Guest Column | Bold, But Half Moves

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China could change the dynamics in bilateral ties

Kanwal SibalKanwal Sibal

During his China visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unusual candour in speaking about the problems that hold back the India-China relationship is a refreshing change from the past discourse of emphasising only improved border management and acceptance that the border issue will take a long time to resolve and should not impede the rest of the relationship from moving forward.

Whether the airing of our concerns about the prevarication on the boundary settlement and other aspects of Chinese policies in our region will produce the results we expect is too early to say because it all depends on the value China attaches to genuinely improved ties with India on an equitable basis and how much of the Chinese ‘dream’ and the vision of an ‘Asian Century’ it judges will be contingent on this.

Many statements made by the Chinese leadership on territorial issues in general, their uncompromising tenor, the reality of their policies in the western Pacific where they are confronted with stronger US power, the aggressive posture on Arunachal Pradesh even when Modi’s visit was in the offing, suggest that China believes it can pursue its destiny on the strength of its phenomenal economic rise, its developing military strength and the political cards now in its hands at the global level that it can play to its advantage. In this scenario, stable relations with India on China’s terms can be helpful in consolidating China’s regional and eventually global leadership, but the lack of it may not be viewed as a crucial element in realising China’s ambitions.

ModiAs it is, China has entrenched itself solidly in our own region. Its latest plans for Pakistan will outflank India to our west and bring the Pakistan-Afghanistan region within China’s political, economic and military orbit as never before. China is already the most powerful economic player in Central Asia and has made deep inroads into Iran. It has established connectivity across Eurasia to serve its needs. The only exposed area for China is Southeast and East Asia where its hegemony can be effectively challenged by Japan and, of course, the US, with countries like Australia and Vietnam acting as additional bulwarks.

China’s interest would be to deflect India from aligning itself with this grouping, and to that extent, keeping India engaged would be in its interest. In fact, high level engagement and affirming commonalities of interest even in areas where they do not exist help China to discourage India from making a clear choice so long as the China door seems open, besides presenting a moderate and conciliatory face of its diplomacy. More importantly, all the talk of a strategic partnership with China inhibits us from forcefully questioning its policies towards us and in our neighbourhood.

Whatever the ultimate result of this new posture of boldly and publicly confronting China with India’s expectations, China will find it increasingly difficult to keep prevaricating on our border differences and undermining our interests in our periphery while pretending that it is not. It will have to take a policy decision on how to move forward with us, taking into account attractive economic opportunities in India and the concerns that Modi has expressed. Modi, in turn, having brought these issues out in the open, will find it difficult to boost the bilateral relationship economically if the Chinese remain unresponsive to the concerns he has laid out.

Modi has possibly changed the dynamics of India’s engagement with China. Even while claiming in the joint statement that outstanding differences, including on the boundary question, should not be allowed to come in the way of continued development of bilateral relations — which has been the approach so far — Modi stressed in his joint press conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that China needed to ‘reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership’ and ‘take a strategic and long term view of our relations’.

He has ostensibly criticised China for taking a narrow and circumscribed view of India and missing the big picture. This is quite a stricture on Chinese policy and a debunking of the widely accepted myth that China thinks decades ahead in policymaking. He stressed the ‘importance of clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)’ while standing alongside Li Keqiang, repeating what he had said in Xi’s presence during the latter’s September 2014 visit to India. He sought ‘tangible progress on issues relating to visa policy’, which could only have meant the stapled visa issue. He also mentioned trans-border rivers, which apart from data sharing could have also implied more transparency about Chinese plans for constructing dams on the Brahmaputra. He also alluded to ‘some of our regional concerns’, which could only mean China’s policies in our neighbourhood and especially in Pakistan.

One can safely assume that he had raised all these issues in his official conversations with Xi and Li Keqiang, though it would have surprised the latter that he aired them publicly as candidly as he did in his presence. Maybe Modi calculated that having made his desire for closer ties with China clear in official conversations, his public candour would be understood as a sincere effort to remove roadblocks in the relationship and generate more trust in each other. The Chinese reaction to Modi’s remonstrations during the official talks is not known; Li Keqiang did not respond in public to Modi’s public statements either. The consequence of publicly expressing his political expectations from China in the years ahead is that he has, wittingly or unwittingly, set up benchmarks against which China’s policies towards India would be appraised in the period ahead. The merits of his own policy of reaching out to China will be judged by the Indian public too on the basis of how adequate the Chinese response is to concerns laid out by the Indian Prime Minister.

Modi hammered his points further in his address at the Tsinghua University. In doing this, he conveyed to the Chinese leadership the seriousness of his purpose. Modi would know that his remarks to university students would hardly have any real impact on policy making at the leadership level. Even in a democracy such public discourses by foreign leaders have little effect on policy. In an authoritarian set up like China’s where the media, in addition, will not amplify a foreign leader’s message and where independent political thinking is not encouraged, the kind of address Modi made is essentially for the public record. Even Obama has been speaking directly to the Chinese on TV, with doubtful results about whether the US policies are perceived better by the Chinese after his effort. Basically, Modi wants to provoke a debate within China on its policies towards India. However, India is not a ‘national’ issue in China as the US, Japan, the South China Sea are. An internal debate on policies on these issues that really pose a challenge and a cost to China has not produced more conciliatory Chinese policies. In India’s case, both the challenge and the cost to China are negligible by comparison.

Modi told his audience that if the two countries “have to realise the extraordinary potential of our relationship, we must also address the issues that lead to hesitation and doubts, even distrust, in our relationship”. In recent years no Indian leader has probably spoken thus. He spoke of trying “to settle the boundary question quickly” in a way that does “not cause new disruptions” — this can only mean China’s claims on Tawang. To remove “a shadow of uncertainty” that “hangs over the sensitive areas of the border region” because “neither side knows where the LAC is in these areas”, he is challenging China’s disingenuous position that there is no confusion on China’s side about where the LAC or that both sides are aware of it. The sub-text of this is that China is not violating the LAC but India is. Modi reiterated his proposal to resume the process of clarifying the LAC “without prejudice to our position on the boundary question”. In saying this he has tried to reassure the Chinese that the clarification of the LAC will not require either side to give up its position on the border. In other words, ‘control’ is different from a legally settled border. This is the case too with the India-Pakistan Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.


The advantage to India would be that once the LAC is clarified, the reason for infractions across the LAC would logically disappear, patrolling in disputed areas would end, the kind of incidents China has staged during high level visits to India would cease, and, importantly, no decision on redrawing maps would be required by either side immediately. If China were to agree to this approach, it would mean a major review of its policy on the border issue and could be the beginning of a genuine effort to resolve it rather than the semantic posturing it has been resorting to for long years.

Of course, the LAC clarification option has always been open to it but it has spurned it because it will lose leverage on Arunachal Pradesh. It is unclear, however, whether the LAC clarification process and the SR mechanism can proceed simultaneously, given that the joint statement mentions the latter in positive terms. In fact, in it the two leaders have “reaffirmed the commitment to abide by the three-stage process for the settlement of the boundary question”. Incidentally, to increase trust and understanding, the two sides have agreed to set up an ‘India-China Think Tanks Forum’.

In his Tsinghua address, Modi voiced concerns about China’s increased engagement “in our shared neighbourhood” and called for “deeper strategic communication to build mutual trust and confidence” so as to “ensure that our relationships with other countries do not become a source of concern to each other”. This is ironical as the joint statement issued on the occasion of premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India in May 2013 said that the two sides “support each other in enhancing friendly relations with their common neighbours for mutual benefit, and win-win results” and that they are “committed to taking a positive view of and support each other’s friendship with other countries”. There is a lesson in this: we have been too ready in the past to concede political points to China without realising the damage this does to our own positions. Clearly not satisfied with ritual formulations in joint statements that are also patronising to boot — that China supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council — Modi in his university address, rather unusually for his elevated position as India’s Prime Minister frontally sought China’s support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council and India’s membership of export control regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). By doing this he has put his own prestige in line, with little certainty that the Chinese are ready to change their position on the UNSC permanent membership. They could on the NSG membership if the US becomes pro-active, but one can expect them to lobby for Pakistan’s membership at the same time — especially as Pakistan is hostile to the idea and would press China to go slow — and that could become a convenient excuse to block India’s candidature.

On the military front, the Chinese have invited our defence minister to China this year. The fifth joint counter-terrorism training exercise will be held in 2015 as well as PASSEX naval exercises. Neighbouring military commands will carry out annual visits and exchanges. The possibility to establish a hotline between military headquarters has been left vague.

The expansion of exchanges between border commanders and establish border personnel meeting points at all sectors of the India-China border areas is envisaged.

A parsing of the joint statement brings about many features that shows that in some instances we are still obliging the Chinese and in others, the gap between Indian and Chinese positions has widened. No mention is made in the statement to China’s much vaunted One Road One Belt (OBOR) initiative to which Premier Xi attaches great importance as a visionary project to connect Asia. Our neighbours like Sri Lanka and Nepal, who have endorsed the initiative, would have particularly noted this omission. Significantly, the joint statement contains no reference to security in the Asia-Pacific region, unlike in September 2014, which suggests a failure to agree on language on this issue that has become very sensitive because of the US pivot to Asia, rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region because of China’s more assertive policies there, and formulations that have figured in the India-US joint statements in recent times that China would have found discomforting. Maritime cooperation, too, does not figure in it, even though this is a very topical issue. Clearly, the drafting of the joint statement has not been an easy task.

Regrettably, we have again thanked China’s foreign ministry and the government of “the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)” for facilitating the Kailash Manasarover Yatra. It would have been logical to have thanked ‘China’ in the joint statement in September 2014 and now, but that does not meet the Chinese purpose of having India continue to recognise TAR as part of the PRC in such statements, especially because this one-sided practice of endorsing China’s territorial integrity even as China questions ours increasingly stridently in Arunachal Pradesh was discontinued by the UPA government for good reason.

One could argue that this reversal of position was not worth what we got in return: an additional route to Kailash-Mansarover. It is possible that this second time concession to China, unmerited especially because of the unusually aggressive statements from China on Modi’s last visit to Arunachal Pradesh to flag off a development project there, was a quid pro quo for the much stronger formulation on terrorism in the joint statement this time that could not have pleased Pakistan. It should be noted though that the statement refers not to ‘cross-border terrorism’ — which is a code word for state sponsored terrorism by Pakistan against India — but to “cross border movement of terrorists” which has a different connotation and describes China’s concerns better. (Incidentally, the India-Republic of Korea joint statement on the occasion of Modi’s visit uses this formulation too, which shows how reluctant other countries are to use a language that Pakistan may find objectionable).

We could also have made this concession in view of the separate joint statement on climate change that fully meets India’s political requirements ahead of the Climate Change summit in Paris where the effort would be to isolate India and use the US-China agreement to that end. With a strong India-China statement on the subject, it would be difficult for the US and others to exploit India-China differences on the subject. The question, though, remains how India will reconcile its commitment to work closely with the US to make the Paris Conference a success with the enunciation of a common position with China which conflicts with the basic US approach.

India and China now do engage in a dialogue on arms control and non-proliferation, which makes sense as both countries have stakes in the subject. But to speak, in the joint statement, of ‘commonalities’ in the approach of the two countries to global arms control and non-proliferation is surprising as China’s conduct in this area has been culpable and has created a huge strategic challenge for India. Indirectly, this formulation whitewashes China’s historical and current proliferation activities in Pakistan. If we agreed to this in the hope that China will support our membership of the NSG, we may still be disappointed. China has merely ‘noted’ our aspirations to join the NSG, which is a patronising formulation and makes us look like a supplicant. We have agreed to engage in space cooperation with China with the agreement on a Space Cooperation Outline (2015-2020). There is always pressure during such high level visits to impart more substance to ties and explore new areas of cooperation. Given Chinese competence in space technologies, there could be a case to explore cooperation in this area. Owing to the sensitive nature of the subject, however, could it be argued that the level of trust in our relations has reached a point where our space scientists can be exposed to their Chinese counterparts?

Modi’s Tsinghua speech explains why China’s OBOR is missing in the joint statement. Modi noted that while both countries seek to connect a fragmented Asia, “there are projects we will pursue individually”. This implies cold-shouldering of China’s idea of linking our Mausam and Spice Route projects with OBOR. But in what would seem a contradiction, the joint statement mentions progress in the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor. Why we continue to endorse this project when its danger to our security in the Northeast is self-evident, is puzzling. Even if the mention in the joint statement could be explained as a diplomatic constraint because we have participated in the joint working group discussions on the project for some time and walking out of it would be a pointed negative signal to China, Modi’s reference to it in his university speech was a surprise.

That Modi himself announced at the last minute at Tsinghua the grant of e-visas to the Chinese after the foreign secretary had told the media earlier that no decision had been taken was another surprise. Clearly, we are not willing to link the e-visa to the issue of stapled visas. We have lost another point of pressure on a sensitive sovereignty issue, more as during the visit the Chinese TV showed a hugely truncated map of India, without Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. The decision on our side has been pushed for business and tourism reasons. The Chinese foreign minister was understandably delighted by this gift from the Prime Minister.

Modi’s wooing of China is being driven by the objective of securing more Chinese investment in India both to accelerate the modernisation of India’s infrastructure and balance the huge trade deficit in a constructive way. His visit to China so soon after Xi’s visit to India seems to have been motivated by a desire to maintain the momentum in India-China economic ties. The economic outcome of his visit was less than expected, however. Perhaps this was inevitable as not enough time had elapsed to register progress on the ground on the decisions taken during Xi’s visit, whether with regard to the USD20 billion of investment promised by Xi or opening up China’s market to Indian IT, pharmaceutical and agricultural products.

The joint statement largely repeats what was said in September 2014 during Xi’s visit on taking joint measures to alleviate the problem of deficit and cooperate in providing Indian products more market access in China. The language is very noncommittal and it is left to the India-China Joint Economic Group to work on these issues. On the other hand, China’s economic interests in India are treated more concretely, with satisfaction expressed with the progress achieved in the railway sector cooperation including the projects on raising the speed on the existing Chennai-Bengaluru-Mysore line, the proposed feasibility studies for the Delhi-Nagpur section of high speed rail link, the station redevelopment planning for Bhubaneswar and Baiyappanahalli, heavy haul transportation training and setting up of a railway university.

Altogether, 24 agreements were signed during the visit. While the number is impressive, most are not major ones; the only significant one relates to the opening of our respective consulates in Chengdu and Chennai and space cooperation. No economic agreement of note figures in the list. Surprisingly, the joint statement contains no reference to the two industrial parks that China will be establishing in India, even if it were to merely record some progress in implementing this initiative. Even the figure of USD20 billion of Chinese investments in India in the next five years — if only for its positive optical effect — is not mentioned this time.

During his visit to Shanghai, 26 ‘agreements’ were signed, but these are mostly MoUs involving the private sector, which have no binding value. These are in the renewable energy, power and steel sectors in which China is either already strongly present in India or is a global player as in the case of solar power. Whether by capturing a large share of the Indian market in these areas, China will prevent the rise of domestic Indian manufacturers is a point to consider. Even financing of private Indian companies by Chinese banks or project financing by them has been put on the positive ledger in projecting the results of Modi’s visit, even though all that is meant is that China will lend money to Indian companies to buy more Chinese products and only add to the burgeoning trade deficit between the two countries. Airtel, for example, has signed credit agreements with a Chinese bank. These MoUs — many are in the form of intentions only — have been projected as potentially worth USD22 billion, but this is the kind of PR exercise all countries resort to in order to embellish the economic ‘success’ of visits by their leaders abroad.

All in all, Modi can be commended on his effort to deal with the China challenge differently and imaginatively. That the result so far is not up to expectations is understandable as China holds a stronger hand and its decision-making processes and intentions remain opaque. Improved relations with China increase our strategic options vis a vis our other partners as no one can take us for granted. The challenge is to fine tune a strategy that remains coherent and does not confuse.

(The writer is a former foreign secretary and Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, Vivekananda International Foundation)



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