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12 September, 2017

Rejig of India-China relations

The global scenario may be changing but the security and diplomatic establishments of India and China are not free from the hangover of the past.

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India-China relations underwent some quick changes in the last fortnight. For two and a half months the two countries were in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation at Doklam, high up in the Himalayas. Just ahead of the five-nation BRICS summit at Xiamen they ended the face-off to facilitate its smooth conduct.

The joint declaration issued at the end of the summit contained enough material for both the countries to claim diplomatic successes for themselves.

The Doklam face-off, which was accompanied by beating of war drums, had raised fears of a clash of arms although it was obvious that the Himalayan heights were not the best place for a test of military strength. The imminence of the scheduled summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) prompted the two sides to wind down.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have found it difficult to go to Xiamen when Indian and Chinese troops were staring at each other at Doklam. His absence would have robbed the summit of much of its significance since India is the second most important member of the group. China was the host and President Xi Jinping was keen that the summit should succeed.

The two governments differed in their interpretation of the terms of the Doklam disengagement. They were aware of each other’s need to satisfy domestic sentiments. If they were equally solicitous of each other’s strategic interests, the face-off might not have occurred.

China underestimated India’s readiness to step in to protect Bhutan’s interests which are intertwined with its own. India did not show sufficient sensitivity to China’s interests while cosying up to the United States.

China is a regional power which, by virtue of its increased economic clout, is a candidate for global-power status. Though way behind China in economic strength, India is moving in the same direction. As nations with similar ambitions, they are bound to find themselves in circumstances of competition from time to time. But the best chance of attaining their common goal lies in friendly competition rather than hostile confrontation.

Like the Doklam formula, the joint declaration issued at Xiamen was interpreted differently by India and China to satisfy people at home.

For a nation with global ambitions, India, under Modi, has limited the contours of its foreign policy parochially. As a global issue, terrorism was on the BRICS agenda. A few days before the summit, a Chinese spokeswoman, answering a newsman’s question, referred to India’s reservations about Pakistan’s counter-terrorism record and said it was not an appropriate topic for discussion at the summit.

That didn’t prevent Modi from raising the issue at other international forums. The declaration adopted at the summit, for the first time, named two Pakistan-based militant outfits, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaishe-e-Mohammad, whose activities have been directed against India. The government claimed this was the result of Indian security managers’ carefully focused diplomacy.

China’s official English language newspaper the Global Times attributed the Indian claim of diplomatic success to lack of research. The United Nations and Pakistan had previously listed LeT and JeM as terrorist groups subject to strikes, and China had agreed to their inclusion in the declaration as it was in line with Pakistan’s official stance, it said.

China took the earliest opportunity to make it clear that the Xiamen declaration did not involve any change in its “unbreakable friendship” with Pakistan. Welcoming his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Asif, who came to Beijing to discuss Afghanistan developments, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “Pakistan has been a good brother and an iron-clad friend to China. No country understands Pakistan better than China.”

Afghanistan may be where India and China face the next test. From Barack Obama’s time the US has viewed India as the country best suited to help in Afghanistan’s reconstruction after the conflict ends. While Pakistan was unhappy about it, China never raised any objection publicly.

After President Donald Trump mentioned further development of US strategic partnership with India in the South Asia policy he outlined last month, China appears to have decided to take increased interest in Afghan affairs.

After the meeting with Asif, Wang announced that China, Pakistan and Afghanistan would hold tripartite discussions to push forward negotiations for a settlement with Taliban.

The global scenario may be changing but the security and diplomatic establishments of India and China are not free from the hangover of the past. --Gulf Today, September 12, 2017.

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