Prime Minister Modi’s China trip was very successful, both economically and diplomatically. However, the visit was quite different from previous meetings between the heads of the two states, as PM Modi clearly outlined India’s strategic concerns, both to the Chinese leadership and the public. The relationship between the two Asian giants, still remains far from cordial, even though the Chinese broke protocol in giving a warm welcome to Prime Minister Modi by receiving him out of the capital Beijing in Xian. As the two nations discussed trade and economic ties, people to people contacts, the larger issue of boundary dispute remained unsettled. The hype created by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, on her last visit to Beijing, of an “out-of-box” solution to the boundary dispute fizzled out quickly.
Prime Minister Modi made a stark departure from diplomatic parlance when he stated, “The solution we choose (to the boundary dispute) should do more than settle the boundary question. It should do so in a manner that transforms our relationship and not cause new disruptions.” This is highly critical because it implies that the boundary dispute is not the only major irritant in Indo-China relations. The very notion that the settlement of the boundary dispute between the two giants will bring an end to the geostrategic rivalry is a mistake. China has invested a huge amount of time and money in propping up India’s neighbors to stand up to the big brother in South Asia.
Pakistan has been the biggest beneficiary of such largesse since the 1960’s and China has supported Pakistan at international forums and its nuclear program, which has been and still is a major annoyance for India. Even though China has taken a neutral stance in the conflict between the two countries, it has been and is still beefing up the Pakistani military. Its two-front approach to terrorism issues, especially those emancipating Pakistan is creating genuine roadblocks for India in international forums. China will soon learn the hard way in Xinjiang the problems of cross border terrorism and the difficulty in controlling the same. Post-Dalai Lama if the Tibetans abandon their non-violent approach for its independence struggle, and if they collaborate with the Xinjiang Muslims, then the Chinese state will have a serious problem asserting control over these regions.
The Prime Minister further asked the Chinese leadership to “reconsider” their approach on strategic issues, which keep the two countries from realizing the full potential of their partnership, expressing “that China should take a strategic and long term view of our relations.” China has already taken a long-term assessment of the relationship, and views India as the major irritant to Asian power ambitions. It has increased its naval presence in the Indian Ocean and is regularly involved in naval drills in the region, mainly to protect SLOC’s. India’s 5-year defence agreement with Vietnam is a step in the right direction. Constructive engagement with China’s neighbours such as Japan and Philippines is necessary. Paraphrasing Sun Tzu, “it is necessary to attack the enemy’s strategy” with its own strategy to yield maximum results.
Even though both countries have been cooperating on transnational issues, they have been at loggerheads on regional issues. China, being a shrewd player, will backtrack on various commitments to suit its interests, just as it did when it signed the US-China Climate Framework. With regards to water sharing, no substantial result was achieved. It is important that India get the lower riparian states of Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Vietnam on board to collectively force China to agree to a trans-river water-sharing agreement. As has been the case in South China Sea, China will move unilaterally in diversion of rivers without consideration for lower riparian states. Increasing pressure in the South China Sea implies that China is highly likely to fast track these projects before any such negotiations commence. Bluntly said, there is no meeting of minds between the two countries on crucial issues.
The Prime Minister made subtle references while addressing students, such as “30 pillars comprising the central government and all our states”-in a rare public rebuke related to Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese practice of distorting history in their favor sets a very bad precedent for international law and in general for inter-state relations. China is already embroiled in a high stake game of cat and mouse in the South and East China Sea, based on “manufactured historical” documents.
India’s primary goal in the near future is high economic growth and prosperity and should be. Yet it is essential that India keeps a long-term view of Chinese intentions and formulate a policy for the same. As the United States takes a proactive approach to the region, both economically and militarily, it is essential that India be in a position to enjoy the benefits of such a pivot. Prime Minister Modi has carefully laid out the framework for India’s future interactions with China.