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Catching up posting for some RUSI publications I have been contributing to. Some behind a firewall and some not – for those the wrong side, please feel free to drop me a note and I can see what I can do to help. First up is a longer review article I did for the RUSI Journal about China going out using this book ‘The Chinese Question in Central Asia‘ and this one ‘China’s Silent Army‘ – this article is behind a firewall. Both books were interesting in their own way, but very different styles.

Second, this article that I co-wrote with Lifan a while ago about China, the Eurasian Union and the implications for Central Asia has been picked up by the British government’s UK-China Strategic Communications Initiative. They have translated the piece into Chinese (it had already been picked up and translated into Russian, but I cannot seem to find it anymore).

The posted article below ran in the last edition of RUSI’s magazine-style foreign and security policy analysis publication called Newsbrief. It looks at the China-India relationship using the recent border spats in Ladakh as the starting point. This is an off-shoot of the China-Afghanistan work I have been doing and part of some larger projects we have underway at RUSI. This earlier piece for the National Interest is another example. As ever comments, criticisms, reactions welcome.

Beyond the Ladakh Border Dispute

RUSI Newsbrief, 24 Jun 2013 | By Raffaello Pantucci

On the eve of his visit to India in late May, Premier Li Keqiang published an editorial in The Hinduin which he spoke of China and India as ‘two big Asian countries … destined to be together’. Running under the headline ‘A Handshake Across the Himalayas’, the piece offered an optimistic look at relations between China and India. Only one brief mention was made of the border dispute that had dominated headlines in previous months, brushing the issue under the carpet by stating that, ‘with joint efforts in the past few years, the two sides have gradually found a way to maintain peace and tranquility in the disputed border areas’. This statement would have jarred with Indian assessments of the border incursion as provocative Chinese action aimed at altering the established modus vivendi across the Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between the two countries accepted in the absence of an internationally recognised border in the region. Nevertheless, the episode passed without too deleterious an impact on Premier Li’s visit, something that senior Indian commentators have interpreted as a sign of China’s victory in this round of tension between the two Asian giants.

The incident that sparked this most recent antagonism started in mid-April, when a contingent of Chinese forces abruptly moved into the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh, the disputed Sino-Indian territory in the northern part of Jammu and Kashmir state. Somewhere in the region of thirty Chinese soldiers then set up camp in the area, apparently unfurling banners declaring that the Indians were on the ‘Chinese side’. This provocative act confused India, but quickly led to the deployment of a unit from the 5th Battalion of Ladakh Scouts, which established its own camp nearby.

In the face of substantial public anger, the Indian government sought to play down the confrontation, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describing it as a ‘localised problem’ to be resolved at the regional level. Defence Minister A K Antony took a more robust line, telling the press that ‘India will take every step to protect its interests’, while local and opposition politicians used it as an opportunity to score political points. Arun Jaitley, a senior member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, stated in Parliament that while the government ‘may have some security options, … [and it] may have some diplomatic options, … being clueless is not an option’.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, reacted slowly but came out with a universal line. In a press conference on 25 April, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying spoke of China and India as ‘neighbours yet to complete border demarcation’, and voiced her view that ‘problems inevitably arise one way or another in the border area’. This reflected the view on the ground, where an Indian officer reported that during a meeting with a Chinese official, the latter had reportedly claimed that it was Chinese territory on which they had set up camp.

Indeed, the border in this region has long been contested, and occasional disagreements are to be expected. What distinguished this act as unusual, however, was the establishment of a camp in what is mutually agreed to be contested territory. For those of an alarmist inclination, this was reminiscent of the run-up to the 1962 war between China and India, during which similar incursions by the Chinese became the pretext for wider conflict.

However, on this occasion, China seemed willing to step back relatively quickly, with an announcement on 6 May that its forces had withdrawn to their previously agreed positions the night before. A statement put out by the Indian side the next day announced that India and China had ‘agreed to restore [the] status quo along the Line of Actual Control in the western sector of the India-China boundary, as it existed prior to April 15, 2013’ and that ‘flag meetings ha[d] … been held to work out the modalities and to confirm the arrangements’. And as forces on both sides withdrew to earlier positions, the path was smoothed for Premier Li’s visit to New Delhi two weeks later.

During the visit itself, the border dispute remained largely in the background, though in a press conference Li admitted that there were ‘problems’ between the two sides, and acknowledged the need to ‘improve border related mechanisms and make them more efficient’. Prime Minister Singh concurred, declaring that special representatives from the two countries would ‘continue discussions seeking an early agreement on a framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable boundary settlement’.

Instead, much greater emphasis was placed on the eight bilateral Memoranda of Understanding signed between the two sides during the visit (covering everything from allowing Indian pilgrims into Tibet and agricultural agreements to plans to translate each other’s literature), and the re-statement that both sides hope bilateral trade will increase to $100 billion by 2015. Having achieved what he had set out to, Premier Li moved on to Pakistan, the next stop on his first international tour as number two in the Chinese administration.

From an outside perspective, the optics of the trip played very much in China’s favour. Premier Li was able to go to India, get the visit he was aiming for and travel on to China’s ally Pakistan without any hold-ups. While some pro-Tibetan protesters took to the streets when Premier Li was in town, Indian authorities kept them under tight control. And the border dispute in Ladakh, an incident instigated by Chinese forces, was carefully sidestepped.

From an Indian perspective, the benefit of permitting the trip to play out so smoothly after such unilateral Chinese action is unclear. One senior commentator explained to the author that it was a way of letting the Chinese save face, but to what end is uncertain. This is particularly so given the relationship between the two powers: one of imbalanced acceptance, in which both recognise the importance of the other, but at the same time have very different needs. It is not like the Sino-American relationship of interdependence, but rather one in which mutual assistance would be beneficial, albeit not essential.

India, for example, needs investment in infrastructure to help it achieve its growth potential – investment it has had difficulty securing but that deep Chinese pockets would be able to provide. China, meanwhile, would benefit from developing India as a market for its companies, as well as from obtaining a potential ally in Afghanistan.

At the same time, both powers have complicated relationships with Pakistan that are in some ways mutually reinforcing. China recently went so far as to tell Pakistan to mend its relationship with India, while in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack Chinese shuttle diplomacy was at the heart of defusing tensions between the two neighbours.

The question over the viability of co-operation in Afghanistan remains complex, with India concerned about Pakistan, and particularly about the latter’s awkward position as a transport buffer for Indian trade with Afghanistan. For China, cognisant that in 2014 the West will potentially leave a situation that could exacerbate violence in Pakistan, getting India involved will – it hopes – ensure that it is not the sole major power with a substantial stake in Afghanistan’s future.

Despite a range of concerns on both sides, the two countries have met a number of times to talk about Afghanistan and the potential for co-operation on the country’s future. Largely an initiative driven by China, its eagerness to talk in the face of Indian ambivalence highlights the degree to which it is China that seeks greater co-operation with India, rather than the other way around.

At a broader strategic level, both see the benefit of aligning themselves as part of the so-called BRICS grouping (comprising the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). China, in particular, has demonstrated great interest in developing the bloc into more than just an economist’s catchphrase: while Premier Li’s first visit abroad was to India, President Xi’s first visit was to Russia and then to South Africa for a BRICS summit. An alliance with India within this merely burnishes China’s credentials as a ‘global South’ power distinct from the colonialist powers of the West.

The longer-term question, however, is the sustainability of China’s approach to India. The border spat that preceded Premier Li’s visit appears to have come as something of a surprise to Beijing. Certainly its timing, just before Premier Li’s inaugural foreign visit, would not have been in tune with Chinese preferences for positive mood music during foreign trips. And most striking was the relative absence of bellicose or nationalist rhetoric in the Chinese state-owned media, with editors usually taking advantage of such incidents to publish aggressive commentary to stir up public anger and indignation. This implies that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the incursion, with some speculative commentary in the Indian press suggesting that it might have been part of an internal Chinese party struggle, carried out by PLA officers aligned with former leader Jiang Zemin. Or, at least, it points to a situation that the Chinese government was eager to contain.

All of this implies that India’s hand may be stronger than it believes. China sees a positive relationship with India as important – viewing it as a trading partner, a fellow Asian BRICS power, and a key player in helping to secure stability in Afghanistan. China may have the financial clout to buy its way into Kabul, but it is to India that Afghan politicians will turn out of preference. As one Chinese interlocutor grumbled during a recent workshop in Beijing, ‘when you Indians trade with the Afghans, they see you as brothers’ – not a sense the Afghans would share regarding Chinese traders, who they see in a far more transactional light. This and the fact that China is increasingly seen as a de-facto ‘responsible parent’ to Pakistan points to China’s attempts to cultivate better relations with India as a means of balancing out its regional position. Indeed, the danger it faces is that alone it will come to be seen as the primary vehicle for regional stability – a responsibility no Chinese administration would want.

Yet the longer-term repercussions of the Ladakh border spat remain uncertain. The willingness of both sides to rapidly de-escalate the situation suggests that this was merely a test, though to what end and by whom is unclear. Equally uncertain is who has emerged as the victor, and the nature of the larger strategic picture between the two Asian superpowers. China currently retains the upper hand, yet clearly sees an important role for India in any regional or global order. Whichever way it develops, the relationship between these two rising BRICS giants is likely to be a fulcrum of the international order well into the future.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Research Fellow, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci