Don't hail Modi's China visit just yet
Less optimism and more scepticism about China’s intentions and policies towards India may be a surer way to go ahead.
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Prime Minister Modi is pursuing, with less inhibition, a policy of both engaging China and airing concerns about the problems in our relationship. He is establishing a new balance between economically gaining from the China connection for India’s development, and not losing politically by diffidence in mentioning differences that endure. The joint statement issued at Beijing explicitly says that outstanding differences, including on the boundary question, should not be allowed to come in the way of continued development of bilateral relations. However, Modi effectively balanced this by stressing in his joint press conference with Chinese premier Le Keqiang the need for China to “reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership” and “take a strategic and longterm view of our relations”.
By reiterating the “importance of clarification of the Line of Actual Control”, “tangible progress on issues relating to visa policy (stapled visa issue, no doubt) and trans-border rivers”, and raising “some of our regional concerns” (undoubtedly it’s policies in our neighbourhood, especially in Pakistan), Modi is highlighting his core political expectations from China. In his address at the Tsinghua University, Modi added political pressure on the Chinese government by stating that if the two countries “have to realise the extraordinary potential of our relationship, we must also address the issues that lead to hesitation and doubts, even distrust, in our relationship”. Voicing concerns about China’s increased engagement “in our shared neighbourhood”, he called for “deeper strategic communication to build mutual trust and confidence” so as to “ensure that our relationships with other countries do not become a source of concern to each other”. Unusually, he publicly sought China’s support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council and membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. All this lays out the political agenda of the relationship in the years ahead, from his side, which if not achieved in some measure could impede the economic agenda with China.
The joint statement contains some notable formulations, omissions and iterations. On the boundary question, the old language is repeated and the emphasis remains on improved border management. No mention is made of China’s self-serving ‘One Road, One Belt’ initiative. Progress in the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Economic Corridor is mentioned, despite danger of opening up our inadequately nationally integrated northeast to more economic integration with China. Unlike in September 2014, the joint statement contains no reference to maritime cooperation or to security in the Asia-Pacific region, which suggests a failure to agree on language on this sensitive issue.
We have once again thanked China’s Foreign Ministry and the government of "Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China" for facilitating the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, knowing that this comforts China as it indirectly recognises TAR as part of the PRC even when China’s strident claims on Arunachal Pradesh continue. A stronger formulation on terrorism and a separate joint statement on climate change that fully reflects India’s position perhaps prompted this concession. The non-existent “commonalities” in their approach to global arms control and nonproliferation in the joint statement, to have China “note” our aspirations to join the NSG, is gratuitously whitewashing China’s historical and current proliferation activities in Pakistan. That Modi announced at the last minute the grant of e-visas to the Chinese raises questions about policy-making, more as the stapled visa issue remains unresolved. Of the 24 agreements signed, the significant ones relate to the opening of our respective consulates in Chengdu and Chennai and space cooperation.
The driving force behind Modi’s wooing of China being economics, the outcome on that front has not been dramatic. The joint statement largely repeats what was said in September 2014 during Xi’s visit. Surprisingly, the figure of $20 billion of Chinese investments in India in the next five years is not mentioned this time. No doubt 26 “agreements” were signed during the visit to Shanghai – mostly MoUs involving the private sector that have no binding value – in the areas of renewable energy, power, steel etc. and financing of private Indian companies by Chinese banks. The PR exercise in valuing these MOUs as potentially worth $22 billion is excusable as all countries do this in order to embellish the economic “success” of visits by leaders abroad. All in all, the China challenge for India has not been reduced by Modi’s visit. Modi made the right points during the visit, with some avoidable slippages that were perhaps inevitable because China holds the stronger hand. But making the points and winning them are two different things. Less optimism and more scepticism about China’s intentions and policies towards India may be a surer way to go ahead.