Many Indian prime ministers have visited abroad in pursuit of national interests, although such visits to China were few and far in between, with five PMs visiting Beijing six times in as many decades. Some of these visits – by Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi and Vajpayee – have been described as “breakthroughs” for recognising Tibet and Taiwan as a part of China, with no reciprocal Chinese statement that Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh are a part of India.
With PM Modi planning to make a trip to China from May 14-16, the first time an Indian prime minister will be visiting Beijing in the first year of his first term, it is natural – as PM Modi told his Chinese interlocutors – to expect “concrete outcomes” during the visit. For this visit to be successful, India needs to seek several clarifications and positive approvals from China on a host of issues in the realm of bilateral relations and beyond.
Firstly, PM Modi needs to draw certain red and amber lines in diplomatic interactions with Beijing. This is in the light of China’s recent policies towards Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir. China had revised the Arunachal Pradesh policy by arguing in the 1950s that the 1914 McMahon Line is illegal to agreeing in the late 1950s to recognisethe southern portion of McMahon Line [i.e. the current state of Arunachal Pradesh] to the 2006 position that the “entire state of Arunachal Pradesh is disputed”. Since 2006, China’s documents have been referring to Arunachal Pradesh as “southern Tibet” i.e. as an extension of Tibet!
China had also revised its Kashmir policy from Mao Zedong terming the division of the sub-continent in 1947 as “unnatural” to that of the 1960s position of self-determination rights for Kashmiris to the 1980s position of resolving the Kashmir dispute only through the bilateral process [i.e. India and Pakistan] and by peaceful means. Today, China has further revised this policy by actively financing strategic projects in Gilgit, Baltistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. These are among the core interests for India and as such it needs to articulate its position relentlessly with Beijing. The costs for not observing the red lines also need to be clearly articulated.
Buffer Zones: Turf Issues
Secondly, China is actively following a policy of breaking “buffer zones” that provided frontier security historically for the Indian sub-continent. Thus, China has not only become the largest arms supplier, both conventional and strategic, to Pakistan, but has been making strident inroads in Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives. The 19th century buffer zones for the Indian sub-continent are fast vanishing in the 21st century China’s rise. Also, China had been building dual-use facilities in the Indian neigbourhood. China’s companies have been investing in the strategic communications sectors recently, with long-term consequences for cyber issues. India needs to jump start hard and soft infrastructure projects in the South Asian region and beyond.
Bridging Trust Deficit
Thirdly, in the bilateral economic domain, while then President Pratibha Patil, at the highest level in 2010, had raised the issue of lack of market economy status in China and discrimination against Indian goods’ entry (specifically pharmaceutical and IT software products), New Delhi is facing an uphill task on this issue, which has become a sore point for New Delhi in the background of mounting trade deficit of over $200 billion in China’s favour in the last seven years. Since the “breakthrough” visit by PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, India had opened up its market for import of goods and services from China, resulting in an influx of mobile phones, electrical gadgets, power equipment and others with no reciprocal gestures from China. Clearly, India needs to nudge China to open its market. Not empty promises, but a time bound road map for bridging trade deficits needs to be chalked out.
Fourthly, today many of the foreign policy issues are being subjected to the rising nationalist sentiment in China. Since the targets of such nationalist fervour in China are fast changing – against the United States in the late 1990s to counter Japan in the 2000s, and recently against Vietnam and the Philippines – India needs to cautiously tread with Beijing on this front. Discontent is emerging gradually in the public opinion polls in China against India, citing to the British Indian role in the Opium Wars in the 19th century. With the leadership providing fuel to the fire on “southern Tibet”, Arunachal Pradesh is likely to be in the eye of a nationalist storm in China in the short to medium term. In this background, the move by the Indian prime minister to reach out to the Chinese public through the social networking site SinaWeibo account needs to be watched. For, the public opinion in the Chinese cyberspace tends to be guided mainly by the Communist Party priorities and control over nationalist fervor. Thus, any communication with the Chinese netizens is helpful — India should have no illusions in this regard.
Getting China’s backing on UN seat
Fifth, while a series of concessions were made by the Indian leaders to satisfy the “One China” policy and support for Beijing in the multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, Bandung Conference and others, China has had been hedging on Indian’s entry into the multilateral institutions like the United Nations Security Council, Nuclear Supplies Group and others. While it is likely that India may get the membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in the short term as declared in the 13th foreign ministerial meeting of the Russia, China and India this February, PM Modi has to elicit a definitive road map from Beijing. China has been mounting enormous pressure on India to join the Silk Road initiatives, specifically its maritime route by selling the idea of co-opting the Indian initiative of “Project Mausam” in the Indian Ocean. While infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean region are mutually beneficial, India needs to pitch for reciprocal arrangements with China in the South China Sea.
During the visit of PM Modi to China, there will be a lot of pressure in both countries to make this visit a “breakthrough’ in the bilateral relations. Such a breakthrough is quite possible if India clearly draws the red, amber and green lines of interactions with China, without falling into the binary trap of whether China is an opportunity or a challenge.
(SrikanthKondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. An eminent expert on China and the author of several books on India-China relations, he received the K. Subrahmanyam Award in 2010 for Excellence in Research in Strategic and Security Studies.)
-The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
- Diplomacy2019.07.29South China Sea Imbroglio: Policy Options
- China Connect2017.07.28Rising India & Rising China: A medium-term projection
- Diplomacy2015.12.09PM Abe’s visit: Opening new vistas in India-Japan special ties
- Africa Insights2015.12.03A Tale of Two Players in Africa: Indian & Chinese responses