C3S Paper No. 0118/2016
Recent strains in the relationship between China and India, made worse by New Delhi’s failure to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – officially attributed to Beijing’s opposition – has aroused keen interest in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit beginning today.
This is the first high-level bilateral interaction after the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Tashkent. Although the SCO summit was a landmark event which saw India joining the SCO as a full member, the thunder was stolen by the Xi-Modi meeting, which was not limited to the issue of NSG membership. Thereafter, India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley visited China, but that was for a meeting of the board of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Wang’s visit is being invested with much significance because this is the first face-to-face between the two foreign ministers after India’s NSG fiasco. Wang, who arrives in India today, is scheduled to hold talks with his counterpart, External Affairs Minister Mrs Sushma Swaraj on August 13. In fact, Wang’s visit from August 12 to 14, as announced in Beijing, is at the invitation of Swaraj.
The last meeting of these two foreign ministers was in Moscow during the Russia-India-China trilateral summit in April. Since then tensions between the Himalayan neighbors have increased. On the issue of terrorism, China’s technical hold in a UN committee on Masood Azhar, the proclaimed “terrorist” in Pakistan, has upset New Delhi. India’s position on the South China Sea, even before the Netherlands-based tribunal’s ruling, had caused unease in Beijing. Then came the 48-member NSG’s plenary in June in Seoul, which rejected India’s membership bid on the grounds that it was not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In the weeks since then, China, for the first time, expressed concern over the “casualties” and violence in India-administered Kashmir, which was seen in New Delhi as a needless provocation. And, last month, Chinese troops had “transgressed” the border on land and by air in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand State. By then both sides seemed to have decided not to raise tensions – as borne out by India’s Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar playing down the issue when it came up in Parliament. And, Wang’s visit comes close on the heels of this “border incident.”
Given the backdrop of these issues, terrorism, South China Sea, the reference to Kashmir and India’s NSG membership are bound to figure in the talks between Wang and Swaraj even if these are not explicitly acknowledged to be on the agenda.
At the same time, these are issues that would not be allowed to deflect attention from the larger agenda of the foreign ministers meeting, which is the upcoming G20 Summit in Hangzhou in China in September, followed by the BRICS Summit in Goa in October.
So it was only to be expected that while announcing the visit, External Affairs Ministry Joint Secretary and Spokesman Vikas Swarup said the leaders will discuss various issues of mutual interest including the upcoming multilateral meetings with G20 Summit being held in China and the BRICS Summit being held in India.
He brushed aside a question on the Uttarakhand “transgression” saying that the defense minister has already made a statement; and, that there are mechanisms, including at army-to-army level, to take care of such incidents.
Swarup said that the “visit of Foreign Minister Wang to India is part of the regular high level dialogue between the two countries.”
Clearly, both New Delhi and Beijing are keen to move on from the tensions that have affected the relationship in recent months, and the three-day visit of Wang is expected to set the tone for going forward in that direction.
The focus of the visit, according to official sources in New Delhi, is to lay the groundwork for the G20 meeting scheduled in China next month. As part of the preparatory work, foreign ministers Swaraj and Wang are expected to discuss the joint statement. They would also be going over the diplomatic details of the BRICS summit to be held in Goa, which need to be worked out and finessed.
These two summits would also be occasions where Prime Minister Modi and President Xi would be meeting for the first time after the prickly issues came up in the relationship in recent months. The foreign ministers would be looking to ease the path ahead for bilateral relations, restore the focus on economic development and sustain the centrality of economic cooperation and growth in the G20 and BRICS summits.
[Shastri Ramachandaran, an independent Indian political and foreign affairs commentator, is Senior Consultant and Editor of China-India Dialogue published by China International Publishing Group (CIPG).]