The stand-off between Asian powerhouses India and China in the Doklam plateau has not only challenged the contours of a cordial bilateral relationship but, if not dealt with properly, may also signal the beginning of the end of the shared dream of the Asian Century.

After the Sino-Indian War of 1962, relations between both countries went into hibernation for 26 years, only to awaken when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China in December 1988. During that visit, Deng Xiaoping, one of the most powerful figures in China at that time, famously told Gandhi that “Only when China and India have developed will [emphasis added] a real Asian century emerge. I have high hopes and great optimism for the prospects of China-India relations!”.

And relations did improve. Over the next few years, India-China came close, among other things, to secure and defend the interests of developing countries at climate change negotiations. In 2006, the two emerging economies came together again, to set up the BRICS grouping along with similar economies – Brazil, Russia and South Africa. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014, and the New Development Bank under the aegis of BRICS in 2015, marked the beginning of a new era of the world economic order.

Despite the fact that the two countries shared an unsettled boundary and a trade-deficit favouring China, both countries were moving ahead in a synchronised manner to claim the leadership role in the promised “new world order”.

Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi and President Xi Jinping in Beijing seemed determined to further strengthen the bilateral relationship. Xi’s visit to India in September 2014 and Modi’s visit to China eight months later was viewed as cementing the bond between the two Asian giants. During Modi’s visit to China, the Chinese media and analysts saw “new hope” in India-China relations.

However, the current stand-off in Doklam that started after Indian troops confronted a Chinese road-building team in Bhutanese territory has the potential to dismantle the efforts of successive governments in both countries over the years.

(Photo credit: AFP).

Global ambitions

It is clear that both India and China have global ambitions. Xi’s Chinese Dream, a call for national rejuvenation, and China’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative is designed to accelerate the realisation of the nation’s two centenary goals – in time for the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Communist Party of China (in 2021) and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (in 2049).

Similarly, Modi’s Make in India and New India initiatives, among others, are aimed at changing the fortunes of India for the better. India is also striving for membership of coveted organisations like the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. These will entrust India with political power at the international stage and enable her to play a constructive role in safeguarding the rights and interests of developing countries.

It is evident that the path to rejuvenation of both countries will cross at some points. Their interdependence, admittedly to a varying degree, necessitates that self-help gives way to mutual cooperation. The power dilemma nevertheless keeps both New Delhi and Beijing from supporting each other. This refers to a situation when one state is wary of another state gaining political power by acquiring membership of coveted international organisations or by making strategic partnerships with different states across the globe by virtue of its economic heft and enlarging its sphere of influence.

While China is opposed to India’s claim to membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the United Nations Security Council, India views China’s Belt and Road initiative with suspicion. It sees it as an attempt by Beijing to project its power outwards while also severely undermining India’s territorial integrity. This is what has deterred New Delhi to come forward and embrace it.

However the nature of the contemporary Indo-China relationship makes it difficult for both nations to settle in for the long haul at Doklam. Statistics show that India-China bilateral trade amounted to $71.18 billion in 2016, but is tilted in favour of China with a trade deficit of $ 47.68 billion. China has become one of the fastest growing sources of Foreign Direct Investment in India – it ranked 17th in 2017 with a total investment of $ 1.6 billion. Speaking in Parliament earlier this month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj highlighted China’s contribution to India’s growing economic might.

Internationally, the forces of protectionism are on the rise, clipping the wings of globalisation. Globalisation has benefited both India and China immensely. At this point, New Delhi and Beijing cannot afford to engage in a tussle that will invariably undermine their growth trajectories. If an Asian century ends before it even dawns, the existing Western powers will undoubtedly benefit.

If relations do not improve, questions should also be raised about the reliability and objectives of various confidence-building mechanisms between the two countries. Efforts should then be made to overhaul the existing system to ensure that similar situations, which have the potential to derail bilateral relations, are avoided in the future.

Finally, if the current environment of mutual suspicion and the probability of a confrontation continues, one wonders about the lofty claims of personal rapport between Modi and Xi. Has the leadership also failed to avoid this face-off? It may be possible to still downplay the possibility of a war but it is difficult to overlook the damage this stand-off has done to the bilateral relationship between the two countries, and to the dream of the Asian Century.

Rajiv Ranjan is assistant professor at the Shanghai University’s College of Liberal Arts.