The recently concluded visit by Chinese President Cturned out to be a disappointment, particularly because of the great expectations that were generated. A golden opportunity for taking the relations to a higher trajectory was lost due to the military face-off in Ladakh. For India, the visit turned out to be an occasion to draw the red lines on the importance of peace and security on the border. It is after a long time that India has been so forthright with the Chinese.
The Xi delegation seemed to have misread the Indian mood. If they thought that the Modi Government, with its focus on infra-structure development , would succumb to pressure on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), they were in for a surprise. The Indian position on matters concerning security was clear even before the visit, from two statements. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had remarked in a press interview that “if China expected India to respect a one China policy, they should respect a one India policy.” The reference was to J&K and Arunachal Pradesh. Then there was Prime Minister Modi’s comment about Vistar-waad and Vikas-waad at a symposium in Tokyo. There, he said that that “there are the 18th Century-style ways and thinking that involve expanding geographically by taking away the land of another nation and going into the seas.” Even though no country was mentioned, the implication was obvious.
It is no secret that much was expected from the visit. Xi himself referred to “a new beginning” in the bilateral relations. But unfortunately, the visit was marked by all the old patterns like border incidents (a regular feature before high level visits) and repeat of the same Chinese positions on issues of concern to India.
The fact that the incursion occurred a few days before the visit and has continued for ten days shows the seriousness of the incident. If it is true, as is generally believed, that XI is the strongest leader of China since Deng Xiaoping, why haven’t the troops withdrawn even after an assurance by him a week ago? The only conclusion is that it must have the blessings of the highest levels of the Central Military Commission (CMC).
The incident reiterates the importance of having clarity on the LAC. It also shows that the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) signed last year has not been effective. Apart from this incident, there have also been reports of Chinese troops tailing Indian soldiers during their patrol of areas claimed by both which was prohibited under the BDCA.
It is also significant that there is no mention of BDCA in the Joint Statement. There is also a growing opinion that the time has come to revisit the Special Representatives (SR) mechanism. It has worked well for 17 rounds, but is not moving any further. In fact, some Indian analysts feel that by expanding the canvas of the SR mechanism to the whole gamut of our bilateral relations (as opposed to the previous mechanism of the Joint Working Group which dealt only with the boundary issue and the CBMs along the LAC), the salience of arriving at clarity on LAC has been diluted.
Trade and investment issues
The Joint Statement talks of addressing the huge trade deficit that India faces. This is not going to be easy. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, during his visit in 2010, said at a press conference that the trade deficit was unsustainable and the problem has to be addressed expeditiously so that overall trade is not affected. That was four years ago. In the meantime, the deficit has only increased substantially and the bilateral trade has gone down. Access to Indian pharmaceutical products, obstacles to the entry of Indian IT sector into China and “non-economic” pricing of Chinese exports (objected to not only by India but by many others) are issues which have been talked about for over five years without a solution.
Chinese FDIs should not be seen as a compensation for the trade deficit. While India needs the FDIs, trade deficit is an issue which India should give the highest priority and address it independent of FDIs.
On the Investment side, there were fancy figures like US$ 100 billion floating around in the press. Here the media cannot be blamed because the figure was mentioned first by the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai. The figure could not be taken seriously considering that the total Chinese global investment in the past three decades has been only US$ 80 billion. There was a lot of confusion between FDI, project contracts and supply of Chinese equipment. The Joint Statement says that “the Chinese side would endeavor to realize an investment of US$ 20 billion in the next five years.” Despite being a lower figure, this is a positive outcome of the visit.
The other favourable outcome was the opening of a second route for the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra through Nathu la which, being motorable, could benefit Yatris who cannot trek long distances.
Strategic and geo-political angles
The Chinese push on these aspects was very evident. Before arriving in India President Xi had visited Sri Lanka and Maldives. For Sri Lanka, it was a Chinese President’s visit after almost three decades and for Maldives it was the first ever. (Maldives was included in the itinerary after Pakistan was dropped because of the domestic political situation).
How the Chinese view India’s role in the region came out clearly in Xi’s public address at the ICWA. He said that “three billion people of China and South Asia are breaking natural barriers through boat and road to become a new pole of economic growth in the world.” He promised to increase the trade with South Asia to US$ 150 billion and investment to US$ 30 billion in the next five years. Xi’s articulation had three messages: (1) that India has to be boxed in the Sub-Continent; (2) that China considers India only as one of the countries in South Asia with no special role, and (3) that China is now a legitimate stake-holder in the region.
Xi failed to push his pet project of the new Maritime Silk Road (MSR) with Modi. This aims at improving connectivity with South East Asia, South Asia, West Asia and Africa by a network of port cities along the route linked to the economic hinterland in China. As expected, Sri Lanka and Maldives supported the idea enthusiastically. Beijing’s strategy would be to rope in all the other countries before putting the pressure on India. Let us be clear that under the benign motive of trade and connectivity, the concept has strategic implications for India. No surprise therefore that Xi failed to persuade Modi. There is no mention of this in the Joint Statement. The other connectivity project namely the Bangladesh-China-India- Myanmar (BCIM) corridor has got some traction from India since it is felt that this could benefit the economic development of our North-Eastern states.
On the question of the expansion of the UNSC, the Chinese have not gone beyond their usual formulation of “understanding and supporting India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council.”
There is a mention of cooperation in civil nuclear energy in the Joint Statement. Is it feasible given Beijing’s opposition to India’s entry into the NSG?
On the personal and protocol aspects, PM Modi left no stone unturned to lay out the red carpet. In a rare gesture, he received Xi in Ahmedabad in an informal ambience. On the substantive issues, however, he was very firm. His articulation of India’s concerns on the repeated border incidents and stapled visas in the Joint Press Conference with President Xi standing next to him was praiseworthy.
The Chinese diplomacy, on the other hand, seems to have erred on the side of aggression. A golden opportunity “to make a new beginning” (as expressed by Xi himself) was lost mainly due to the face-off in Ladakh. Here was an Indian leader who admired China’s economic progress and genuinely wanted a much higher level of engagement and the Chinese President failed to seize the opportunity.
One has to see the visit in the overall context. Ever since the change of government in New Delhi, many countries have been trying to engage actively with India. In the past few weeks, there have been successful visits by Modi to Japan, the Indian President to Vietnam and the Australian PM to India. All these countries have their own problems with Beijing. In addition, in a week’s time, Modi would be visiting the US which the Americans are projecting as a game changer. In such a scenario, it is incomprehensible why the Chinese would adopt a counter-productive tactics of coercive diplomacy.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.