Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Beijing in mid-May for a second summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping within a year, clearly indicates a desire to improve ties with China. At the same time, the addition of two other countries in the itinerary hints that reciprocity will henceforth be a factor in the relationship. Countries around the world will closely watch this meeting between a decisive, nationalist and pragmatic Modi and Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong whose vision for China is encapsulated in the muscular ‘China Dream’.
In the interim, Modi has taken steps to strengthen border patrols and India’s border defence infrastructure. He has given Indo-US relations an unambiguous orientation and consolidated ties with Japan and Vietnam. He has concluded successful engagements with France, Germany and Canada, all of which include economic, hi-tech or defence-related agreements.
Receiving Modi, on the other hand, will be a self-confident Chinese leadership buoyed by the successful launch of the New Development Bank (formerly BRICS Bank) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Especially gladdening for Beijing has been that among those joining are close US allies like UK and Australia who, disregarding US advice, queued to join the AIIB.
These financial institutions complement Xi Jinping’s twin economic initiatives of the ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘Maritime Silk Route’, both elevated to national strategy. Two conferences held in Beijing in October 2013 and November 2014 laid their groundwork. The ‘Conference on Peripheral Diplomacy’ in 2013, for the first time labelled neighbours as “friends” and “enemy”, promised huge fiscal and other benefits to “friends”, and articulated the concept of Beijing-led security alliances. Both hinted that China would attempt to alter existing power relationships that have defined the Asia-Pacific region’s geo-strategic environment.
As during the Chinese President’s visit last September, India should anticipate another definite push for endorsement of the twin economic initiatives being steered personally by Xi Jinping. Approval would immediately put at serious risk the fragile economies of India’s vulnerable north eastern states.
A high priority on China’s agenda is to prevent India from drawing too close to the US and Japan and Beijing can be expected to portray itself as ‘accommodating’ and ‘flexible’. Early indicators are the suggestion by a Chinese official of likely investments of US $10 billion and remark by China’s Ambassador to India that the Chinese people are courteous and would give a warm welcome to India’s prime minister. His comment could have also been intended to partially address lingering apprehension in New Delhi that Beijing may plan some action to embarrass the visiting dignitary.
Nevertheless, for there to be meaningful forward movement in the India-China relationship, five main issues require to be addressed during prime minister Modi’s visit. These are: (i) the disputed border; (ii) the unprovoked intrusions, including road construction inside Indian territory, by Chinese troops; (iii) plans for diversion of the Brahmaputra River to the north; (iv) Chinese activities in PoK and the close Sino-Pakistan relationship which is essentially strategic and defence-related and impinges directly on India’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity; and (v) the immense trade deficit disadvantageous to India.
The first three are particularly emotionally-charged issues as they impact on the country’s sovereignty, national pride and future. Another is China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
Beijing has already, through an unusual number of official articles and comments by officials, including in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, stated its position on the border issue. These reveal no hint of flexibility in China’s position. The document adopted by the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 also, for the first time, emphasised that there will be “no compromises” on issues concerning “national sovereignty and security of core interests”. Senior Chinese Party and military officials, including Xi Jinping, have reiterated there will be “no compromises” on “national sovereignty and security of core interests”.
While saying the border issue is important, China has kept the focus on the eastern sector — including the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. On April 9, 2015, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hu Chunying said: “There is a huge dispute in the eastern border of China-India border. This is undeniable fact.” The eastern sector and particularly Tawang, will be a serious sticking point especially at this time when China is giving high priority to avoiding a situation of “twin Dalai Lamas” and is insistent that he reincarnates inside China.
At the same time, Beijing has avoided mention of the 14,380 square miles (approx. 37,244 sq kms) of territory under its forcible occupation in the western, or Ladakh, sector, in an attempt to place it outside the scope of discussion. This was indirectly indicated in the composition of the delegation to India led (Feb, 27-March 2, 2015) by Chinese General Zhang Youxia. The delegation did not include a representative of the Lanzhou Military Region which exercises direct operational jurisdiction over the western, or Ladakh, sector.
There is a Chinese suggestion that “identifying the lines of control on each side will be a key step to facilitating the long-stalled process of bringing the disputes to a peaceful resolution”. It said this would help avoid “border standoffs … such as the one in September last year which started before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to India…” The views were implicitly endorsed by prime minister Modi in his interview with Hindustan Times on April 9, 2015.
Obviating intrusions by Chinese troops would certainly be a major first step towards addressing the issue of absent trust and improving India-China relations. While discussing “lines of control”, however, it would be prudent to remember that the maximum intrusions by Chinese troops have been in the western sector and that Beijing will approach discussions on the “lines of control” in this sector as a potential basis for a future settlement.
In this context, India must address the issue of China’s expanded territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, reiterated unequivocally in the context of stapled visas by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in June 2014. Discussions should include Beijing’s unwavering pressure on international financial institutions, like the Asian Development Bank, compelling them not to give financial assistance to development projects in Arunachal Pradesh.