INDIA – CHINA: MODI’S CHINA VISIT

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be leaving New Delhi on a six-day three-nation tour which will take him first to China and then to Mongolia and South Korea. This will be the first ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Mongolia.

In China, he will visit three cities called China’s “past”, “present” and “future” – Xian [the past of China], Beijing [the present of China] and Shanghai [the future of China]. On May 14, Modi will land in Xian, the hometown of President Xi Jinping, where he will be received by Xi and be taken around (as Modi did when the former visited Ahmedabad) before proceeding to Beijing for official talks on May 15. The next day, May 16, Modi will visit Shanghai where the highlight of his visit is the address to the Indian community [students and businessmen] in China.

Modi confirmed his visit to China on Sina Weibo – China’s cross between Twitter and Facebook, when he said, “Looking forward to visiting China from 14-16 May to strengthen friendship between our two ancient civilizations and the two largest developing countries.” China’s official media welcomed Modi’s initiative to open an account on the popular Chinese social microblog Weibo, saying he scored a “big hit” of his coming visit to China.

President Xi’s special gesture of taking him around Xian will be a sign of great symbolism. It was back in October 2000 that the then President Jiang Zemin had taken French President Jacques Chirac to his hometown of Yangzhou in eastern China’s Jiangsu province – directly like in Modi’s case without touching down in Beijing. Exactly a year before in 1999 when Jiang was visiting France, Chirac had invited him to his family chateau in south-western France for a lavish dinner.

Border issue

Issues of common interest, including the festering border question, will be on the agenda when Modi holds talks with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and Zhang Dejiang, head of China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress. “The boundary question is an issue of common interest. So, I believe that this question will be covered in their talks. We look forward to enhancing the communication with the Indian side to strive for more process on the issue’, said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying at a press briefing in Beijing on May 5. Hua added, the two sides have maintained the peace and tranquility of the border areas and positive outcomes have been achieved in economy and trade as well as on some other issues.

Both sides had agreed during the 18th round of border talks in March to address the strategic “communication issue” between their militaries. While reiterating mutual commitment to the 1954, 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013 agreements, both sides are expected to announce more meeting points in Ladakh where there are now 12 areas of LAC differences beyond the two identified by both sides in 19956. Thus, in addition to the sole Chushul meeting point, the two sides are exploring possibilities for meeting points at Track Junction, Pangong Tso, Chumar and Demchok in Ladakh Talks regarding hot line links between the Army Headquarters and Chinese Theatre Headquarters in Xinjiang are also expected to show positive outcome.

Prime Minister Modi said India and China have “learnt from history” in dealing with their border dispute and asserted that bilateral ties have reached a stage where they can cooperate at a global level while competing in commerce and trade. In an interview with the TIME magazine ahead of his visit to China, Modi said “There is by and large peace and tranquility on the India-China border. It is not a volatile border. Not a single bullet has been fired for over a quarter of a century now. This essentially goes to prove that both countries have learnt from history”. Talking about the vexed border dispute, Modi told the US-based magazine, “In so far as the India-China relationship is concerned specifically, it is true that there is a long border between India and China and a large part of it is disputed. Still, I think both countries have shown great maturity in the last couple of decades to ensure and commit to economic cooperation which has continued to grow over the last 20 to 30 years to a stage where we currently have an extensive trade, investment and project-related engagement between the two countries. Asked about China’s assertiveness and influence on the world stage, including in South Asia, Modi said, “I think there is not a single country in the world which would not want to increase its influence internationally I think, it is a very natural tendency for nations to increase their influence”.

Both sides are also set to discuss greater cooperation on maritime security as the Chinese Navy spreads its reach in the Indian Ocean and India begins to Act East.

Economic and trade

In a similar interview with INDIA TODAY, the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang praised Modi for his “resolve and courage” in pushing forward economic reforms during his first year in office. While calling for resolution of border dispute “as early as possible”, he outlined an ambitious vision for building a closer economic relationship with India, specifically by declaring China’s interest in playing a prominent role in the “Make in India’ initiative. He likened ties with India to “a huge treasure house waiting to be discovered”. He said, China would take steps to address the widening trade imbalance and was keen to take forward the two China dedicated industrial parks set to come up in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Strategic issues

The Chinese Premier welcomed India’s decision to back the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [AIIB] – a $50 billion body that will also support regional Silk Road projects – as a founding member, saying India’s backing “speaks strongly to the fact that China and India are indeed each other’s strategic cooperation partners”.

Modi’s visit to China is taking place against the backdrop of a region in flux. China has over the past few months unveiled an ambitious $100 billion Silk Road initiative to deepen its economic ties in Asia, while the Modi Government has, for its part, made a concerted effort to respond to China’s growing footprint in the neighbourhood by revitalizing India’s ties with its neighbours.
The question of managing China’s deepening presence in South Asia and India’s growing profile in East Asia is another challenge confronting ties.

When President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan late last month, Pakistan received economic aid pledges of $46 billion and the two countries also signed a $5 billion contract for the supply of 8 Chinese-built 4,000 tonne Qing class conventional submarines. These will be fitted out for carrying Chinese designed 500-km range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to threaten Indian coastal cities. Another contract was signed for the supply of another 110 JF-17 fighter jets.

China has in the past transferred technology to Pakistan for local manufacture of ballistic and cruise missiles, uranium nuclear warheads and plutonium tactical nuclear weapons. Now that the US has apparently decided that it needs India as a “strategic ally” to South Asia to counter China as part of its “pivot to Asia” policy, the Chinese have decided to fill the void and ensure not only that Pakistan does not collapse economically but it keeps India of-balance and provides China strategic presence in Gwadar port [located only 360 miles from the strategic Strait of Hormuz through which over 70 per cent of Chinese and Japanese oil imports move by sea]. To overcome China’s Malacca dilemma” Pakistan has handed over management of Gwadar Port funded and built by China, to a Chinese company. The Chinese are expected to base the same DF-21 system along Pakistan’s Baluchistan coast o threaten Indian Navy aircraft carriers operating in the Arabian Sea.

Further, the much debated “string of pearls” which will be the Chinese Navy component of the highly-publicised Chinese [Land and Maritime Silk Routes] or “LMSR” to connect China economically to Europe, thus replicating the well-known 15th century land and sea silk routes, is well on its way to becoming a reality in India’s backyard.

The military challenge

In India, the traditional understanding is that China is the principal challenge in the long run. As remarked by former Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, “The longer the status quo continues the more likely is the LAC to eventually morph into a settled boundary.” This thesis is reinforced by another belief that grown bilateral economic interests will temper China’s quest for power and domination.

The Indian military however, believes that China is a future threat. According to the Air Force, India has about 10 years to build its capabilities before China strikes on the border. The assumption is based on the Chinese White Paper on defence, where it mentions completing its mechanization [mobile rapid reaction forces] and information [networking of all military assets and sensors for a short, swift and intense regional arc] by 2025.

Consequently, the Army is raising its Mountain Strike Corps [90,000 troops] and the Air Force has got its authorized combat squadron strength increased from 39.5 to 42 squadrons [each squadron with 20 aircraft]. A few aspirational Air Force voices are talking of an Air Force with 55 combat squadrons for a two front war.

Not to be left behind, the Navy has its own plans independent of the land war. According to a retired Admiral, given the disputed borders with China and Pakistan, India’s choices for influencing geo-politics in the north are limited. However, in the Indian Ocean Region, the Navy has the ability [for nearly two decades] to hold the PLA NAVY AT WHICH Chinese themselves dreaded – the Malacca dilemma. Military analysts say, boosting Sea Lanes of Communication interdiction capability would allow the Indian Navy to dominate key maritime routes and help improve the Chinese military’s behavior along the Himalayas.

Arun Kumar Singh, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam puts the recent US $ 46 billion assistance by China to Pakistan in context by stating that Modi’s attempts in attracting foreign direct investment to India has resulted in “paltry” pledges (considering India’s size and population, $1 trillion is needed) — $20 billion from China, $35 billion from Japan, $41 billion from the US and $2 billion from France.

He notes that the Chinese will supply 110 JF-17 fighter jet and the eight 4,000-tonne Qing-class conventional submarines which will be fitted out for carrying Chinese designed 500-km range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to threaten Indian coastal cities. China has in the past transferred technology to Pakistan for local manufacture of ballistic and cruise missiles, uranium nuclear warheads and plutonium tactical nuclear weapons.

He says the Chinese assistance is designed not only to ensure that Pakistan does not collapse economically, but it keeps India off-balance and provides China strategic presence in Gwadar port (located only 360 miles from the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which over 70 per cent of Chinese, Indian and Japanese oil imports move by sea). “It’s only a matter of time before Chinese warships, conventional and nuclear submarines (already making publicised forays into the Indian Ocean since 2008), are based at Gwadar port, which will compensate for the recent decisions of the new Sri Lanka government to review Chinese port projects in Sri Lanka. In addition, once the Chinese 1,500 km range, anti-aircraft carrier ballistic missile system (DF-21) becomes fully operational in the western Pacific (where it will counter US Navy aircraft carriers), the Chinese are expected to base the same DF-21 system along Pakistan’s Balochistan coast to threaten Indian Navy aircraft carriers operating in the Arabian Sea.

“The much debated “string of pearls” which will be the Chinese Navy component of the highly-publicised Chinese “Land and Maritime Silk Routes” or “LMSR” to connect China economically to Europe, thus replicating the well known 15 century land and sea silk routes is well on its way to becoming a reality in India’s backyard. The Chinese are also interested that India joins the “LMSR” club, by providing them access to Kolkata port via a rail and road link through Indian territory. On May 7, Chinese media reported China’s proposal for India and China to jointly carry out sea bed mineral exploration in the Indian Ocean. This needs to be examined for security implications before any agreement is signed in a hurry”.