Asif Ezdi
Monday, May 25, 2015
From Print Edition
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China from May 14 to May 16 was the second top-level visit between the two countries since the hard-line nationalist leader came to power a year ago on a promise of a more assertive foreign policy and of projecting India more vigorously on the world stage as a leading power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had paid a visit to India last September. To give their contacts a personal touch, Xi played host to Modi in Xi’an, capital of his home province of Shaanxi. Xi’s gesture, which was a departure from Chinese protocol, reciprocated that of Modi who had received the Chinese leader in his home state of Gujarat during his India visit last year.

The intensity of high-level contacts and the well-publicised moves to put them on a personal footing reflect an attempt by the two most populous countries of the world to put their relationship on a new more cooperative footing in an evolving geopolitical environment with a potential for new political alignments. For China, an important concern is the rise of Japan as a military power, signalled by the steps taken by the government of its nationalist Prime Minister Abe to cast off the restrictions on the country’s overseas military role imposed following its defeat in World War II.

The China-India relationship is important for both sides, but especially for India as it seeks international recognition as a global power. In the current jargon of India’s foreign policy mandarins, India now aspires to be a ‘leading power, not just a balancing power’. Although China and India have roughly the same population, its economy is only one-fifth in size and it lags far behind in international clout. To make up for that shortfall, Indian leaders love to share the stage with those of China and constantly trumpet their rise as an emerging power which they confidently predict is destined to join the front line of global powers in shaping the world of the 21st century.

For India, close ties with China are also the key to loosening China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan, which Delhi sees as a major obstacle to its ambition to establish domination over South Asia and which is a leading Indian policy goal. The planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and especially the development of the Gwadar Port have greatly heightened India’s concerns on this score. According to a report by a well-informed Indian newspaper correspondent, the economic corridor is regarded by India as one of the “core concerns” inhibiting the development of closer China-India ties.

An opinion column by a former Indian foreign secretary which appeared on the day Modi began his China visit similarly bemoaned the Pakistan-China relationship. The article had this to say: “The Sino-Pakistan relationship will not be far from the Prime Minister’s thoughts, and is a source of fundamental dissonance in our interface with China. It will not go away”. The former Indian official noted ruefully that the “ ‘all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation’ between China and Pakistan continues to flourish unimpeded, despite reports of troubles in Xinjiang fomented by East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) groups ostensibly trained in terror camps in Pakistan.”

The retired foreign secretary also lamented that “China’s selective approach to the issue of Kashmir, where its actions in [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] (sic) signal implicit acceptance of Pakistani jurisdiction, vis-à-vis avoidance of contacts with India on Jammu and Kashmir and entities based there, is another source of difference.” “There is no reason why China should not encourage contacts between Xinjiang and Jammu and Kashmir, or even an aviation link between Urumqi and New Delhi,” the article complained. “Old Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang were intimately linked. A 21st century Silk Road initiative should explore these connections.”

Days before Modi’s trip to China, the Indian government summoned the Chinese ambassador in Delhi to object to Chinese investment in the Pakistan-China economic corridor. During the visit, Modi did not raise the matter directly in public but it was clearly one of the issues which in Modi’s words at his joint press conference with Premier Li was “troubling the smooth development of bilateral relations”.

Besides its objections to the CPEC, India also has strong misgiving at China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, especially the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) project which India sees as Chinese intrusion in its geopolitical space. To India’s chagrin, the Chinese project has largely eclipsed the Indo-Pacific corridor plan launched by the US in which India is to have a pivotal role, while India’s ‘Mausam’ and ‘Spice Route’ projects hardly receive a mention.

In his meeting with Modi, the Chinese president brought up the Belt and Road Initiative and suggested that the two countries cooperate on this as well as India’s ‘Act East’ policy, but he did not succeed in drawing out Modi on the issue. At a media briefing the next day, India’s foreign secretary said a “detailed structured discussion” on the Belt and Road initiative had not taken place between the two countries and that India was open to discussing it with the Chinese whenever they wanted to. What it means in plain words is that Delhi is concerned at the project but cannot do anything to stop it from going ahead and therefore prefers to refrain from any public comments on it.

India’s unhappiness at the Belt and Road initiative, like its unconcealed anger at China’s expanding presence in the Indian Ocean and growing investments and economic engagement with countries of South Asia, springs from Delhi’s frustration at its inability to exclude China from a region that India would like to make its own strategic backyard. In response to this challenge, one of the steps the Modi government has taken is to try to build political, economic and security ties with China’s neighbours. This was one of the aims of his trip to Mongolia and South Korea following that to China.

Indian strategic genius Raja Mohan approvingly calls it Modi’s “peripheral diplomacy” (sic). The purpose is to signal to Beijing that if it does not stop poaching in India’s “exclusive sphere of influence in the Subcontinent”, as Mohan calls it, Delhi could do the same in China’s backyard. All great powers do it, Mohan wrote last week, calling their urge to dominate their smaller neighbours a “law of international politics”.

There are only two small details that Mohan forgot. First, India is not the ‘great power’ that it would like to be recognised as. It is also in no position to compete with China in this game. Second, there is no precedent in history of a nuclear power establishing a sphere of influence that includes a rival country which is also a nuclear power.

The long-running border dispute between China and India was also discussed by the two sides but Modi made little headway with his proposal for the “clarification” of the Line of Actual Control pending a settlement of the question.

Despite the bonhomie and the friendly atmosphere during Modi’s visit, there was little progress on the divisive issues. An op-ed article which appeared in the state-owned Global Times two days before the visit sought to explain why. “Due to the Indian elites’ blind arrogance and confidence in their democracy, and the inferiority of its ordinary people, very few Indians are able to treat Sino-Indian relations accurately, objectively and rationally,” wrote Hu Zhiyong of the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. The article accused Modi of “playing little tricks over border disputes and security issues.” In a phone interview Hu said, “We can’t have any hopes or expectations that Modi will make even the slightest concessions in negotiations with Chinese leaders on political and security matters.”

Hu’s language may be undiplomatic but his assessment is generally right. China first had an unhappy experience of arrogance and trickery in Indian diplomacy over the border dispute in the 1950s culminating in the 1962 China-India war. Pakistan has had the same experience with India ever since the independence of the two countries. No wonder, they have not resolved any of their major disputes through negotiations. Nor are they likely to.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.

Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

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