NEW DELHI – There is something about the number five in Sino-Indian relations. Asia’s two giants have long defined their relationship in terms of the famous Pancha Sheela: mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful co-existence.
Now China’s new leaders have enunciated a new Pancha Sheela, with President Xi Jinping offering a “five-point proposal” for Sino-Indian relations. The updated principles would maintain strategic communication and healthy bilateral relations; harness each other’s strengths and expand cooperation in infrastructure, investment, and other areas; deepen cultural ties and increase mutual understanding and friendship; expand coordination and collaboration in multilateral affairs to safeguard developing countries’ legitimate interests and address global challenges; and accommodate each other’s core concerns and reconcile bilateral disagreements amicably.
India would be happy to embrace each of these principles. Only the fifth point is tricky, for it leaves China’s “core concerns” undefined. Traditionally, these were Tibet and Taiwan, but Chinese officials have recently referred to their claims on the South China Sea as a “core interest” as well.
This has opened a Pandora’s box for China, and has facilitated America’s rediscovery of Asia. India, like many other countries with economic interests in the Pacific, wants freedom of maritime navigation to be assured, with no threat of a Chinese veto. Indeed, China must be mindful of India’s “core interests” as well, especially because it has grievously damaged at least one such interest by enabling Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons.