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Interaction with a delegation from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)

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  • November 30, 2012
    Round Table

    The East Asia Centre of the IDSA organised a round table with a visiting delegation from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). The delegation was headed by CICIR’s Vice President Feng Zhongping and included Hu Shisheng and Han Liqun. In the meeting, scholars from CICIR and IDSA held prolonged deliberations on various issues of mutual interest and a free and frank exchange of views.

    The roundtable was held against the backdrop of the leadership transition in China at the recently concluded 18th Party Congress. Therefore, much of the discussion remained centred on the domestic context of China, although international strategic issues as well as China-India bilateral issues were also discussed. Chinese speakers said that China was at a new cross-roads given its ever-increasing international importance yet having to confront international, regional and domestic challenges. The speakers accepted that the maintenance of social stability and addressing urgent political reforms were the two most important issues that the new leadership will have to confront in times to come. The situation in 2012 was similar to 1982 when Deng Xiaoping successfully set the country up for an economic transformation. Today, China has to take up outstanding issues such as political reforms and address the problem of corruption. However, reforms cannot come overnight. The Chinese believe in gradual and progressive reforms, as highlighted during the course of the past decades. The Chinese side explained that political reform in China did not mean adopting a Western-style democratic system, but was about the legitimisation of power, with a more representative and transparent system.

    The Chinese side candidly acknowledged that China’s growing economic stature has forced China to respond to international opinion about its power ambitions. Both the world and China are still dealing with how fast China has developed. This undoubtedly gives rise to a deep strategic mistrust among the United States and its allies as well as among countries in China’s wide neighbourhood. The Chinese side reiterated that despite the US’s pivot to Asia-Pacific policy, China’s relationship with the United States continues to be very constructive. Further, China realizes that it cannot develop and grow without cooperatively engaging with the world; and the world similarly needed China.

    The Chinese speakers particularly highlighted the importance of China’s socio-economic and political relations with its ASEAN and South Asian neighbours. Managing them is another challenge. China’s neighbours at present include some of the world’s big powers. It has to deal with an assertive South Korea, Philippines and Japan. The Chinese speakers accepted that China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea as well as the challenges of terrorism and maritime issues require an overhaul in its management of bilateral and multilateral relations. What is crucial for China presently is to deal with the trust deficit and accordingly utilise multilateral frameworks and strengthen its bilateral relations.

    On the issue of Sino-Japanese relations, the Chinese side opined that the fragmented scene in Japan’s domestic politics (the Chinese side gave the example of Japan witnessing six prime ministers in the past six years), the rise of the Right in Japan and the fact that US-Japan relations essentially shape Sino-Japan relations do not give any hope that negotiations between China and Japan will be easy. The Chinese speakers argued that Sino-Korean relations too have suffered due to deteriorating Sino-Japanese relations. The Chinese interlocutors believed that China’s insistence on the use of Yuan as currency in its trade with its Asia-Pacific neighbours is disturbing US policymakers since such a move could potentially challenge the US dollar’s supremacy in the long run.

    On the question of the situation in the South China Sea, the Chinese scholars expressed their confidence that neither does China want a war with Vietnam or Philippines nor do any of the ASEAN states or the United States want a war with China. They underscored the fact that the United States and China cannot afford another Cold War-like confrontation because of their deeply integrated economies. They acknowledged that China’s relations with Vietnam, Philippines, etc. had been disrupted and agreed that there is a need to address them. On the South China Sea issue, they said that China was in agreement on a consultative process to convert the Declaration of Conduct on South China Sea into a legally binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. According to them, China wants to engage with ASEAN and it supports mechanisms that promote regional economic integration. However, they rued the fact that there was an absence of a security arrangement in the Asia-Pacific. Interestingly, the Chinese side argued that China was the ‘victim’ of the South China Sea dispute, referring to an instance of China refusing to explore oil with a US company in the disputed region, only to have Vietnam instead take up the contract.

    On being asked to comment on the US rebalancing towards Asia, the Chinese scholars argued that the United States had economic and military reasons – the rise of Asian economies, strengthening of old alliances while cementing new ones and ensuring that it remains the dominant power in the region. Economically too, the United States fears exclusion from any regional economic arrangement that may develop in the Asia-Pacific.

    IDSA scholars put forward their views on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They argued that the post-2014 transition in Afghanistan would depend on the nature of the leadership emerging through the 2014 elections. On the question of the pace of the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan, Indian speakers preferred a more graduated process to ensure stability and continuity in the re-building of the Afghan state. India, they said, is also concerned about the capacities of the Afghan security forces, which, in their view, need massive and extended assistance for at least about eight years. Indian speakers are expressed concern about reviving a functional modern state in Afghanistan. In their view, the current negotiations in Afghanistan seem to be unwieldy, a case of everyone talking with everyone. All in all, Indian speakers argued that the absence of a functional Afghan state, weakness of institutions, absence of a pan-Afghan leadership and an increasingly fragmented polity, reconciling the notion of the state with the diversity of ethnic groups, political reconstruction on a non-ideological basis and the Taliban adopting a similar non-ideological stand are all critical for the stabilisation effort. IDSA scholars also pointed to the importance of the trans-border dimensions of the Afghan insurgency. In their view, a long-term international commitment, rebuilding of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and reconciliation with some elements of the Taliban are crucial for Afghanistan’s future. There is also a need to protect the existing political system, place emphasis on a multi-ethnic government and exert pressure on the Pakistani military establishment. It is in this overall context that Indian speakers argued that India must take a long-term view beyond 2014 as a development partner and continue to invest in Afghanistan, engage the next generation and encourage their vision of a ‘New Afghanistan’. Indian speakers also stressed the need to examine potential areas of cooperation between India and China in meeting the challenges in Afghanistan.

    On the issue of India-Pakistan relations, the IDSA speakers stressed that India has continued to engage with Pakistan even after the horrific 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The Indian side welcomed Pakistan’s move towards granting India Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status and argued that the economic situation in Pakistan had compelled its military and political leadership to engage India through economic cooperation. It was underscored that while the Pakistani military establishment was taking a tactical retreat, the vernacular media in Pakistan, mostly controlled by the GHQ, was still spewing anti-India rhetoric. It was also pointed out that anti-China rhetoric is also increasing in media close to the Pakistani Taliban, with many reports calling for the need to ‘reclaim’ Xinjiang. The Indian side was of the opinion that radical Islamist ideology driving the Pakistani political discourse is bound to stay, especially since the Pakistani leadership viewed extremist elements as strategic assets against India. It was proposed that China should use its clout on Pakistan to deal with such extremists who were as much a threat to China as they are to India.

    Responding to the Indian concerns and views, the Chinese interlocutors pointed out that they shared concerns about the uncertainty of Afghanistan’s future. They put forward their views that US and NATO troops should postpone their withdrawal by a year to ensure security for elections in Afghanistan. According to them, non-Pashtun forces must be supported even as the Taliban is encouraged to become part of the reconciliation efforts. As economic prospects were bleak for Afghanistan, regional powers like India and China should help create jobs for Afghan youth. The need to ensure the success of mining projects that both India and China have undertaken in Afghanistan was necessary to boost investor confidence. Incidentally, the Chinese scholars acknowledged that China’s Afghan policy is linked to its Pakistan policy. A cautionary note regarding suggestions for India-China cooperation in Pakistan and Afghanistan was sounded since such a move might make Pakistani extremists more extreme. Therefore, India and China need to move in the same direction, although not jointly, in order to support moderate, social, civilian organisations in Pakistan.

    The two sides expressed their satisfaction on the healthy and mature state of Sino-Indian relations. However, the Chinese side was not optimistic about an early settlement of the border dispute. They instead suggested improving economic relations between the two Asian powers to make border issues irrelevant.

    As the year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 war, IDSA scholars presented Indian views of the war. It was underscored that a lack of mutual understanding eventually led to the war. It was emphatically stated that engaging China, be it through social contacts, cultural exchanges, increased trade or joint military exercises, will help reduce the trust deficit.

    About the US ‘rebalancing’ policy, Indian interlocutors pointed out that the US decision was neither welcomed nor condemned by India. The Indian side raised concerns about the gap between China’s rhetoric of peaceful rise and economic development on one hand and the opaqueness of its military modernisation and defence expenditure policies on the other. Referring to the controversy about China issuing passports with Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin marked as part of Chinese territory, it was stressed that it is hard to believe that this was just a ‘mistake’ and asked China to ensure that such pinpricks do not recur and hamper India-China relations. On the issue of nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan, the Chinese side maintained that ever since China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it has engaged only in civilian cooperation. However, Chinese scholars mentioned that China was in turn concerned about India’s nuclear cooperation with Vietnam.

    Prepared by Melissa M. Cyrill and Kalathmika Natarajan, Research Intern at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.