Recent Sino-Indian military disengagements on the border have raised hopes of India returning to equilibrium in its foreign policy with China after a deadly clash between troops in February this year
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s visit to India on March 19, his first foreign visit after assuming office, was preceded by the first “Quad” summit. And Austin’s visit will be followed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to herald Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy centred around the Indo-Pacific. Together these events reflect India’s intensifying engagement with the United States-led Indo-Pacific strategy.
(The Quad summit refers to the grouping of India, Australia, the United States and Japan that is known as the quadrilateral security dialogue, or quad.)
Among other issues, China-India border tensions in 2020 are cited as the reason for the accelerating drift in India’s worldview which otherwise remains woven around its twin doctrines of “multialignment” and “strategic autonomy” – new forms of its historic nonalignment policy. Understandably, these events have caused concerns among China’s foreign policy analysts, especially among its India watchers.
However, recent Sino-Indian military disengagements on the border have raised hopes of India returning to its quintessential equilibrium in foreign policy. Most aptly, this return to equilibrium is expected to be reflected in Chinese leaders’ much anticipated visit to India later this year to attend the BRICS (emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit.
Besides, with the Covid-19 pandemic – which also complicated Sino-Indian ties – beginning to recede, the new focus on vaccinations has revived the centrality of China’s supply of active pharmaceutical ingredients to India and how China has contributed to India becoming the “pharmacy of the world”. Also, there are thousands of Indian students studying medicine in China and most of them are now gearing up to return to Chinese universities to continue their education. As such, healthcare could become the next critical “connect” synergising post-pandemic China-India equations.
This is not, of course, to deny that post-pandemic China has emerged as a much stronger economic powerhouse, achieving 2.3% growth in 2020, with its GDP now standing at a whopping US$15.5tril (RM64.3tril) while much of the world, including the United States, European Union member states and India, have experienced major economic contractions. This has triggered new anxieties about a China-led, post-West-dominated world order arriving earlier than expected.
But despite these apprehensions, the reality of China’s economic engagement remains far too deep and wide to ignore. Even in 2020, despite US-China trade tensions and mutual accusations, China’s investment in the healthcare sector in the United States showed an upward swing.
As for India, China remains the largest source of its imports and this is not likely to change anytime soon. The recent “post-disengagement” rethink of some of India’s restrictions placed on China’s investments last year has already resulted in the formation of a committee to review which restrictions that can be lifted or relaxed.
China remains deeply entrenched in India’s e-commerce, pharmaceutical and chemical sectors, start-ups and select infrastructure projects. As engines of global growth, the two countries’ bilateral economic cooperation should only deepen further.
Indeed, the whole world has begun to realise the limitations of last year’s hype about decoupling from China-centric supply chains and expecting multinational companies to shift their production facilities out of China. Some of this high-input, low-value added manufacturing was already being shifted to more cost effective destinations with lower labour costs – but that was bound to happen with China’s rising per capita income, its shift to high-tech sectors and pursuit of high-end technologies.
This reassessment of China is already reflected in the Biden administration seeking to reclaim global leadership by reviving US alliances and partnerships, including with Beijing. This creates more familiar atmospherics for India’s search for a post-border-tension equilibrium with China and to start their next chapter in confidence-building to suit their changed global power profiles.
As their core commanders’ disengagement talks move forward from Pangong Lake to Gogra-Hot Springs on the disputed Sino-Indian border – along with the regular oversight by their foreign ministries’ Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs – China and India are inching closer to reviving their fascinating informal summits.
Something that was not publicised last year was how, as China and India went around the world providing healthcare support, neither side was seen undercutting the other’s efforts.
This showed once again that the world is big enough to accommodate both the emerging Asian giants. With much of the developed world battered by the pandemic, it is time for the two neighbours to streamline their mutual equations to fulfil their historic mandate in crafting post-pandemic global resilience.