Modi’s China visit has been high on optics but low on substance.
The former is reflected in president Xi Jinping receiving Modi in his hometown of Xian—a first for any Chinese head of state in respect of a foreign leader—and spending more than five hours with him inclusive of extensive discussions, visits to the Dacien temple and the Wild Goose Pagoda, a cultural show and a special banquet. The next day premier Li Keqiang accorded Modi an official ceremonial welcome and hosted a state banquet in his honour. Indeed, the two leaders spent almost the whole day together as there were also lengthy official meetings, attendance at the first China-India State and Provincial Leaders Forum and a Yoga-Taichi demonstration event. Visuals of Modi spending quality time with both the leaders in which they seemed to be at ease with each other adds to the perception that the visit was a success. These upbeat optics were enhanced by Modi’s address to students at Tsinghua and Fudan universities, by the signing of some 24 intergovernmental MoUs and finally by his interaction with the Chinese business community in Shanghai where over 20 deals estimated at about $22 billion were reportedly concluded.
However, the 41-paragraph joint statement issued at the end of Modi’s talks with Li Keqiang, shorn of a lot of high-sounding aspirational fluff, is disappointing as it is devoid of any concrete step to satisfactorily address any of India’s critical concerns. Thus, there are no prospects of an early settlement of the all-important boundary dispute, no meaningful steps have been taken to reduce India’s gargantuan $48-billion trade imbalance with China in a time-bound manner, the stapled visa issue remains unresolved, agreement has not been reached on comprehensive data sharing inclusive of construction of dams relating to common rivers, and China’s support to India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and of a permanent seat in the UN Security Council remains a distant dream. It goes without saying that China has shown no sensitivity to India’s concerns about the former’s involvement in huge projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and its involvement in Pakistan’s civil and military nuclear programmes.
The importance of the over 40 intergovernmental and business deals should not be overrated. None of them is transformational in nature. Indeed, the intergovernmental MoUs ranging from establishment of consulate generals to those between Doordarshan and China Central Television are in the main quite ordinary and the business deals, though more substantive, will take years to mature. Thus, the annual inflow of capital into India resulting from there will be miniscule.
While the joint statement does not fortunately endorse China’s one belt, one road project, it goes through the uncalled-for ritual of reiterating that Tibet is a part of China which, though abandoned in the latter part of the UPA regime, was quite unexpectedly revived in the Modi-Xi Jinping joint statement of September last.
It is also perturbing that Modi, while asserting in his Beijing media statement that he had raised India’s concerns on the boundary issue and the mounting trade deficit with the Chinese leadership, goes on to suggest he found them receptive in the matter. Clearly, Chinese hospitality and its famed dissimulation has blinded Modi to the reality that China will not give India satisfaction on these issues.
Such bending over backwards to please China is, of course, a part of our puzzling history but, unfortunately, Modi from whom more spine was expected has also fallen prey to this national disease. Thus, shortly before Modi’s visit to China, Amit Shah’s scheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama was cancelled and clearance was not accorded to involving Japan in the preparations for the India-US Malabar naval exercises slate for later this year.
China’s inimical attitude towards India is well reflected in the highly tendentious article titled “Can Modi’s Visit Upgrade Sino-Indian Ties?” published in the Global Times on the eve of the visit. The article inter alia argues that Modi has been “playing little tricks over border disputes and security issues”, that he should not visit the disputed border region, and that India should stop “supporting the Dalai Lama, and stop making the Tibetan issue a stumbling block to the Sino Indian relationship”. It concludes by suggesting that very few Indians can address Sino-Indian relations rationally due to the Indian elite’s “blind arrogance and confidence in their democracy, and the inferiority of its ordinary people”.
Such a deeply biased article couched in harsh and even insulting language in a leading paper of a state as authoritarian as China should prima facie have merited cancellation of Modi’s visit. Regrettably, this did not happen and perhaps not even a protest was lodged. Is it any surprise that during the visit itself the Chinese Central Television projected maps in which India was depicted without J&K and Arunachal Pradesh? It is not known whether or not we protested but it is more likely that we ignored this reprehensible move and chose to turn the other cheek.
Clearly, the Modi government’s policy towards China, and indeed even Pakistan, is little different from that of the UPA. Both have turned away from the adoption of robust and muscular policies and chosen instead to pursue policies of appeasement attractively packaged for approbation at home and abroad as exercises in engagement. History has shown the futility of following such weak-kneed policies and that firm and principled policies are the best guarantors of national interest.
A hard-headed approach with China would demand that we insist on an early time-bound settlement of the boundary issue and for starters, this could begin with the delineation and demarcation of the Line of Actual Control. We must learn to leverage the enormous economic opportunities for China in India towards this end, particularly at a time it is facing an economic slowdown and we are on the cusp of an upturn. China is not doing India any great favour by investing in it but on the contrary it is India which helps it by providing a profitable investment opportunity. So we don’t have to go out of our way to seek Chinese investment at a time the whole world sees India as an investment opportunity. As to pinpricks, stapled visas by China should be responded to by stapled visas for all Hans from Tibet and not by grant of the e-visa facility as we have chosen to do during Modi’s visit. Also, multilateral naval and other exercises by India should be the order of the day, given the Sino-Pak military nexus, and we must be ready to play not just the Tibet but also the Sinkiang card.
The writer is a former Deputy National Security Adviser, Government of India. firstname.lastname@example.org