Not much has changed

A close reading of the joint statement suggests that cautious, slow and steady diplomacy continues to remain in vogue between the two countries. Modi’s arrival has changed the optics of the visit. There is a different demonstration of the confidence level in the Indian leadership as seen in the announcement granting e-visas to the Chinese, but not much has changed beyond that.

Friday’s meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang in Beijing suggests that both countries are reluctant to move miles in one go. Both the countries will continue to take small steps, slowly but firmly, to keep the forward movement going.

There was unanimous belief about the importance of the visit. “I am pleased to visit China in the first year of my government. This is one of our most important strategic partnerships,” said Modi after meeting President Xi Jinping in Xian on Thursday. But due to the historic baggage that both countries carry on both sides of the Himalayas, Modi’s first visit to China since becoming PM was seen with cautious optimism.

Both sides have played cautiously while moving forward, as detailed in the joint statement issued after the delegation level talks on Friday.

According to analyst Sheela Bhatt “it tells us that both sides want a deeper understanding on:
• Strengthening political dialogue and strategic communication.
• Next steps in closer developmental partnership.
• Culture and people-to-people exchanges.
• New avenues for cooperation.
• Trans-border cooperation.
• Shaping the regional and global agenda.

A source in the government, who is well-versed with Beijing’s thinking, according to Bhatt said the Chinese seem to be forming a different perception of Modi between President Xi’s visit to India last September and Modi’s visit to China now. China is not offering a different menu to the new Indian leader, said the source.

Modi wanted to change the matrix and forge a new relationship in the next four years but he was cautious, too. Maybe the Chinese leaders read that shrewdly. Modi is bound to maintain a balance between his nationalist instincts and penchant for big businesses and mega projects for which China is the most suited.

“Modi said when it comes to our relations, there was no question of going back but standing still was also not an option. There’s a sense that yes, we have issues, we must address them, but that should not lead us to neglect the opportunities,” Jaishankar said as he shared the predicament of the Indian side with the media after the talks.

Jaishankar’s press conference clearly implied that both sides were realistic but not necessarily upbeat to put the relations on the fast track.

The border issue remained unresolved. While talking about having clarification on the 4,057 km-long Line of Actual Control, Modi said, “I stressed on the need for China to re-consider its approach to some issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership. We both reiterated our strong commitment to make all efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border region. We should be sensitive to each others’ interest.”

But China remains reluctant to give round the year river stream data, refuses to stop issuing stapled visa for Indians belonging to Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir travelling to China and is not making any headway on the Indian demand to provide clarifications on the Line of Actual Control.
China’s Silk Road and Maritime Route initiative is not being supported by India, yet, nor is there is any substantial announcement on it. Notwithstanding the announcement on e-visas, there is a kind of status quo on how China views India.

Resolution of boundary issue critical to counter trust deficit

Commenting on Prime Minister Modi’s three-day visit to China, political observers say, bilateral relations need to be upgraded in areas like strategic economic area, on issues of military-to-military cooperation (itself a solid confidence-building measure), better connectivity, consultations on disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control etc.

All of this requires a degree of trust to be built which is lacking. To retore this, resolution of the boundary question is paramount. Transgressions continue to occur along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) although the areas along the LAC in the India-China border areas have remained largely clash-free. And since 1993, various agreements to maintain peace and tranquillity, and confidence-building mechanisms between border security personnel on both sides, have kept the peace effectively.

In an interview on the eve of Modi’s visit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that settling the boundary question “as early as possible is the historical responsibility that falls on both governments”. This is not an impossible goal but will require the political strength, confidence, conviction and fibre to accept mutual adjustment and accommodation so that an agreed boundary line demarcates the long frontier between India and China.

The expert view in India is that China wants to keep the pot boiling, as it were, on the boundary issue to be used as a leverage at an opportune time. China also perhaps looks at the bigger global picture, which when it turns favorable, could be the time for resolution of the border.

Interpreting Chinese intentions from the meeting of the two leaders at the BRICS annual meeting at Durban in March 2013, Prem Shankar Jha, senior journalist sees ample evidence of positive intentions of the Chinese leadership to make real progress in resolving the border dispute. This could one day result in a resumption of talks on the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas. “Demarcation will facilitate the disengagement and pull back of troops on both sides that was envisaged in the 1993 Agreement, but it has been stuck for more than a decade because of China’s reluctance to reconcile Indian and Chinese maps of the region. Without this there is no way to even know where to pull back from.

“Further progress will probably depend upon Delhi’s willingness to deepen strategic cooperation with Beijing. China would welcome but does not need India’s support in its disputes with Japan and the US. What it would like is help in curbing the increasing appetite of the West for using unprovoked economic and military coercion against so-called ‘rogue states’ in flagrant disregard for the primacy of diplomacy and the need to respect the sovereignty of nations enshrined in the UN charter.

“As the principal challenger to Western hegemony, China cannot rule out being put on the rogues’ list in the future. It therefore wants to enlist India’s considerable ‘soft power’ to check this trend. India had been one of the strongest defenders of both principles in the past, but is now practising a moral neutrality – justified as realpolitik — that has made it edge ever closer to betraying them: witness its abstention in the Security Council on the invasion of Libya and its silence on the destruction of Syria, and the Saudi attack on Yemen”.

LAC not ripe for settlement

Claude Arpi, who writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations explains why the border issue is unlikely to be resolved during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China.

There was no “border issue” between India and Tibet before 1951 when the Chinese took control of Tibet. The People’s Liberation Army thereafter, progressively stopped the age-old trade and exchanges between India and the Dalai Lama’s land.

By the end of the decade, despite the Panchsheel Agreement (“on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India”) signed in April 1954, the traditional “soft” border between India and Tibet (now China) became real, concrete, tangible, sensitive and eventually the object of a “border war” in 1962.
On November 7, 1959, in a letter addressed to Jawaharlal Nehru, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai used for the first time a new terminology. He wrote that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) consisted of “the so-called McMahon Line in the East and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the West.” The term “LAC” became a legal concept in the Sino-Indian agreements signed in 1993 and 1996, 2012 and 2013. The 1996 agreement states, “No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control.”
But that is not all. To complicate the issue further, another term has recently appeared in the diplomats’ jargon: “a perceptional border” because India and China have different perceptions of where their LAC lies. Moreover, China refuses to share with India the maps of its perception.

Today, the more than 4,000 km-long LAC, is divided in three sectors: the western sector (Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir), the middle sector (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) and the eastern sector (Sikkim and Arunachal). All have large or small disputed areas.

Claude Arpi suggests that a solution probably favoured by Beijing would be to “exchange” the Aksai Chin area in Ladakh, vital for China, as it links Tibet and Xinjiang, against Arunachal Pradesh that is claimed by Beijing. But even this would not resolve the border issue.

There will be no return to the situation ante 1951, when trade and cultural exchanges flourished between Tibet and India. China will never accept to reopen the Himalayan routes which were closed in 1962, namely Demchok (Ladakh), Shipka-la (Himachal Pradesh), Mana and Niti pass (Uttarakhand), Jelep-la (West Bengal), and others routes in Arunachal Pradesh such as Kibithu (Anjaw district), Bumla (Tawang district) Menchuka, Manigong (West Siang district) and Gelling-Tuting (Upper Siang district).

China will also not agree to reopen an Indian consulate general in Lhasa and trade agencies in Gyantse, Yatung and Gartok (Ngari), all of which were functional till 1962. It will not allow cultural and religious exchange between the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and those in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh, as was the case in the past. Importantly, China will not accept to have a frank discussion on the Tibet issue and the fate of the Tibetan refugees in India.
In conclusion, the analyst says “the border issue is not ripe for settlement”.

Tactical and strategic issues

China watchers note that relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level. Though the territorial dispute remains unresolved, neither side appears likely to seek a military solution and not a shot has been fired in anger since the Nathu La clashes of 1967. However, says military affairs analyst, Gurmeet Kanwal, China’s political, diplomatic and military assertiveness at the tactical level is acting as a dampener on the larger relationship. In recent years, China has raised the ante by way of its shrill political rhetoric, frequent transgressions across the LAC and unprecedented cyber-attacks on Indian networks.

There has been little progress in the ongoing negotiations between the political interlocutors of the two Prime Ministers. Due to Chinese intransigence, it has not been possible so far to demarcate the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the ground and on military maps. The 18th round of talks held in March 2015, failed to break the deadlock.

Kanwal says, China’s India narrative has civilizational moorings and its thinking is driven by the Middle Kingdom syndrome. Its competition with India at the strategic level goes well beyond the territorial dispute, which is merely a symptom and not the cause. China finds it difficult to accept India as a co-equal power in Asia and would like to confine India to the backwaters of the Indian Ocean as a subaltern state. As part of its grand strategy, China is engaged in a carefully orchestrated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India.

Given these deep rooted differences, political observers say, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping can, building on the positives of the Modi visit, lay foundations of a stable Sino-Indian relationship.

Prof. Minxin Pei who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in the US, says the conventional wisdom is that China and India, two fast-growing giants, are trapped in a zero-sum strategic rivalry. China, which was Asia’s dominant power for centuries, wants to reassert its hegemony and regards a powerful India as an obstacle to its ambitions. India, a victim of Western colonialism, sees itself as South Asia’s undisputed regional leader and views any attempt by China to establish its primacy in Asia as a threat to its national security and economic interests.

As with most conventional wisdoms, the perception that India and China are strategic rivals has substantial factual basis. Indeed, China and India have been engaged in delicate geopolitical manoeuvring to balance each other. China has given substantial economic and military aid to Pakistan, India’s nemesis, to check Indian power. In addition, Beijing has been energetically wooing Southeast Asian countries through trade and investment to gain “first mover” advantage in a region of enormous strategic value to both India and China.

In response, says the analyst, India has moved closer to the United States, which regards India as a natural strategic partner in maintaining Asia’s balance of power. The burgeoning US-India relationship has greatly strengthened New Delhi’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Beijing. At the same time, India has also become more active in East and Southeast Asia. India-Japan relations have greatly improved in recent years. On the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, India has taken a bold stance that essentially rejects Beijing’s claims. This has won Delhi friends in Southeast Asia, even though it has infuriated China.

This list of the strategic and tactical moves deployed by China and India might make one think that the two countries are, indeed, engaged in a costly, if not dangerous, contest for power. But, says Prof. Minxin Pei, this is not the whole story of India-China relations.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of India-China relations is that the leaders of the two countries have managed to “walk and chew” at the same time. Despite their conflicting visions of Asia’s regional order, mutual strategic distrust and threat perception, India and China have succeeded in keeping their strategic rivalry under control and broadening the areas in which they can cooperate.

The view of some Indian analysts is slightly different. Prior to Prime Minister Modi’s China visit Arun Shourie, a former minister in the Vajpayee government, cautioned Modi against being swept by Chinese pomp and economic carrots as fundamental areas of dissonance and persistent Chinese conduct, impinging on national security, need addressing.

K.C. Singh, former secretary in the external affairs ministry says “Sino-Indian issues are both tactical and strategic. Amongst the former India seeks predictability at the LAC, balanced trade, China opening service, agriculture and other protected sectors of Chinese economy, foreign direct investment from China, etc. The Chinese seek level playing field and restrictions on visas and investment to be removed, special economic zones for their investors, penetration into critical Indian infrastructure, etc.

“At the strategic level, India wants China to recognise Indian core concerns — boosting Pakistan’s nuclear weapon and conventional capability, building dams and tampering with rivers flowing to South Asia, surrounding Indian periphery with captive ports with military potential and hollowing out Indian industry with their exports. China would want curbs on Tibetans, specifically Dalai Lama, dilute growing Indian proximity to the US, Japan and Vietnam, accelerated development of Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, China Economic Corridor and ensure India does not join regional voices in condemning Chinese unilateralism in its maritime neighbourhood”.

Singh says the strategic dimension hovers over the Prime Minister and economic and investment choices cannot be made in isolation. “India’s China policy has to be embedded in its larger Asia policy to ensure leverage in dealing with China. India needs time, investment, growth acceleration and military and technological boost. While China wants a stake in Indian growth, it is not about to do what US did for China, i.e. help India rise”.

Security implications of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)

It is understood that the Prime Minister underplayed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)issue.But Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary, is suspicious of China’s intentions concerning the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) announced during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Pakistan as it “presents India with many strategic challenges. To begin with, the CPEC will traverse through India’s territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan”.

Both Pakistan and China accepted in their 1963 Sino-Pakistan Agreement that the territory does not legally belong to Pakistan and so it has no ground to contest India’s sovereignty over that area. This Agreement throughout refers to China’s Sinkiang and “the contiguous areas the defence of which is under the actual control of Pakistan”.

Sisbal argues that China’s statement that India should not worry about the CPEC as it does not impinge on the India-Pakistan dispute contradicts its 1963 position. China claims that this is a “commercial project”, when in fact it is a vital geostrategic project with serious military dimensions in future.
China, he says “is confounding matters by linking the CPEC to its so-called one belt-one road initiative. The idea of the CPEC has been discussed between China and Pakistan before China unveiled its larger initiative. China wants to deflect Indian concerns by inserting the CPEC into a larger trans-continental connectivity plan based on consultation and cooperation so that it loses its specific anti-India strategic connotation. China, however, has already created key connectivities for accessing natural resources, whether it is the oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Sinkiang or such pipelines across Russia to northern China, not to mention the connectivity through Myanmar. It is already boasting of rail transportation links across Eurasia connecting Shanghai with Lisbon. It has been investing in Sri Lanka to develop its maritime silk route strategy, much before announcing its one belt-one road initiative”.

Sibal concludes that “China will not give up its claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Pakistan on Kashmir. China has now taken the major decision to invest massively in Pakistan despite the latter’s crumbling economic and political situation, with widespread internal terrorism and radicalisation of its society. Normally, countries avoid investing on this scale in unstable countries, but China is doing the opposite for wider strategic reasons. Pakistan will, unfortunately, see this flow of funds and arms, not only from China but also the US, as evidence of its successful leveraging of its geopolitical position and as a validation of its policies. One can see the consequence of this already in Pakistan’s more belligerent posture towards India. It has been buoyed further by its success with President Ashraf Ghani’s Afghanistan”.

India should not lower our strategic defences because of economics he says. “China wants to expand economic ties with India without relenting strategically. India should follow a similar policy. It would be an error to unilaterally ease visa regulations for the Chinese if Beijing continues to issue stapled visas to the people of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. Most important, India must protest against the CPEC going through territory that is legally Indian”.

Cooperation on terror

Analyst Pramit Pal Chaudhuri says the Sino-Indian joint statement has a longer-than-usual section on terrorism cooperation. It is also the first such statement to urge other countries to stop “cross-border” terrorist movement and disrupt terror “networks”.

There are four reasons, he says why China has begun trying to engage India more closely on terrorism. One, China is increasingly worried about the rising Islamicist terror problem it is facing among its Uighur minority in the western province of Xinjiang. Most worryingly is that this terror problem is spreading to other parts of the country. “The last couple of years have seen a shift in Chinese perceptions of the terrorism problem from a largely local one in Xinjiang to a national-level concern, with attacks taking place in major Chinese cities, and moves from a very narrow focus on Uighur militants to looking more broadly at the enabling networks of extremism in the region,” says Andrew Small, fellow of the German Marshall Fund and author of the book, “The China-Pakistan Axis.”

Two, Chinese analysts privately say Beijing fears that Islamic fundamentalism and, in its view, the potential for Islamic terror is spreading beyond to the much larger non-Uighur Muslim population, including Han Muslims. The Uighurs number about six million, but the larger Chinese Muslim population is around 30 million and spread all across central China. “The crackdown on visible manifestations of Islam–hijabs, fasting and so on–is a crude attempt to control the spread of Islamic fundamentalism,” said a Beijing-based Western diplomat.

Three, China’s state-owned Global Times has said Beijing believes about 300 Chinese Muslims have joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The ISIS threat is a new one for China. Unlike al Qaeda, the ISIS has publicly named China as one of its targets–one reason Beijing has provided arms to the Iraqi and Syrian governments. In closed door sessions, Chinese security analysts say the number of Chinese ISIS recruits may be double that. The figure is uncertain because recruits are now exfiltrating across the porous Myanmar-China border rather than the tightly monitored Sino-Pakistan boundary.

Four, Beijing believes that this terror spike is linked to the vaccuum being created by the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan–and Pakistan’s evident inability to control its northwestern tribal areas. Says Small, “Beijing thinks that forging common ground with India will be important when it comes to navigating the Afghanistan aftermath. It wants to ensure that the two sides are not at odds there, China implicitly wants India’s acquiescence to the enlarged role Beijing is playing in Afghanistan at the moment–on issues such as Taliban reconciliation.” Beijing, he believes, sees India as probably the only major actor in Afghanistan that might be expected to be suspicious or even hostile to such Chinese moves.
This has not necessarily gone down well in Islamabad. But in track-two talks with Indians, Chinese delegates have said Beijing-New Delhi should talk “without concern about the objections of third countries.” Says Small, “China is understood to be pushing Pakistan in a helpful direction on Afghanistan rather than indifferent to (or even facilitating) the sort of policies that Pakistan pursued there in the past.”

Finally, China sees terrorism cooperation as a crucial and useful element in its larger attempts to create a sphere of stability on its periphery. Phil Potter, a terrorism policy expert at the University of Virginia, notes that “China is using shared concerns over terrorism as a tool for regional cooperation. This has been evident with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” He argues Beijing sees this as an area in which two strategic rivals can share some common ground and “it is therefore something that China will happily put on the table.” As much as China cares about terrorism, Potter believes, “it cares about regional interstate relations a great deal more.” But Small sees it less cynically: “Beijing genuinely believes the two sides’ views on terrorism have come closer together in the last few years.”

India’s conciliatory approach to China

Analyst Sandeep Dikshit notes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been unusually subdued and even accommodating towards China on strategic issues. An example is India’s virtual lack of response to the high-profile Pakistan China Economic Corridor (PCEC) via Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.

A little earlier, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar put the brakes on the previous United Progressive Alliance Government’s plan to raise a special mountain corps to beef up defences against China. The signal to China about downsizing of the corps was distinctively non-adversarial.

And says Dikshit, Modi signalled the prime focus of his trip by announcing K V Kamath as the chief of the BRICS Bank. The intent is unmistakable – China is the engine that will deliver some quick economic results to the Indian economy. On his last visit to India, XI had announced $20 billion-worth projects but Modi is looking beyond that. The appointment of Kamath as the BRICS Bank is a far cry from India’s stand a couple of years ago when it along with South Africa were suspicious of the project and saw it as China’s attempt to dominate the five nation grouping of Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS).

Last month, India made another reconciliatory gesture. It sidestepped US and International Monetary Fund (IMF) disapprobation and along with close US allies joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Fund.
In his interview to Time magazine, Modi once again broadcast his conciliatory approach towards China. While strategic experts have been recalling the incursion by Chinese troops during Xi’s visit, the threat by the Chinese funded economic belt from the Himalayas in Pakistan’s north to its port in the south-west, increased interest in Afghanistan and the greater deployment of military vessels in South China Sea, Modi even defended China’s assertiveness as “a very natural tendency for nations to increase their influence in the international space, as they pursue their international relations with different countries.”

Modi no longer the strong leader that he was

According to analyst Anand K Sahay when Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes to China this week, he will be a weaker leader than when he received President Xi Jinping last year, still flush from an impressive Lok Sabha victory. He was a new kind of highly confident leader who had out of the box ideas. The days of submissiveness, to which Modi’s predecessors, especially those of the Congress stripe, had dragged the nation, were over.

The reason for the conciliatory approach may be that Modi may not be as strong a leader as he was a few months ago. Therefore, analyst Sahay aniticiapted that during Modi’s visit “perhaps the Chinese would make all the right noises but play the waiting game. Like we know here, they too would know that they are no longer dealing with the strong man who had the country waiting at the snap of his finger only a year ago. But one year out of the five for which he has been elected is only 20 per cent of the time, and the Indian leader may well bounce back. So, Mr Xi could make room for that thought”.