China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi chooses his words carefully. But as with all Chinese leaders, what he says isn’t necessarily what he means. Nonetheless, Wang’s comments last week at a press conference in Beijing are a departure from the hot-and-cold rhetoric emanating from China since the Doklam standoff was resolved with some loss of face for Beijing.
Wang said: “Chinese and Indian leaders have developed a strategic vision for future relations. The Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other. If China and India are united, one plus one will become 11 instead of two.”
Elephants and dragons don’t make particularly good dance partners but Wang’s remarks have to be seen in the context of three recent events. The first is the harsh criticism Chinese president-for-life Xi Jinping has received for modifying China’s Constitution to abolish the two-term limit for president. The move has drawn criticism both globally and domestically. A rattled Chinese government has censored online commentary, even scrubbing words like “criticism”.
There is anger too within the larger Communist Party at the “speed, stealth and guile” with which Xi bulldozed the Constitutional change. The New York Times revealed the extent of the stealth: “Some 200 Communist Party officials gathered behind closed doors in January 2018 to take a momentous political decision: whether to abolish presidential term limits and enable Xi Jinping to lead China for a generation. In a two-day session in Beijing, they bowed to Xi’s wish to hold on to power indefinitely.
But a bland communiqué issued afterward made no mention of the weighty decision, which the authorities then kept under wraps for more than five weeks. The decision was abruptly announced only last week, days before the annual session of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress. The delay was apparently an effort to prevent opposition from coalescing before formal approval of the change ...”
Xi’s unpopular power grab could backfire. Analysts are calling it a blunder that will constrain China’s rise as a superpower. Dissent could lead to civil protests though the government is known to ruthlessly put down any challenge to its authority. China’s domestic difficulties however have had a sobering effect on the government. Nitin Pai, founder-director of Takshashila Foundation, wrote insightfully on how social tensions in China could impact Beijing’s foreign policy: “The beginning of the end of China’s rise is not necessarily the beginning of China’s fall.
Even if the spiralling doesn’t go all the way down, it is almost certain that the favourable external environment—where the powerful West invested in China’s rise in the hope that this would bring the country into the international community—will no longer obtain. Trump’s trade tariffs and the increasing regional enthusiasm for political and security frameworks to balance China’s dominance will increasingly constrain Beijing’s policy space. Meanwhile, the domestic social consequences of slower growth—with the manufacturing, construction, real estate and infrastructure industries not growing as fast as before—will start kicking in.”
The last thing China needs today therefore is confrontation with India. It also partly explains Beijing’s decision to jettison Pakistan in the FATF’s vote to greylist Islamabad last month. (By then the decision to change China’s Constitution and effectively make Xi president for life had been made but not revealed publicly)
The second reason for Wang’s words is China’s realisation that India’s deepening ties with France could turn the tide in the Indian Ocean Region in New Delhi’s favour. India now has military access to French naval bases from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific: Reunion Island, Mayotte, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Djibouti and Abu Dhabi. The Quad alliance between India, Australia, Japan and the US poses a further challenge in China’s maritime backyard.
The third factor behind Wang’s remarks is India’s decision to downplay the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India. The Prime Minister’s Office has shifted celebrations from Delhi to Dharamshala. The Chinese, who regard the Dalai Lama as a Tibetan separatist, are grateful for the gesture. It has set the tone for Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to Beijing next month. An India-China strategic dialogue is likely to be held soon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to travel to China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit later this year. He will also meet Xi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina and the BRICS summit in South Africa.
The Modi government’s China policy has moved from staying firm during the Doklam standoff and backing the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in April 2017 to appeasing China over the Dalai Lama’s anniversary celebrations. Foreign Minister Wang is happy. “With political trust, not even the Himalayas can stop us from friendly exchanges. Without it, not even level land can bring us together,” he said.
Xi’s self-inflicted vulnerability has, however, opened the door for India to reset its China policy. Beijing clearly wants a phase of quietude with India as it resolves its own problems at home and with the West. India must now insist on China withdrawing its veto on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and designating JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. China will not give up its aggressive expansion in the Indian Ocean or abandon Pakistan as an all-weather ally. But if India plays its cards well, the time is ripe for a more robust modus vivendi with Beijing that advances India’s national interest.
The author is an editor and publisher