China’s expectation that its bilateral ties with India would rise well above the border tensions and find normalcy in all other areas of the relationship is unrealistic. Even so, it pursues such an idealistic objective, going to the extent of warning the United States not to interfere in its ties with its southern neighbour.
China’s sternly worded warning that the India-US joint military exercise in Uttarakhand near the LAC violates the spirit of peace pacts of the 1990s is just another arrow from the bow of its peculiarly one-sided view of its relationship with India. An intriguing comment, made earlier by China on a “third party” (read the United States) meddling in border affairs, also showed how far-removed China may be from the realpolitik in a neighbourhood of marked border tensions.
India may not formally acknowledge that many other areas of the bilateral relationship are normal, but the reality is that there already is normality, at least in trade terms, with India continuing to buy freely, more so post-pandemic, from China. This prompted the Pentagon to comment that India’s imports from China are greater than its defence budget allocation.
In fact, the China-India trade imbalance is reflected starkly in figures — in the first nine months of 2022, India imported nearly $90 bn worth of goods, the highest on record for any three quarters, while India’s exports to China just about crossed $10 bn in $100 bn bilateral trade.
In its silence so far on the issue of the joint drills with the US so far, India is indicating what it thinks of Chinese objections to the joint drills held 100 km away from the LAC, and which are part of an annual exercise that have been going on since 2004. The objection to the 2022 drills seems to be part of a larger China view of the undesirability, from its point of view, of India moving closer to the US in a strategic alliance like Quad rather than about the drills themselves that are about interoperability of the US and Indian armies on high terrain.
Chinese thinking on India’s partnerships with the US is impractical considering that its own intransigence on the border situation and its unwillingness to ease tensions further by settling outstanding border issues in Depsang and Demchok after several rounds of military commander level talks that pushed India much closer to its friends in the West, like the US and the UK, and in the east, like Japan and Australia.
It is not as if China is the only one building up strenuously its infrastructure in the aftermath of the Galwan clashes of May-June 2020 as India, too, has been at it, though not on the scale that China expanded its border infra in the last two years.
The resolution of the standoffs on the banks of the Pangong Lake, Gogra and Hot Springs had represented progress, but as China drags its feet over negotiations on other LAC flashpoints, its latest tirade about ties is unlikely to lead to India agreeing to delink the border issue from the rest of the bilateral ties. But, at a time when its economy is tanking dues to Covid restrictions, China should be content with India as a buyer of its goods.