Time To Put Substance Before Style

China now views itself as an emerging superpower rather than a ‘developing’ country. India should take this into account
Long after President Xi Jinping has flown back to Beijing, there will remain a host of prickly issues that senior ministers and diplomats on both sides will need to bang heads over. During President Xi’s 48-hour whistle-stop through Ahmedabad and Delhi, the climate-controlled atmospherics, the fastidiously choreographed diplomatic pas de deux on Sabarmati, the thunderous rhetoric and the flurry of MoUs made for good optics. But action is always a poor substitute for achievement.

One of the visible thorns in the blossoming relationship is border uncertainty and both President Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi did reiterate a need to settle it. But beyond the omnipresent irritation of a virtual border, it is in India’s interest to resolve numerous pending geo-economic issues with China.

Shifts and moves

Start with World Trade Organisation (WTO) first. India invited universal censure after blocking safe passage of Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) at WTO’s General Council meeting in Geneva on July 31, 2014. However, China’s unprincipled floor-crossing on that day was truly shocking, after having supported India’s stand in many multilateral fora (such as G-33, G-20) and in bilateral meetings.

China’s mercurial shift could be understandable if India was found to be acting irrationally. But, on closer analysis, it seems India’s actions were justified. Having agreed at the Bali ministerial to approve TFA, on condition that developing countries not be penalised for food security imperatives till a permanent solution is formalised by 2017, India discovered that all discussions thereafter were focused on only TFA. This was contrary to the post-Bali work programme and gave India (and some other developing countries) grounds to believe that once TFA was out of the way, rich countries didn’t care much for the Doha Development Agenda, including food security measures.

But, there are some other valid reasons for India’s principled action. For one, India has a sovereign right to provide food security for its citizens, just as US has the right to buy and stockpile crude oil to provide its citizens with energy security. Two, TFA will cause a spike in infrastructure costs for poor countries; the rich nations were to provide budgetary assistance to help them tide over this unplanned expense, but the amount finalised is too low and the modalities are still vague.

Finally, benefits from TFA are ambiguous, with most gains likely to go to the developed world.

China’s sovereign objectives are somewhat aligned with India on this issue, particularly since it too has to provide food at reasonable prices for large sections of its population. Also, China has been a signatory to all the food security negotiations by G-33, a grouping of developing countries with convergent trade issues.

A change of heart?

While it’s not known if Modi-Xi talks included China’s breach of trust, the joint statement issued by both governments was patently anodyne: “As developing countries, India and China have common interests on several issues of global importance like climate change, Doha Development Round of WTO, energy and food security, reform of the international financial institutions and global governance. This is reflected in close cooperation and coordination between the two sides within the BRICS, G-20 and other fora.”

One reason for China’s change of heart could be India’s lackadaisical communications strategy; also, India’s parleys could have conveyed a message that it’s interested in cherry-picking only food stockpiling from a multitude of other development issues. This might have even influenced some of the other large emerging nations, such as Brazil and South Africa, to isolate India.

But there’s another significant development. There’s probably a radical shift in how China views itself: as a world superpower and a trade behemoth, competing with the developed countries. Hence, in keeping with this new-found status, TFA makes more sense rather than hankering for food security. While China is indeed a trade colossus, India needs to keep in mind this change in China’s self-perception when negotiating with President Xi’s men in future.

The border incursion, intriguingly timed to coincide with President Xi’s visit, is a reminder of China’s foreign policy dualism: an extended hand of economic friendship to mask the ugly face of geographic expansionism.

The second issue is climate change and India would do well to keep the new Chinese psyche in mind in future multilateral deliberations.

On the surface, both India and China seem to be on the same page. Apart from a common historical stand, both President Xi and PM Modi have also excused themselves from the UN Climate Summit on September 23.

But that’s where the similarities end. China has already signed a separate climate change agreement with US. While these agreements reduce the climate policy distance between the two superpowers, there are still some sticking points. While China and US agree that that rich countries must provide developing nations with wherewithal to upgrade technology, the divergence is whether the old labels of “developing” or “developed” need to be upgraded.

In essence, the rest of the world’s identity — including India’s — is hostage to progress of talks between two superpowers. The initiative seems to be slipping away from India’s grasp; a climate change strategy is required before the big climate summit in Paris next year. While China’s stand may be driven by thickening smog over its cities, India may have to fashion its own position consistent with its economy and stage of development.

Myriad issues

There are many other unresolved issues on the table — using renminbi as a alternative currency, India’s membership in multilateral institutions (such as Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank) and groupings (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, for example), discussions on how to take the BRICS Bank ahead, enhanced market access for Indian goods and services, are just some of them.

The lessons for Modi are clear: with China what you see is never what you get. Modi will have to take every opportunity to create an independent policy space for india, even if that requires striking trade and investment deals with Japan, USA, EU, Russia or Australia.

The writer is a journalist and senior fellow with Gateway House

Courtesy: The Hindu BusinessLine, edition dated September 22, 2014 (The original can be read here:goo.gl/Cbm3Ex

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