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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 22 New Delhi May 19, 2018

Wuhan Meeting: Tryst of Compulsion under the veil of Amicable Summit

Sunday 20 May 2018


by Gouri Sankar Nag


Exactly after 242 days since the Doklam imbroglio petered away unexpectedly on and from August 28, 2017, Modi and Xi Jinping met at central China’s Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, for an informal one-on-one meeting. This is for the second time after Modi’s last visit to China in 2015. While Sino-Indian relations practically reached their nadir in mid-2017, sources were ecstatic about the positive derivatives of the Modi-Xi personal equations this time to restore the much needed trust between the two Asian giants at a time when both were apparently perturbed by the overtly aggressive posture of American-led coalition’s bombardment in Syria and shift in the US strategy towards more intransigence so far as the trade equation and protectionist stance were concerned.

In fact, there was the imperative need of such a meeting to infuse an element of ease into their relations from taking to an increasingly confrontational alley, if not warpath. Hence, it was commendable that New Delhi cautiously and gradually prepared the groundwork with the steps being taken when India sent her Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharam and followed it up by another entourage led by the Minister of External Affairs, Susma Swaraj, this April. Notwithstanding the fact that there has not been any seminal change in India’s approach to the Tibet issue, New Delhi in a significant move in February also sent out a signal to its Chinese counterpart that the Indian Government was not interested in the celebration of sixty years of Dalai Lama’s arrival in India or that any probable event to mark the occasion be shifted away from New Delhi. One may be further reminded of how India considered under duress to ignore the SOS call of Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of Maldives, for intervention recently at a time when democracy and rule of law in the island nation strategically located in the Indian Ocean were threatened by the emergency imposed by the aggrieved Abdulla Yameen Government, possibly to avoid the ire of the Chinese who were anxious to protect their investment inter alia in hotel and tourism industry. At that time the stand appeared to project India’s hesitant policy stance but now we realise that it was a part of India’s long-term strategy of rapprochement with China. And this was in spite of the fact that India was at pains to reconcile with China’s expanding sway in the Indian Ocean region with the formation of a China-led forum of littoral states which India traditionally perceived as her sphere of influence. In this regard one may further refer to a Forbes magazine commentary titled “China Wants To Turn The Indian Ocean Into The China Ocean”.

However, from the Chinese side these two gestures were positive enough to reciprocate the recent Indian moves. The first was in February-March 2018 when the US pushed for grey listing of Pakistan in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). China, much to India’s satisfaction, did not oppose the motion even though earlier it vehemently resisted the Indian initiative to get Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammed as the UN designated terrorist. (See the report from http://www.defencenews.in/article.aspx?id=536797 accessed on 08-03-2018) Also, it’s worth-mentioning that ahead of this highest level meeting, the PRC hailed India’s decision to appoint the internationally recognised film icon, Aamir Khan, as a brand ambassador to promote Sino-Indian trade. This was particularly important given the recent scenario of heightened friction of interests between the USA and China over trade issues that might prove to be a blessing in disguise for brightening the prospect of Sino-Indian cooperation. Hence, prima facie we find ample political will on both sides as the key to the new, much-needed reset.

Issues of Interest

Let us look at the issues specifically which might be of interest for both sides as the dynamics of relations stand to benefit from such informal meeting that sets apace a process of spill over into different arenas of their engagement.

First, the border issue, especially Arunachal and Doklam, appears to figure prominently in any official level exchange. But there was little chance that both Xi and Modi raised, if at all, this embarrassing bogey in their informal talk because it was necessary to stimulate confidence first by positive interaction rather than harping on the differences. (One may refer to Subir Bhaumik’s “India’s China Policy: Face the Dragon with Self-Confidence” published by The Quint on June 12, 2017.) At the same time, the Indian side was cautious because they had to maintain a balanced demeanour while being closely watched by different powers around the world as well as by the media. Hence, very important was India’s self-confidence which happened to be the result of her growing economic clout and her aspiration to project an image of an emerging and responsible great power. Modi seemed to understand this well because the pressure was building palpably on India to deliver results beyond rhetoric.

China has not softened its attitude to claim Arunachal as south Tibet. Nor has it compro-mised its expansionist stance over Dokola. (See Manoj Joshi’s take in Asia Timeshttp://www.atimes.com/post-doklam-military-postures-continue-escalate-india-china// accessed on 26-03-2018.) Some sources are already pointing to the costs that India might have to pay for boycotting the programme to join the robust Chinese OBOR of which CPEC is a part. India is undoubtedly concerned due to this roadmap that passes through PoK. India has been consistent not to endorse OBOR even at the recent SCO meeting of Foreign Ministers and officials held in Beijing on April 24, 2018 which was attended by Susma Swaraj. On the other hand, it seems that China would not probably backtrack from this ambitious multi-billion investment project of reworking its old Silk Road. Moreover, China had been playing foul in India’s neighbourhood as sources indicated that China was instigating Bangladesh against India over the Brahmaputra water issue (https://kolkata24x7.com/china-looks-to-play-bangladesh-against-india.html accessed on April 29, 2017). Hence the question is: why has India suddenly adopted a sort of bending posture to China? What is the compulsion that leads us to befriend China which has been a rather traditional rival to stymie our influence within South Asia and even to try to encircle India with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and ‘the string of pearls’? Rather, the Wuhan meeting stoked the air of surmise as if New Delhi’s bilateral channels of communication with Beijing were getting slack slowly creating a gap despite the flaunted claim of growing multi-lateral engagements through BRICS, SCO and RIC. According to C. Raja Mohan, the realists however brush aside this point ‘as a false alarm’. To quote Raja Mohan, “Nor do they buy into the argument that a diplomatic reset alone will help address the new fundamentals of the India-China relationship”. So, what he seems to suggest is that the significance of the informal meet if it can be considered as a ‘reset’ lies in the “political effort to bring down the rising temperature in bilateral relations” (IAPS Dialogue entitled ‘Dealing with China: India attempts a reset’ accessed from https://iapsdialogue.org/2018/03/22/dealing-with-china-india-attempts-a-reset).

Second, this visit also seems important for sending a message to India’s smaller neighbours who are taking sides with China. Nepali Prime Minister Oli’s recent visit to India brought this point once again to the fore as to how a new generation of politicians in neighbouring countries were worried and fed up with India’s interfering propensity in their domestic politics, sometimes by setting one ethic group against another, sometimes by poking its nose in the constitutional revision, sometimes by financing political campaign and influencing factionalism and when such tactics proved futile, how India started coercive blockade to inflict punishment and suffering that ultimately resulted in shrinking the leverage New Delhi enjoyed in the immediate neighbourhood. Hence, what transpires from recent takes of experts like S. D. Muni is that the smaller neighbours always desire to assert a relationship based on mutual respect and dignity rather than acquiescing to the traditional big brother attitude of India. (See Sukh Deb Muni’s take ‘India and Nepal Must Step Back from the Precipice’ from nepal foreign affairs.com/sd-muni-writes-india-and-nepal-must-step-back-from-the-precipice) Hence, their tendency of falling back on China might be seen as a counter to India’s mistaken policy of imposing her weight on her neighbours and her expectations that they would invariably act on her terms to address her security concerns. So, while the time is rife that India understands it well to mend her ways, it is similarly important to demonstrate her prowess vis-à-vis China with sufficient capability to disrupt China’s South Asia’s power push. (See Raffaello Pantucci’s take ‘China’s South Asian Miscalculations’ published in the Current History issue dated April, 2018) But it may be noted that power is not only about military posture but also involves strategic planning and the diplomatic ability to engage with the rivals to create space for negotiated settlement for lessening the cost of any tussle spiralling into out-of-control antagonism. This time it is well reflected in Modi’s informal one-on-one meeting with Xi. Therefore, it may not be a purely symbolic gesture meant for the audience who are getting curious but then it is no less than a gambit motivated by political design to curry favour from a section of the strategic establishment and a wider audience who are eager for some fruitful breakthrough or headway which otherwise none of the sides is in a position to offer. So, the attitude is not one of rent-seeking but in diplomatic parlance it is certainly legitimacy-seeking at a time of status quo.

Possible raison d’être of India’s Engagement

It won’t be too sceptical to concede that this informal high-level exchange was a necessary tool to foment the hype for a possible demonstration effect that the political class in India is capable enough to be at the helm of affairs. It sends out two distinct signals. First, it was important to tone down the bogey of the military elites in India who were a little impatient and always wanted to take the wind out of the sail of the political class for any dithering, even though such vacillations may be functional in a democracy where the government has to weigh many positions and interests without allowing the military to wrest the charge of affairs. Bipin Rawat was belligerent in his statements and Ajit Doval, though more hawkish in relation to Pakistan than China, could be cited as striking a discordant voice in the establishment constraining any Indian quest for an amicable approach.

Secondly, at home in India the ruling party at the Centre, even after clinching overwhelming victory in the elections in Tripura and successfully passing the GST legislation with support even from the West Bengal Government, is under palpable pressure from various parties like Chandra Babu’s Telugu Desam, Laloo Yadav’s RJD that won several seats in the recent by-elections and Mamta Banerjee’s drive to create a federal front that received support from the DMK’s Stalin. The fiscal system of the country too is tottering to produce widespread ire among the common people due to the cash crunch. The Kashmir front is also on the boil with continuous youth unrest with the BJP-PDP coalition being completely torn by the imperative to talk to the Kashmiri organisations while AFSPA empowering the Army is called into question for alleged human rights violations. Of late Modi’s initial silence after the brutal rape of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu was hurting mass sentiment so much that 49 retired bureaucrats wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Modi requesting him to fast-track the prosecution of the perpetrators. Clearly, in the circumstances of crises of governability, Modi’s predicament might increase if the Chinese side starts flexing muscles as it has done in case of the South China Sea issue and now against Taiwan. If it does so it might upset Modi’s standing so far as his party’s run-up to the general election in 2019 is concerned, writes Monoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow attached to the OFR think-tank (https://www.orfonline.org/research/modi-meets-chinas-xi-wuhan-india-starts-position-weakness/ accessed on April 29, 2018). Further, what Rajesh Rajagopalan has recently said, seems quite pertinent too. According to this line of thought, the compulsion of India also stems from the fact that ‘still there is a wide gap in the structural balance between the two countries and considering that it is still widening it makes sense for India to find ways to avoid any confrontation with China until this balance shifts sufficiently such that it is less onerous than at present’ (https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/danger-wuhan accessed on April 29, 2018). There was also the news that while sobering up her approach by extending the olive branch to China, India would continue to deter China as the latter was in the habit of bullying its way through. (See Gautam Chikermane’s views in https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/india-sovereignty-china-reset-period/ accessed on April 30, 2018) Therefore, part of the Indian strategy was propping up its own defence with mobilisation of resources and development of military logistics. Seven ‘advanced landing ground’ in addition to the existing ones at the bordering areas in Arunachal after the inspection during recent Gagan Shakti mega exercise—the biggest such drill in three decades from April 8 to April 20, 2018 with a focus on borders with both China and Pakistan by the Indian Air Force—may be mentioned in this regard. Just after this massive drill Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa reportedly hinted at India’s capability and preparedness to deal with a two-front war. It plainly means Modi’s India is clueless about the unpredictability of the Chinese behaviour that led to the playing of dual game with the Chinese without knowing how to tame the dragon. Can smiles go along with deep suspicion or, for that matter, can handshake be followed up by enhancing the fire power advantage?

China’s Compulsions 

China’s compulsion so far as this informal exchange was concerned, seems far less than India’s because China is not a liberal democracy. Hence it can fend itself off the endogenous pressure specially that might stem from the PLA. According to Sreeram Chaulia, China is more concerned of a volatile US than a powerful India (foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/27/trump-is-driving-xi-into-modis-arms/ accessed on April 30, 2018). So, it wants to send a message to a third party, that is, the US, now a close ally of India in the post-Cold War era. For China the pressure is building because of its excessive trade dependence on the US which it now realises. (See http://www.atimes.com/article/trump-set-unveil-new-trade-sanctions-beijing-responds// accessed on 25-03-2018) Hence China realises that its India-connect may be a policy alternative in terms of diversifying its trade link to reap the benefits from the rapidly surging growth trajectory of India (though India’s GDP is about one-fifth of China’s, still 7.4 per cent growth according to Changyong Rhee, Director of the Asia and Pacific Department at the International Monetary Fund, was indeed a bright point). (See https://www.financialexpress.com/economy/narendra-modis-reforms-get-another-thumbs-up-indian-elephant-ready-to-run-faster-than-chinese-dragon/1141351 accessed on April 29, 2018) India’s thriving middle class as the potential consumers of its products and its accompaniment in climate change negotiations means taking shelter under the umbrella of G-77 to escape stricter obligations under ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. Simultaneously Xi’s popularity in the CPC after he was reappointed Secretary of the party at the Nineteenth Congress held last October and following constitutional amendments that removed the limit on his term of Presidency could be but a double-edged sword which means he has to shoulder many responsibilities and to fulfil mounting expectations while China’s annual growth is getting slower and military spending shooting up. (China announced its defence expenditure in 2018 amounting over 1.1 trillion yuan, that is, $ 174.5 billion, courtesy Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan’s take ‘China’s 2018 Military Budget’ seen from http://orfonline.org/research/china-2018-military-budget-new-numbers-old-worries/ accessed on 13.03.2018.)

Professor Kerry Brown and a renowned journalist, Marya Shakil, in their recent take Domestic Disharmony effectively put how Modi’s visit to China was going to take place amidst rising internal challenges on both sides (insidestory.org.au/domestic-disharmony/ accessed on April 29, 2018). As China is upping the ante with vigorous and ruthless anti-corruption drive, this purge along with massive ideological campaign designed to enforce all-pervading loyalty could end up creating some ripples of troubles. The Chinese dream of OBOR might be benign but externally it is seen as a veritable trouble-shooter with the potential to expand its military might beyond its border to safeguard its overseas interests of which it has been so blind and which, if allowed to exacerbate, might coil back to disrupt her entire strategy.

Besides China is also under pressure due to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among the US, Australia, Japan and India which China perceives as a threat. By the way the US under Trump has recently unveiled a new National Security Strategy document. Correspondingly, it has changed its South Asia policy last August. (See The Hindu for Varghese K. George’s take ‘This is a paradigm shift in US South Asia Policy, says Husain Haqqani’ accessed online from http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/this-is-a-paradigm-shift-in-us-south-asia-policy/article19540697) Henceforth, a new chapter of bonhomie is emerging between the US and India as the former comes around to favour India against Pakistan and also upholds the importance of India against the challenge posed by China. In this context, a change in China’s outlook can be explained in terms of its search for a scope whereby it could score some points by engaging with India in an attempt to secure her neutrality that this meeting at Wuhan offered.

The author is an Associate Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal.

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