Indo-China tension

When Modi meets China’s Xi in Wuhan, India starts from a position of weakness

Hopefully, the two sides have already negotiated an outcome. A truly unstructured event could blow up in New Delhi’s face.

So, India threw the Dalai Lama under the bus. Not my words, but those of a retired senior government official with years of experience of India’s China policy. He was commenting on a news report that appeared this week, which said that just before the Centre sent out a note to all government officials in February asking them not to participate in events commemorating the Tibetan spiritual leader’s 60 years of exile, India had already informed Beijing of its intended move.

Now we know why that happened. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to talk peace with Beijing. Why? The answer is obvious. In the run-up to general elections in 2019, the only thing that seems to matter to him is to make sure there are no unpleasant shocks for his government.

Among external actors, the one country that can spring an unpleasant surprise on India is China. After the Indians tom-tommed their great victory in Doklam – where Indian and Chinese troops faced off for around 70 days last year – the Chinese have been seething. And they have 4,056 km of the disputed Sino-Indian border across which they could spring that surprise.

So, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale was sent to Beijing on February 23 to inform the Chinese that a) India would abjure from using the Tibet card as it had been doing for the past four years, and b) that it had no intention of intervening militarily in the Maldives, where China has interests.

Wuhan meeting

The reward, as it were, is the Wuhan summit between Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping that is to take place on April 27-April 28. We can only speculate about its outcome, but we do know that it is India that is going into it from a position of weakness. Hopefully, the two sides have already negotiated an outcome, because a truly unstructured event could blow up in our face.

There is a facile comparison being made that the Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan would be a repeat of the Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping meeting of December 1988. Actually, the time that has passed since has ensured that it cannot be similar.

Both events came in the wake of face-offs that went well for India. In 1986-’87, under Operation Falcon, the Indian Army for the first time looked at the People’s Liberation Army eye-to-eye and forced it to recognise the fact that the balance of power on the border was no longer the one that had prevailed in the 1960s.

In 2017, the Indian Army intervened in Doklam to block a Chinese road-building project in territory claimed by both China and Bhutan. In the end, given their adverse position, the Chinese backed off.

The result of Rajiv Gandhi’s China visit in 1988 was that India agreed to set aside its demand that China settle the border dispute before there could be normalisation of ties. Talks took place that resulted in two far-reaching agreements in 1993 and 1996, which created an elaborate structure of confidence-building that has ensured that, despite occasional face-offs, the two sides have managed to maintain peace and tranquility along the border.

Since then, of course, relations between India and China have developed much greater complexity if only because they have developed much larger economies and corresponding interests in their respective regions. Indeed, the big problem is that their interests are now rubbing against each other in the South Asia-Indian Ocean region.

What can the 2018 visit yield ?

The Wuhan summit, although billed as informal, is a carefully prepared event. The story began in Xiamen, where Xi and Modi met on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in September. It was at this summit that China signaled that it was not entirely deaf to India’s concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

It was also at this summit that the two leaders, aware of the dangerous confrontation in Doklam, gave their officials instructions to enhance “strategic communications” between the two sides – essentially, to step up high-level communications to resolve problems before they turned into confrontations.

The first step in this direction was the decision to hold the 20th round of talks between the special representatives in Delhi after a gap of 20 months. At this meeting in December, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval met his counterpart, State Councillor and Politburo member Yang Jichei.

As usual, little was revealed about the content of the meeting, but the Indian press release did note that the two officials spoke of the need to emphasise their convergences and to find “mutually acceptable resolutions of their differences with due respect to each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations”.

Subsequently, Gokhale – who was the Indian ambassador to China till October – made an official visit to Beijing on February 23. It was on the eve of this visit that he sent a letter to his colleague, the cabinet secretary, asking him to advise leaders and government functionaries to stay away from events marking 60 years of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India.

On March 20, Modi spoke directly with Xi to congratulate him on his re-election as president and it was during this conversation that the Wuhan visit was finalised. Since then, we have seen Doval visit China, where he once again met Yang Jichei – now secretary of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the body that determines Chinese foreign policy – and the new Chinese special representative Wang Yi. Then earlier this week, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited Beijing. These visits were in the context of the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Qingdao in June. But you can be sure the high-level discussions took into account the shifting Indian position on China.

Odds are against India

At first glance, the deck is stacked against India. It is the one that has publicly drawn back on Tibet and Maldives, moves that have not been reciprocated by China in any way. In that sense, they reflect the deeply asymmetrical nature of the Sino-Indian situation. China is also a far bigger economic and military power than India.

But at this juncture, Beijing also needs to secure itself from a putative American assault. Even though many see the trade war between the two countries as shadow-boxing, China knows it is in President Donald Trump’s crosshairs and is seeking to ensure that countries like India remain neutral.

Also, China is looking at India through a long-term perspective, in which it sees the Indian economy growing at a faster pace than its own in the coming decades. This huge economy can provide opportunities for investment and markets for Chinese products in an era where Beijing’s over-dependence on the United States is becoming manifest.

New Delhi’s handling of Beijing has been somewhat immature in the last four years. Instead of give-and-take diplomacy, it has hectored China, demanding that it support its membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and its efforts to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar declared a United Nations-designated terrorist. It has sought to take a position in the western Pacific, to counter China’s forays in the Indian Ocean. Its attempts to match up to Beijing reached ridiculous heights when it created a Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation, even though it has no discernible interests in the South Pacific.

But there also seems to be a realisation in New Delhi that the sum total of these positions, which emphasise confrontation, are unsustainable. What worries Modi now is that Beijing could lower the boom in an election year, with all its unpredictable consequences.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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