As India’s relations with China continue to head south, Delhi will find it difficult to sustain a core belief about its engagement with Beijing. India has long insisted that Delhi has shared global interests with Beijing and must build on them despite enduring differences on the bilateral level. Three multilateral developments during 2016 have shattered that persistent illusion.

The first was Beijing’s ferocious opposition to Delhi’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group that regulates international nuclear commerce. The second was China’s unyielding determination to block Indian efforts to get the UN Security Council to designate Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed a terrorist. In the third, China has dredged up a long forgotten UN Security Council resolution to declare India’s nuclear deterrent illegitimate; in the same breath, it warned that it will boost Pakistan’s atomic weapons programme.

The UNSC resolution 1172 was passed in June 1998 in the wake of Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in May that year. The resolution called on India and Pakistan to sign the NPT and CTBT, freeze their strategic programmes and desist from developing and deploying nuclear weapons. Delhi might have thought much water had flown down New York’s East River since then, including the historic civil nuclear initiative between Delhi and Washington that ended the ban against international atomic energy cooperation with India, lent legitimacy to its nuclear weapons programme and began the integration of India into the global non-proliferation order.

China objected to the India-US civil nuclear initiative, claiming that it violated global non-proliferation norms; at the same time, it said any exception for India must be extended to Pakistan. When the world insisted that the nuclear accommodation was exclusively with India, Beijing violated its non-proliferation commitments to supply additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan. It now insists that either Delhi comes into the NSG with Pakistan or it stays outside the door.

What does this mean for India’s “shared global interests” with China? On the face of it, the proposition that nations with serious differences in one area must find ways to cooperate in others is a sensible one. India’s problem with China is that Delhi’s ideas of shared global interest in the multilateral domain have run into Beijing’s calculus on the regional balance of power in the Subcontinent. If India has let idealism shape its thinking on China, Beijing never stopped seeing Delhi through the lens of realism. It was a deep conviction about shared Asian identity and a common agenda to counter western hegemony and build a multipolar world that has driven India to extend unflinching support to China in the global arena. It received little in return. The three developments in 2016 suggest Delhi should not be expecting any in the near future.

Consider the following: In the 1950s Delhi opposed the American decision to isolate China and prevent it from taking its seat in the UNSC. Despite the border conflict with China at the turn of the 1960s, India did not waver in its support for bringing Beijing into the UNSC. When China wanted to join the World Trade Organisation in the 1990s and had to negotiate support from each member state, Delhi simply waved it in. Recently, when China sought to develop the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Delhi was among the first to jump on the bandwagon. Unavoidable conclusion: India supports China in the multilateral domain. China is not willing to give India an inch, even on minor issues like Masood Azhar or membership of the NSG. Forget the idea of China welcoming India into the UNSC, Beijing, in its most recent manoeuvre, has  invoked the forum to attack India’s nuclear and missile programmes.

There is little reason here to blame China, for Beijing has made no secret of its intentions — that it will sustain Pakistan’s strategic parity with India and will not do anything in the multilateral domain that Pakistan does not like. India can sing the song of  multipolarity along with China in forums like the BRICS; but that does not mean China will allow even a vague statement condemning Pakistan’s support to cross-border terrorism. China views Pakistan as an ally that must be defended at any cost.

India’s experience in 2016 should remind Delhi that multilateral forums only reflect underlying power politics in the international system; they can’t transcend this. At the root of India’s current problem with China is the growing power differential between the two nations. China’s GDP today is nearly five times larger than that of India and its defence spending four times bigger. China’s massive economic weight has also translated into huge political influence in the multilateral domain that allows it to block India’s initiatives through procedural means.

The fault here is not with China, which is behaving like a normal power. It is India that behaves abnormally in persisting with the myth of a political bond with China on multilateral issues. What Delhi needs is a more purposeful strategy to change the balance with China. It can no longer
afford to mask the problem with rhetoric on shared global interests.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express​.