Indian diplomats are upbeat on China, but predict problems with Pakistan

Lazy eyes listen


The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India has released its annual report, which summarises the challenges it faces with its two most important neighbours, Pakistan and China, based on assessments of interactions with them in 2022.

The focus of the document is on New Delhi’s bilateral and multilateral engagements, which primarily cast a critical eye on its neighbours, and it is intended to set the tone and establish expectations for the coming year.

The report, compiled by the MEA’s Policy and Planning Division, raises concerns about India’s nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan, as well as its “complex” relationship with China, both of which are plagued by long-running border disputes.

To say the least, India’s relations with both countries have been strained. There have been four wars with Pakistan: 1947-48, 1965, 1971, and 1999, all of which resulted in Islamabad’s total defeat. However, in a 1962 war with China, Beijing demonstrated that its military was superior to that of New Delhi.

Terrorism and Pakistan
India plans to station ballistic missiles near China and Pakistan, according to media reports.

While the report expresses India’s desire for “normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan,” it also accuses Islamabad of undermining those relations by facilitating cross-border infiltration and ceasefire violations. In 2003, a cease-fire agreement was signed along the Line of Control in India’s troubled Jammu and Kashmir region, which Pakistan claims.

It has, however, been repeatedly violated by what New Delhi describes as deliberate provocations by Islamabad aimed at destabilising India’s internal security. According to the MEA report, nearly 700 ceasefire violations were reported in 2021 up to October, resulting in the deaths of 37 civilians and 34 members of the security forces.

According to the report, India’s goal is to address bilateral issues “peacefully in an environment free of terror, hostility, and violence.” However, it also states that Pakistan continues to “sponsor cross-border terrorism; restrict normal trade, connectivity, and people-to-people exchanges; engage in hostile and fabricated propaganda to vilify New Delhi and also to present an alarming picture of bilateral ties to the world.”

One specific charge levelled against Pakistan is that Islamabad has not demonstrated “sincerity in delivering justice” to the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The attacks, a four-day series of coordinated shootings and bombings that killed 175 people and injured more than 300, were carried out by groups that included 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a banned Pakistani terrorist organisation.

Islamabad has repeatedly denied New Delhi’s claims that it sponsors terrorism, recently accusing Indian officials of spreading “baseless propaganda”.

Relationships with China
The MEA report describes India’s ties with China, the country’s other major regional rival. It accuses Beijing of trying to “unilaterally change the status quo along the Line of Actual Control in the Western Sector since April-May 2020.” Border disputes with China are described as a matter that should be resolved diplomatically and militarily.

Trade between the two countries has not been hampered by border tensions. “India-China bilateral trade totaled $102.29 billion, up 47.8% year on year” between January and October 2021. India’s exports to China increased by 38.20% year on year to $23.96 billion, while imports from China increased by 51% to $78.33 billion. The trade deficit for the first ten months was $54.37 billion, up 56.95% year on year.”

Since the 2020 disturbances, the two sides have held over 20 diplomatic and military meetings in what the report calls a “candid and in-depth exchange of views,” and through which “the two sides will continue to sincerely work towards complete disengagement of troops at all friction points,” according to the report.

China has also indicated a willingness to improve relations with India and resolve border issues. China’s new Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, wrote in a January op-ed for the US magazine National Interest that “both sides are willing to ease the situation and jointly protect peace along their borders.”

Each party maintains that their stated position is correct. Despite sporadic clashes between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army at border outposts, they are largely dismissed as “localised issues” that should not jeopardise bilateral diplomatic and trade ties.

The next step
Pakistan has found it increasingly difficult to internationalise the Kashmir issue, which is at the heart of the two neighbours’ hostile relations, at international fora such as the United Nations. To make matters worse, the relationship is likely to deteriorate further in the coming years due to a slew of internal issues in both countries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government in India has championed hardline Hindu nationalism. Western media and commentators accuse him of “authoritarian rule” at the expense of the country’s largest minority, Muslims, who constituted 14.2% of India’s population in 2011, or 172.2 million people — the world’s third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan.

Under Modi, the religious angle has been a central talking point among Pakistani leaders. Furthermore, Islamabad, which has been plagued by political instability, corruption, and constant one-upmanship between successive civilian regimes and the all-powerful Pakistani Army, occasionally deflects the domestic narrative by aiming at India.

Islamabad is skilled at inflaming bilateral tensions over human rights violations against Muslims in Kashmir and elsewhere. The strategy has worked well at home, with the general Pakistani population frequently viewing India as an archenemy — a sentiment that is evident even when the two countries face off on a cricket pitch in a neutral venue.

Given all of this, the current trend is likely to continue. Modi’s India appears to be confident enough to continue antagonising Pakistan and pursuing nationalist policies in the disputed border regions, whereas Islamabad lacks the internal stability and international clout required to resist pressure or enlist foreign assistance to push back.

On the contrary, reputed academician Kanti Prasad Bajpai’s book, “India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends,” written after the Galwan clash in eastern Ladakh in 2020, best captures the history of Sino-Indian relations over the last 75 years. He stated that “long-term conflict between the two sides is defined by four Ps: perceptions of each other; quarrels over their boundaries, namely the borderlands and Tibet; partnerships, each other’s main enemies; and a growing power gap.”

This analysis summarises a mutual trust deficit. However, with the Indian MEA report highlighting record levels of bilateral trade and expressing optimism about continued dialogue on border disputes, it is clear that New Delhi and Beijing are willing to prioritise trade and commerce over the four Ps, which could be dismissed as mind games or psyops.