Post Doklam standoff: India needs to be wary of China
It will take more than mellow op-eds by the Chinese ambassador to India for Beijing to begin acting like a responsible global power.
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China’s ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui is not given to levity. But he dropped his inscrutable mask last week when he said on the 68th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China: “India and China should turn the old page and start a new chapter with the same pace and direction. We should dance together.”
The Chinese ambassador had mostly kept a low profile during the Doklam standoff. How seriously should India take version 2.0 of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai articulated by him? Here’s what else Luo said, with the full concurrence of Beijing which keeps a tight rein on diplomatic statements: “We should make one plus one 11. China is the largest trading partner of India. We have made a lot of progress at the bilateral level, as well as in international and regional affairs.”
Unusually for a Chinese Communist diplomat, Luo wrote an op-ed for an Indian daily (less unusually, he chose the China-friendly The Hindu) to expound on China’s new-found respect for Sino-Indian ties: “In the one year since I assumed my new responsibility in India, I have witnessed ups and downs in China-India relations. Now I am in a better position to understand the common aspirations and potential of our two countries for cooperation and development. I believe that China and India should work towards the same direction and jointly implement the Xiamen consensus reached by our leaders. We should work towards a sound and healthy bilateral relationship by focusing on cooperation, narrowing and resolving differences. Just like Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said, both sides should make sure that China-India relations do not derail, confront, or go out of control, and make the Himalayan region a new highland for Asia’s development.”
Nothing that Chinese diplomats say or write publicly is without sanction from the Communist party’s all-powerful politburo headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Luo had earlier spoken admiringly of his teacher, the Buddhist monk Professor Xu Fancheng who translated the Bhagwad Gita, the Upanishads and Abhigyan Shakuntalam from Sanskrit to Chinese.
Xu lived in Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry from 1945 to 1978. Luo added: “In our bilateral engagement, there have been thousands of prominent persons like Professor Xu Fancheng, Bodhidharma, Faxian (a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled to India in the third century) and Rabindranath Tagore.”
So how should the Indian government respond to China’s new charm offensive after the harsh and threatening rhetoric during the Doklam crisis? The answer: with caution. Indian policymakers should keep three facts in mind which explain Beijing’s volte-face.
First, China is under severe diplomatic pressure internationally over its tacit support of North Korea. To mollify the United States, Beijing has barred North Korean-owned businesses from operating in China from January 2018. It has cut energy exports to Pyongyang.
US President Donald Trump will be in Beijing next month as part of a five-nation sweep through East Asia for the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam. China will come under increasing pressure from Washington if North Korea continues to test missiles and conduct nuclear tests. Xi’s own authority will be at stake.
China has been named and shamed as the source of illegal transfer of nuclear weapons technology to North Korea and Pakistan, the two rogue nations that are its closest allies. The last thing China needs is to open up at this stage another confrontational front with India.
Second, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will hold its five-yearly Congress from October 18. The Congress is crucial for Xi Jinping to establish his authority as a global statesman. Xi has ruthlessly sidelined all rivals as the Congress prepares to ratify a second five-year term for him.
On the eve of the Congress in Beijing, the Communist Party, acting on Xi’s instructions, expelled a rising political star, Sun Xhengcai. Only 54, Sun was regarded as a serious challenger to Xi’s coterie in the CPC. Given such internal challenges, Xi has clearly decided not to be distracted by confrontations with India and recalibrate ties — for the present.
The third factor for Beijing’s conciliatory shift is the belated realisation that India is one day likely to be the second largest market (after the United States) for Chinese products. It makes little sense for the pragmatic Chinese to make a permanent enemy of a neighbouring country that is emerging as a major trading partner.
But there is yet another reason for Beijing’s sudden mellowness towards India. It lost serious face over Doklam. It was forced to abandon road building on the Bhutan-Sikkim-China trijunction. India’s political-military resolve surprised a Beijing leadership used to India’s tradition of backing off from military and diplomatic confrontations.
China has understood that it’s no longer business as usual under the Narendra Modi government. Like all pragmatic bullies, China knows when to back down — again for the present.
New Delhi would be making a mistake to take Beijing’s charm offensive entirely at face value. China continues brazenly to: a) protect globally-designated Pakistan terrorist Masood Azhar; b) block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); and c) build infrastructure on Indian sovereign territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
It will take more than mellow op-eds by the Chinese ambassador to India for Beijing to begin acting like a responsible global power and stop protecting rogue states Pakistan and North Korea.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)