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What Awaits Prime Minister Modi In China; By Bhaskar Roy

C3S Paper No. 0110/ 2015


A warm welcome awaits Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he arrives in Xian, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s birthplace on May 12. Xi is expected to replicate his welcome by Modi in Ahmedabad last September. The two of them will then move to Beijing for official talks. Modi has wisely planned his state visit to China (May 12-14) adding Mongolia and South Korea in his itinerary.

This will be Narendra Modi’s first visit to China as prime minister, though he had earlier visited the country more than once as chief minister of Gujrat. Xi is not new to Modi, as both leaders met not only in India but in other fora  such as BRICS.

The Chinese are expected to try and charm Modi and highlight the “ancient links” with India as witness to thousands of years of friendly relations between the two countries. Of course, there was no relationship between India and China in ancient times apart from scholars and monks travelling between the two countries but this is the way the Chinese authorities interpret history to suit their strategies.

India has broken out of the South Asian prison wall, built by not only the Chinese but by other powers especially the USA. India’s regional and global potential was recognized by these countries long before the Indian sages in South Block dared to understand. China’s efforts to keep India in a South Asian pressure cooker has not changed, however.

In reading China, the first preparatory step is to put aside, if not discard altogether, the periodic sweet words spoken by Chinese leaders or written by the Chinese official media. “Denial and deception” is an old Chinese “art of war” and is practiced widely. Prime Minister Jawaharalal Nehru was taken for a jolly ride by Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En-lai in the 1950s on China’s position on the Kashmir issue. Nehru was overwhelmed till Zhou pulled the carpet from under Nehru’s feet.

Brahma Chellaney’s recent article, “A Silk Glove for China’s Iron fist” carries John Garver’s quotations of an instructive Chinese fable which goes as follows:

“A frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked”.

India needs to follow another Chinese saying “Feel for the stones when you cross the river”. If you do not, you will stumble and drown.

China has moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “Hide your strength, bide your time”. The Chinese leaders feel that they have built enough strength and it is time to assert themselves as Asia’s prime power. A shift towards this was noticed in 2003-2004 through writings by leading Chinese experts connected to the state and the armed forces. China’s assertiveness over small neighbours began to become visible around 2008 and gunboat diplomacy became evident in the South China Sea.

China claims the South China Sea in its entirety and has forwarded “historical” evidence to support its claim. Chinese historical claims on territory have always been questionable. The Declaration of Code of Conduct (DOC) proposed by the Chinese to the other claimants in 2002, calling for joint development of the South China Sea resources is on the condition that the claimants must accept China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea.

The projected vast gas and oil reserves in the South China Sea is one attraction for China. But much more important is that over 40 percent of international sea trade passes through this strategically important sea route. Sovereignty over the sea will allow China to control all maritime traffic passing through the sea route.

China attempted to convince the USA to accept that the South China Sea was China’s “core interest”, that is, it could use military force to control this sea. Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected the proposal outright. China is moving from land grab to sea grab.

In November 2014, China provided some clarity in the shift in the contours of its foreign policy. At the Central Work Conference on Foreign Relations held in Beijing, President Xi Jinping outlined instructions to consolidate China’s leadership of Asia and strengthen international support for China’s power (China Brief volume 14, issue 24, December 2014).

Xi called for China to carry out “diplomacy as a great power”. China’s diplomacy, it was felt, fell short of its economic and military power. Foreign Minster Wang Yi explained that China must demonstrate “great power bearing” when dealing with small and medium sized powers. Briefly, it meant – use both the “carrot and the stick”. China does not consider India a small power any longer, but also perceives pressure handles on India should be used concerning strategic issues.

Modi must always keep in view China’s “ Three warfares strategy” to be mainly executed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The three warfares are (i) Psychological warfare (ii) Media warfare, and (iii) Legal warfare.

Psychological warfare was experienced by India through major PLA intrusions in Indian perceived territory, first in 2013 just before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit and the second by the PLA during Xi Jinping’s visit in September, 2014. In 2013, India was forced to make some compromise. The Chinese official media has been consistently critical of India. The media works to state and party dictates, and sees India as a competitor and adversary. In 2014 India demonstrated more spine.

Sharp Chinese reaction to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh exposed a new Chinese aggressiveness. China’s position of giving stapled visas or no visa at all to people from Arunachal Pradesh has kept China’s claim on the entire state very much alive and active.

At the same time China ignored India’s objections of Chinese infrastructure construction in Sakshgam Valley (an area over 5000 sq kms) in POK ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963.

On strategic and objective issues like India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), India’s membership in an expanded UN permanent member security council and others, China has steadfastly blocked India, though sometimes with meaningless sweet words never meant to be honored.

Trade between India and China is a misnomer. It is heavily in China’s favour. While its main imports are much required raw materials like iron ore and bauxite, its exports to India remain cheap consumer goods. These are going to run India’s small factories out of business.

Xi Jinping’s much publicized talks of room for Indian exports to China remain just talk. Indian pharmaceutical exports remain blocked by the Chinese bureaucracy. There is no entry for India’s electronic or agricultural products. China’s investment in India’s infrastructure is an issue to be looked at closely. It is imperative to prevent their entry into critical infrastructure areas including communications, ports and airports, and computer aided command and control systems. These areas can be easily bugged for both listening and disruption from China.

The border issue is most critical. Beijing is in no mood to resolve it amicably. It has hardened its position on Arunachal Pradesh which it now calls South Tibet. Negotiations are being made more difficult, and periodic statements from Chinese leaders calling for an early settlement of the issue is mainly made for the Indian public.

China will seriously look at the border issue resolution when they find it will benefit them to forward their interests. In the case of the Soviet Union Beijing discussed and negotiated with Moscow till the Soviet Union broke up. The ideological and strategic competition with the Soviet Union vanished overnight. With the collapse of the economic situation in Russia, China gained an upper hand. India is unlikely to go the Soviet Union way. Beijing will cooperate only when it feels it needs India on their side and India is willing to join hands with China to counter the west. Of course, China will try to use the border as a pressure handle. It will depend how India responds.

India is facing a China led by Xi Jinping determined to bring about China’s ‘rejuvenation” and return to its past glory as the Central Kingdom, with most neighbouring countries as tributaries. In other words China must become Asia’s preeminent power. What is coming in the way is Japan, a rising India and a US pivot to Asia constraining China.

The thrust for the Maritime Silk Road, the Silk Belt and Asia for Asians ( Xi’s speech at the CICA conference in May 2014), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are among initiatives to get the maximum number of countries in Asia and Central Asia into one net. Those who resist and oppose may get squeezed. This is the threat hidden in its “win-win” situation for all.

At the same time, China is uncomfortable about a congruence of Indian, American and Japanese interests to thwart China’s burning ambition.

The Japan-US defence cooperation is growing, with Japan trying to break out of its self-defence restrictions to assist the US militarily in a conflict elsewhere in Asia and beyond. This impacts any Chinese future plans to usurp the South China and the  East China Seas.

Beijing, however, is not very sure if India will join a US-Japan strategy to counter China. It is banking on India’s independent foreign policy. Yet, it remains apprehensive with India’s defence development and especially defence and high technology acquisitions form the US. The India-US bonhomie is disconcerting to China.

China may rest assured that India’s clear policy is not to join any alliance to counter, restrict or encircle China, or for that matter any country.

The Chinese leadership may recall Modi’s observation to Xi in India, that India and China are two countries with one soul. The UPA government’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had also articulated the view that there was enough space in Asia for both India and China. India non-aligned and independent foreign policy is also reflected by President Pranab Mukherjee attending the World War-II victory celebrations in Moscow and an Indian military contingent participating in the victory parade.

At the same time, greater transparency in China’s policy towards the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean is required. Beijing’s activities in Sri Lanka and Pakistan are not very friendly acts, as the case with the Sino-Indian border issue. Its demonstrated position on anti-Indian Pakistan based terrorist groups like the LET and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, or its near silence on the Mumbai terrorist attack does not inspire confidence among Indians of a friendly China.

This does not mean that an adversarial relationship should be pursued with China. Far from it, a correct and cooperative relationship must be prosecuted by both countries. This is very necessary for peace, development and security in Asia. There are serious differences between the two countries which impinge on smooth development of relations and threaten to spill over at times. These have to be managed, while common interests acted upon for mutual benefit. Geography is a compelling reason.

Finally, India must remember that China is seeking predominance in Asia and its diplomacy will become more active, penetrative and if necessary, assertive. For the unchallenged leadership of Asia, China requires America’s acceptance. Hence, it is pursuing major country relationship with the US, and the US tops its foreign policy agenda by far. And despite its Asia pivot, the US also requires China for various reasons.

India will have to work within these parameter, with the rider “trust, but verify”’, and develop relations with all countries big or small, in the neighbourhood.

(Note: The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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