China’s sudden charm offensive towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi led Indian government can only persuade us to be cautious, but at the same time polite and welcoming, so as not to disturb the atmospheric. A similar charm offensive on the part of China was noticed around 2011 towards the ASEAN countries. Today, its relations with some of these countries with which it has territorial disputes are in tatters. Charm has been replaced by sabre rattling.
Is it necessary to send a special envoy of the president of China Xi Jinping to start a fresh relationship with the new dispensation in India? The special envoy Chinese foreign Minister Wang Yi stated at a relaxed press conference (June, 10) in New Delhi that he was confident that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi India-China relations would achieve greater progress and modernization. He declared that India was a priority in China’s foreign policy and if China too was a priority for India then the relations between the two countries would grow faster than ever.
Accepted that the last Indian government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became cautious in the last few years, what else did China want from it? In fact, China received a lot of consideration from the UPA government and Dr. Manmohan Singh went out of his way to ensure that relations with China was not disturbed. After Pakistan, China was next on Prime Minister Singh’s foreign policy priority list to improve trade and economic relations along with political relations.
Then why did Mr. Wang indirectly convey that India-China relations could have been much better but for the Congress led UPA government? One of the reasons would be a new break through in India-US relations starting from the Republican Presidency of Mr. George W. Bush, (though President Bill Clinton had also made some contributions).
The Chinese were livid with the Indo-US nuclear deal, and President Bush’s pressure on Chinese President Jiang Zemin to vote for India to pass through in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China had demanded a similar status for Pakistan, but concerned nations did not agree given Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation record.
The India-US Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), which is a little dormant now, is another reason for Chinese unhappiness. India’s military cooperation with the US especially in terms of advanced equipment procurement, agreement of high technology exchanges, and military exercises were all put into one box by Beijing as security threat and challenge to China.
Beijing holds a strong suspicion that India may join hands with the US, and Japan as well, to contain China. This is an ongoing suspicion among Chinese leaders and experts, but they also hope India’s “independent foreign policy” will prevent New Delhi from entering into such alliances.
If the Chinese are hoping that with platitudes and praises they would succeed in slowing down India-US relations, they may be in for a surprise. India does not conduct international relations that way. True, the US refused to issue a visa to Mr. Narendra Modi after the 2002 Godhra riots in Gujarat. Washington, and the US ambassador in New Delhi Ms Nancy Powell, badly mishandled the issue. Ms. Powell was “sacrificed” by the US state Department recently. The Khobragade case is being cleared up. Economic issues will be resolved. Mr. Modi will meet US President Barack Obama at the White House in a full fledged official visit, in September. Mr. Obama has been keen on meeting Mr. Modi and set relations on proper track.
In July, Prime Minister Modi will visit Japan. India-Japan relations have gained a certain acceleration. The Japanese Emperor and Empress visited India last December, followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January.
Given the frayed nature of China-Japan relations with an underlining of constant tension over territory and war crimes, the outcome of Mr. Modi’s visit to Japan will impact India-China relations. Both Japan and China are interested in investing in infrastructure projects and technology corridors in India. India can benefit from both countries. But if India acquires defence equipment and technology from Japan, China will charge India with not giving due respect to their sensibilities. China is concerned that with such deals Prime Minister Abe and his right wing colleagues are trying to break away from Japan’s peaceful constitution.
Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin adopted a new and peculiar style in his briefing to the press on the Swaraj-Wang talks on June 08. What could be made out was the two leaders touched on almost every bilateral and regional subject and gave the positions of their respective countries, but did not go beyond that. Wang conveyed China’s keenness to engage the new Indian government on various issues and desire to invest in infrastructure projects including high speed railways in India. Akbaruddin said the talks were “cordial, useful, productive and substantive”. They were neither “warm” nor “free and frank”, suggesting a balanced approach by both sides.
The Chinese official news agency the Xinhua (June, 09) gave a better understanding of the talks. Apart from the effusive praise of the new Indian government, it was obvious that China wants to draw India into a bilateral partnership and a multi-polar world and an Asia for Asians paradigm.
From the Xinhua report it appears that China will emphasize more on Five Principles of Peaceful coexistence or Panchasheel to strengthen the concept of principles in international relations. Additionally, Wang Yi made the following important points:
(i) India’s Look East policy was interdependent on China opening of its Western region and India’s support to Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. Although Myanmar is holding up its part on the BCIM for its own reason of security, China feels that it is only India that can persuade Myanmar to deliver on its part of the agreement. China no longer exercises that kind of influence on Myanmar, and distrust is deep.
(ii) The two sides will properly handle the border issue, and both agreed that “bilateral negotiation” will be the way to solve the border problem and this issue should not hamper development of relations and maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border regions before the issue is finally resolved. Despite misplaced expectations among some sections of Indians that the border question will be resolved quickly under the new dispensation in New Delhi, Wang made it clear that resolution of the border issue was still far away.
On stapled visas issued to people of Arunachal Pradesh by China, Wang Yi explained that the territory was disputed between China and India, and China issued them stapled visas as a “good will” gesture to facilitate their travels (to China).
What the Chinese want is further consolidation of peace and tranquility on the border and more agreements on the subject if necessary. The border issue will be resolved when the Chinese are certain that China and India are on the same page and trust has been established to the extent that India will not jeoparadise Pakistan’s security.
In the case of the Soviet Union/Russia discussions the Chinese continued talks on border/territorial issues, albeit secretly, at times of their worst bilateral relations. It was only when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow that the weakening of the Soviet Union began. It was only when Beijing felt it was safe to settle the border issue with Moscow and also strategically beneficial that border demarcation was finally inked.
Even now deep mutual trust is lacking between Beijing and Moscow, but neither is in any position to clash with each other. The US and the west-are their common adversaries. But there are strategic experts in China who believe when China is strong enough perceived Chinese territory in Russia’s possession must return to China.
In the case of India differences are too many and it will take considerable time to close these gaps. China has too many interests and commitments in Pakistan to change policies in the near future. Further, China sees India as a credible competitor for preeminence. And neither last nor the least is the Tibetan question which Beijing considers as a threat to its security and territorial integrity and the possibility of India joining hands with the USA to foment trouble in Tibet.
Yet, it must be noted that China did not go public with protests when the political head of the Dalai Lama’s set up in Dharamsala, and a senior official of the same set up were invited to attend the swearing in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi. They sent a quiet demarche, to the Indian foreign ministry.
Whatever the reason for China’s soft approach on this incident, one is that at the moment China has taken up confrontation with too many countries in its immediate Pacific neighbourhood and opening up another front with India at this point of time would be strategically wrong. India should not be pushed into American arms, Beijing leadership apparently feels.
On the trade and economic front, there are opportunities. But the manner in which the Chinese are pursuing this area is mainly win for them only. Trade deficit against India remains high at $ 31.1 billion. Trade had come down to around $ 65 billion because of a fall in Indian export of iron ore. India and China have a common border and two major countries in Asia with growing influence in the world. Hence, a large volume of trade and other economic cooperation should be natural. But the entire bilateral economic and trade relations must be scrutinized or rewritten to bring about a balance.
To conclude, China had promised to the world that its rise will be peaceful. It does not seem so now. How to manage a strong rising China should be the question that occupies the minds of the Indian policy makers.
(The writer Mr. Bhaskar Roy is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)