NEW DELHI:In the last 12 months, India and China officials have had at least 14 meetings at the leadership and ministerial levels. Of them, NSA Ajit Doval himself has had two standalone meetings—as prime minister’s special envoy to China in September and then meeting with State Councillor Yang Jiechi in Munich in February.
When the former intelligence officer and then the head of a Delhi-based think-tank joined South Block, expertise on China was not among his top qualifications on his impressive CV. But that doesn’t stop the PM from relying on his counsel on security-related matters.
“I don’t think he thought a great deal about China before being appointed NSA, except as regards its intelligence capabilities, on which subject he published a detailed paper in June 2013. There is little evidence in his writing or experience about the broad, strategic aspects of the Sino-Indian relationship, or granular detail on something like the border dispute,” said Shashank Joshi of Royal United Services Institute in London, who has collaborated with Doval during the latter’s Vivekananda International Foundation days.
Incidentally, Modi has had consultations on China with a wider circle of experts, including former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon and former foreign secretary Shyam Saran—two people who have lived and studied the middle kingdom, almost their entire lives. Doval in a 2012 article had spelt out three areas where a rising China would needle India—militarisation and increased aggressiveness of border areas, nexus with Pakistan and spreading Indian Ocean footprint, with links to surrounding countries around India.
In the last one year, there has been movement in meeting two of those three challenges. A slew of approvals were given for infrastructure projects on the India-China border by this government, including strategic railway network in the North-east and garland of 76 border roads.
It is in India’s maritime neighbourhood that Doval has had a clear imprint. Last December, he conveyed India’s objection to the Chinese naval submarines berthing at Colombo port directly to Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Modi then went on an Indian Ocean sojourn, with stops at Mauritius, Seychelles, before landing in a friendlier, post-Rajapaksa Colombo. Among Doval’s relatively few foreign trips, choosing Vietnam was also another signal.
As a NSA, he is also at the helm of the trilateral mechanism with Maldives and Sri Lanka. So far, domestic compulsions in both Colombo and Male have led the scheduled meeting in March to be postponed. When it does take place, it will give formal approval to the inclusion of Seychelles into the grouping, ensuring India’s influence remains intact as China continues to throw lures with its Maritime Silk Road policy.
However, it is as special representative for the border talks that Doval’s influence will be felt crucially. “If talks on the border dispute do progress, I imagine his well-honed negotiating skills will become extremely important, and his views on issues like border security will be resonant,” said Joshi.
When Jaishankar, with his impressive collections of ties and pocket handkerchiefs, came in as foreign secretary, it was but natural that Doval would accede some space to a person who has been India’s longest serving ambassador to China.
This would have been an organic process, especially since Jaishankar and Modi’s vision about China have been largely through the same lines—attracting Chinese capital, along with a penchant for straight talk. Jaishankar had got a reputation of being a tough talker, which his Chinese hosts had acknowledged on several occasions.
During this visit, Modi generously granted e-visa facility to China—on the insistence of MEA, over the objections of security agencies. But China also got an unexpected surprise, when Modi in public remarks asked Premier Li Keqiang to “reconsider” its positions on issues of dispute and to take a more “long-term and strategic” view.
That the foreign secretary mentioned that India had protested China’s infrastructure projects in PoK just before the visit began was also not an accident—it was a clear strategy to project that Modi government was willing to play mind games.
While the two top bureaucrats have been shaping government policy, China has been building up contacts at the party level, which had given Modi another channel for contacts with Bejing.
On the party front, the BJP has been building bridges with China, for years. The engagement deepened since the new government took over. From the party side, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav has been central to carrying forward Modi’s message to foreign countries where he has been actively engaging with Indian diaspora and officials to draw up plans, every time Modi intends to visit there. Party sources said Madhav’s role was to coordinate with the Chinese Communist Party given that it is sole mover in the country. Madhav engaged with them to thrash out Modi’s programme and finally the big civic reception planned for the PM at Shanghai, and children and people waving and receiving Modi at Beijing and Xi’an. Madhav tied up with Indian community of businessmen, students so that they gather in high numbers to welcome Modi, particularly during the civic reception in Shanghai. “Modi was the first Indian PM to visit Shanghai ever. The massive reception he got through his visit was unparalleled since Jawaharlal Nehru,” said the party source, adding optics were important to any foreign visit. A senior BJP leader told The Sunday Standard, “key takeaway from Modi’s China visit was that it treated India as equal partner and agreed that we are an equal partner in the development story.” He added: “This assumes significance as China has never viewed any of its neighbours as equal, and its philosophy and strategy have that been of maintaining an air of superiority.”
China holds a special attraction for this RSS paracharak who was inducted into the BJP last year. Madhav has been researching China for years, which culminated in a book last year. Titled Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after 50 years of the War, Madhav took a look at India’s policy vis-a-vis China and called for India playing a pro-active role in the region.
The ground work for PM’s visit to China had started last year. Madhav visited the neighbouring country in September, where he met China’s Communist Party officials. This visit was also to prepare ground for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited India a few days later in September. Since then, BJP followed up party-to-party contact by sending three delegations to China. First was a delegation led by BJP secretary Siddharth Nath Singh, then another led by party MP and former Uttarakhand CM Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, and another 14-member delegation, comprising party MPs, MLAs, and other handpicked by the PMO.
Now, ahead of Modi’s visit to China, Madhav was again in China early this month to hold talks with Chinese officials and members of the Indian diaspora for various Modi events.
Madhav along with BJP’s foreign affairs cell in-charge Vijay Chauthaiwale had engaged with Indian businessmen in China and Hong Kong to make Modi event successful in China.