Paradigm shift in India-China relations: from bilateralism to multilateralism.

Author:Singh, Swaran
Position:Sino-Indian Relations - Report

"The world has enough for both of us" has come to be a regular refrain of Chinese and Indian leaders. Even academic commentaries sometimes use this argument to explain why Asia's two fastest growing economies and increasingly dynamic billion-plus-strong societies will not clash as they pursue peaceful development. Their relationship continues to be examined in simplistic dichotomies of competition or cooperation, rivals or partners, friends or foes, etc., ignoring the complex nature of their evolution and interactions. This paper argues that their continued rapid economic growth and resultant ever-expanding engagement with the external world is not completely innocent, and that their growth has begun to influence their bilateral relations. Prima facie, multilateral forums provide China and India with a relatively neutral playground in which the two countries have gradually begun to decipher their stronger commonality of interests in addressing their regional/global challenges within multilateral settings. This expanding mutual trust and understanding at the multilateral level is expected to have a positive impact on the nature of their historically complicated bilateral equations. No doubt, their difficult bilateral engagement also impacts their interactions at the multilateral level and their mutual trust deficit circumscribes their joint strategies in multilateral forums. Yet, on balance, contemporary Sino-Indian relations seem to mark a clear shift in the center of gravity from a bilateral to a multilateral matrix. This shift is now discernible enough to stand scrutiny and also to guide the future direction of Sino-Indian equations.


No single nation-state, however powerful, can successfully tackle its security and developmental challenges without engaging in multilateral partnerships. Given the nature of emerging challenges of national development and security, even bilateral relations have to be increasingly located in multilateral settings. Especially as emerging powers begin to engage in new global challenges like terrorism, climate change, energy security and global economic recovery, new disjunctions in the international system threaten an uncertain future.

But while multilateralism may be relatively easy and effective in engaging problematic actors and issues, it has its own fault lines. Multilateralism is generally a misfit for making quick responses and building consensus. This can circumscribe even bilateral initiatives. Multilateralism also carries historical baggage. Emerging nations feel restricted by dated yet influential regional and global norms rooted in post-Second World War multilateral frameworks. (1) The largest and most visible frameworks--the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions--have themselves been the subject of debate for several decades, though the international community has yet to propose viable alternatives or identify options for structural reform of existing multilateral frameworks. Meanwhile, commitment of member states to such frameworks and their norms provides at best only a minimum guarantee of circumspection; it often does not define national policies. If anything, the rising tide of multilateralism often makes these powers skeptical of existing norms. Bilateralism, more often, remains the mainstay of emerging powers' newfound interest in multilateralism. While outwardly expressing support for multilateralism, most states continue to work on a bilateral basis to support multilateral discussion and have a fallback position if multilateralism does not deliver. These trends in multilateralism suggest that successful multilateral action largely depends upon issues of multilateral concern having been discussed first in bilateral channels. The resolution of at least some of the contentions at the bilateral level allows discussion at the multilateral level to focus on specifics. (2) This is especially true of Asia, whose participation and influence in post-Second World War multilateral institutions have been either minimal or tied to their relations with P5 countries, i.e., permanent members of the UN Security Council. Moreover, as Asia began to evolve its approach to multilateralism as it did in the post-Cold War era, Asian multilateralism has fallen hostage to the nature of bilateral equations among its major powers, China and India, which are seen as having a major role in molding Asian multilateralism.

Rising China and India's participation in multilateral forums remains intertwined with their complicated bilateral relations. But their ever-expanding engagement in multilateral forums is also influencing the nature of their bilateral interactions. It is the contention of this article that the center of gravity in India-China relations has moved from purely bilateral to multilateral interactions and that these two parallel streams are often merging and influencing each other, the result of which has been, on balance, positive. Prima facie, while "closer engagement between these two Asian giants" is seen as "a key element for ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in Asia," their expanding interface in multilateral forums is expected to provide an even greater positive spin-off to their bilateral perceptions and policies. (3) It is against this backdrop of a rapidly changing Asian landscape that this paper seeks to examine the evolving multilateral nature of India-China relations and the implications for their complicated bilateral equations.


Sino-Indian engagement within a multilateral framework has been fairly successful in sustaining mutual peace between the two countries and in avoiding serious confrontation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced during Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to New Delhi in December 2010 that, even though Wen had last visited New Delhi only in April 2006, Singh had met Wen and President Hu Jintao about twenty times in the last five years. (4) Similarly, Indian foreign minister S. M. Krishna's April 2010 visit to Beijing was his first visit, but was his fifth meeting with Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi. The two were to meet again in October 2010 (in Hanoi for the East Asia Summit) and in November 2010 (in Wuhan for a trilateral Russia-China-India meeting). Indian and Chinese leaders meet regularly in multilateral settings and their evolved positive chemistry reflects in their bilateral initiatives. As a result, in spite of both sides perceiving each other lukewarmly and each paying minimum lip service to the other, their interactions have always maintained mutual courtesies.

As China and India rose in influence and began moving beyond their bilateral ties and molding an emergent Asian multilateralism, they were expected to clash in Southeast Asia over their engagement with the tiger economies. However, the two have so far managed to orchestrate their tango with only minor and rare irritations. The fear, of course, has not disappeared and there is no dearth of commentaries on India joining the U.S. camp to contain China or China continuously supporting Pakistan to keep India tied down in South Asia, leaving Beijing free to expand its access and influence across Asia. (5)

But both countries have been able to use various forms of multilateralism to facilitate bilateral relations. China's Shanghai Five (later Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) is cited as the first experiment in which China successfully used a multilateral forum to facilitate bilateral (Sino-Russian) relations. (6) When it comes to India, the record is less impressive, but even sober analysts believe that, using multilateralism, India can be an effective partner in the socialization of the Chinese power elite. In addition to putting restraints on Chinese behavior through multilateral forums, India can, in a limited way, represent and encourage democratic initiatives by Beijing at home. This is especially so because India presents a case of realizing democracy before reaching full development. It is also interesting to underline that India and China have, both independently and together, been campaigning for democracy in multilateral forums. It remains their common aspiration to democratize regional and international relations. In forums like the Russia-China-India...

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