India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first official visit to China earlier this month (February 1-3) came on the heels of US President Barack Obama’s sojourn to India that saw a breakthrough in the Indo-US relations after a period of relative stagnation. Notwithstanding China’s reservations on some aspects of the Obama-Modi joint statement, Beijing extended exceptional warmth to the Indian minister and also signalled a nuanced change in its attitude towards India. Going by some of the deliverables that Ms Swaraj brought home, one should credit her maiden visit with considerable success.
Ms. Swaraj went to China with many objectives. First, the visit was propelled by the Modi government to intensify what it calls the “Act East Policy”. It should be noted that Ms Swaraj had earlier visited countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and South Korea with the same purpose of showing the Modi government’s deep interest in strengthening India’s ties with Asian countries. Another purpose of her China trip was to prepare the groundwork for Prime Minister Modi’s official visit to China in May this year. In that process, she was also supposed to allay Beijing’s strategic concerns by assuring that India’s increasing proximity to the US was not directed against any third country and that India was firmly committed to an open and inclusive architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. During her talks with Chinese leaders, Ms Swaraj proposed the following six-point template for promoting the bilateral relations — an action-based approach; broad–based bilateral engagement; Identifying new areas of cooperation; expanding strategic communication; fulfilling common aspirations to usher in Asian century and setting up of industrial parks and projects in India that would contribute to Mr Modi’s “Make in India” programme.
One of the highlights of her visit was that Chinese President Xi Jinping made a rare gesture by breaking the protocol and meeting Ms Swaraj. President Xi expressed a strong desire that both countries should “grab the opportunity of the century” by working together with their development strategies. They knew that the real stumbling block for any major breakthrough in the bilateral ties was the lingering border issue. Even when President Xi visited India in September last year, the sudden intrusions of the Chinese troops in the Eastern Ladakh area vitiated the good atmosphere generated by his visit. While the Chinese side sought to downplay the incident by saying that such incidents occurred due to the undemarcated border, Prime Minister Modi raised serious concerns over the issue with Mr Xi. Stressing that peace on the border formed the foundation of the bilateral relations, Mr Modi also sought clarification on the ’line of actual control’ which separates the two countries. It is a fairly long time since the two respective designated official negotiators met to take forward the border negotiations. However, Ms Swaraj was able to get the green signal for holding a fresh round of talks soon, perhaps by the end of the month.
Going by the general mood on both sides not to hand over this unresolved issue to the next generation, there seems to be a certain seriousness to address it with a sense of urgency. This has been corroborated by India’s National Security Advisor and chief negotiator Mr Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart and State Councillor Mr Yang Jiechi who had met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on February 7. Both stressed the need for pushing forward the negotiations and effectively maintain peace and safety of border areas. Mr Doval and Mr Jiechi are scheduled to hold the eighteenth round of border talks soon. It is nice to note Ms. Swaraj’s remark that the leaders of both countries had the “political will to think out of the box” to find a solution to the issue.
During the visit, Ms. Swaraj also participated in the 13th China-Russia-India trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting which gave her a good opportunity to interact and exchange views with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on a range of regional and global issues. That both China and Russia showed their willingness to support India’s admission to the APEC as well as India’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was a major takeaway for India. On the question of India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, they said they appreciated India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the UN. Calling for collectively combating terrorism, their joint statement said that religious, racial and ethnic divisions were no justification for terrorism and pledged to crack down on those who financed and gave refuge to terrorists.
After Ms Swaraj’s successful visit which managed to create a certain degree of ’warmth’ in China’s attitude towards India, now all eyes will be on Mr Modi’s visit to China in May. But before that the border talks that are going to be held soon will play a key role in determining the course of events.
(Prof. K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow and Vindu Mai Chotani a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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