September 28, 2014

President Xi in India: Opening of a New Chapter!

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE Chinese President, Xi Jinping’s tour of South Asia in the third week of September ended with his three day visit to India. Before reaching Indian shores, the Chinese president had visited the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Both sides have described the visit of the Chinese president as successful. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, speaking after the return of President Xi to Beijing, said that “cooperation” between the two countries was the main theme that dominated the summit meeting with the Indian prime minister. The official also went on to add that an “important consensus” was reached between the two sides to keep the disputed borders calm. The unresolved border dispute between India and China was also again brought back into sharp focus by a minor flare up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which to the surprise of many occurred when the Chinese president was being hosted in India. The Indian army has been resorting to aggressive patrolling in the last few years along both the LoC and the LAC. Luckily there have not been any cease fire violations along the LAC. India in recent years has strengthened its defenses along the LAC. In Arunachal Pradesh, two new air bases have been built. Su-30 bombers have been based at the IAF base in Tezpur. Xi is only the third Chinese president to visit India. He is fast emerging as a charismatic leader in the mould of Mao Ze-Dong and Deng Zioping. After taking over as president, he has outlined an ambitious foreign policy for the Asian region based on the principles of amity, inclusiveness and mutual benefit. The Chinese government has proposed cooperative ventures with the governments of the region. The three important initiatives are the Silk Road Initiative Belt, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the setting up of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China has wanted India to play an important role in all these ventures. Prime Minister Modi, once again departed from set diplomatic protocol and chose to receive the Chinese president in Ahmedabad, not the capital Delhi as is the usual practice. Substantive bilateral talks were held during the second leg of the visit in Delhi. Like the previous government, the current government’s focus is economic diplomacy. Since taking over from Manmohan Singh, Modi’s focus has been on further strengthening economic links with the Asian region, especially South and Southeast Asia. The new Indian government, whose leader revels in nationalist rhetoric, also continues to view China as a “rival” power and has carried on with the previous government’s “cooperation cum competition” policy with China. India would like to take advantage of the fact that many Southeast Asian countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, are mired in long standing border disputes with China. The current leaderships in Vietnam and the Philippines, like the government in Delhi, view China with suspicion. They are also egged on to confront China by the West and the right wing government in Japan led by Shinzo Abe. Together with India, these countries want to ensure that China does not acquire a dominant position in the region. PRO-WESTERN TILT OF THE FOREIGN POLICY Since the late nineties, Indian foreign policy had acquired a pro-western tilt. The tilt was accentuated in the last decade when the Congress Party was at the helm of affairs. President Obama’s “pivot to the East” which was a barely disguised move to militarily and strategically pin down China, had increased Beijing’s anxieties about the intentions of the Indian government. India’s support for the Dalai Lama and its hosting of a sizeable but politicised Tibetan exile community has been a major irritant in bilateral ties. With Japan assiduously courting India and harping about the so-called emerging threat posed by China, Beijing had reasons to worry. Washington and Tokyo have made no secret of their desire to draw India into an anti-China security alliance. But the Obama administration’s pivot to the East has stalled, as Washington’s attention has been diverted by the twin crises in West Asia and Ukraine. The Indian side has been unhappy with the “all weather friendship” between Islamabad and Beijing. But according to Indian officials, that relationship seems to be fraying. Pakistan’s inability to rein in its militants and its continuing lurch into political instability, according to them, has cast a shadow on the relationship. During the Xi visit, China would have liked a firm commitment from the Indian government for its economic blueprint for the region but all that it has received from the Modi government is mere rhetorical support. India seems to be hedging its bets even on the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor that would have provided direct linkages between the four countries. In a speech delivered at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), President Xi said; “One who wishes to be successful, seeks to help others to be successful. One, who wishes to be understood, understands others”. Xi voiced support for India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The Indian side has reciprocated by stating that it would favourably consider Beijing’s request for membership of SAARC. From available indications, India is not too keen on accommodating China in SAARC. The Indian government sees advantages in SCO membership as it will expedite the opening of the Central Asian markets. But New Delhi will not be offering quid pro quo to Beijing in the shape of SAARC membership. The unspoken fear is that China, given its economic and military heft, would sideline India. The Chinese president said in Delhi that the two countries should be the “twin anchors” of regional peace so as to build security architecture for the Asia Pacific that would be transparent and based on equality. “China and India have a joint population of 2.5 billion. If we speak with one voice, the whole world will listen, and if we join hands, the whole world will pay attention”, Xi said in his ICWA speech. China shares its land borders with many Asian countries and has a stake in the stability and prosperity of its neighbours. As a Chinese commentator pointed out, both the Indian and Chinese leaders want “achche din” (good days) for their people. The Chinese economy is four times the size of India. China has the requisite resources and funds to help propel other economies in the region. New Delhi is realistic about its clout and knows that it is in no position to compete economically or militarily with China at this juncture. The Indian prime minister’s emphasis has been on domestic infrastructure building. The Chinese side has indicated that it is more than willing to invest, provided many of the current “security related” restrictions are removed. Before the Xi visit, there was talk about the Chinese pledging an investment of $100 billion. After the presidential visit, the investment announced by Chinese firms amounts to only around $20 billion, for the next five years. The failure of the Indian government to lift many of the restrictions placed on Chinese businesses may be one of the reasons why Chinese businesspeople do not want to invest in a big way. Their Indian counterparts are hungry for more investments from China and are in fact said to be putting pressure on the government to lift some of the restrictions. China is today India’s largest trading partner but the balance of trade is heavily skewed in Beijing’s favour. Indian traders sourcing cheap mass produced goods from China have boosted the annual trade to $65 billion. Indian exports consist mainly of coal and other mineral exports. During the Xi visit, the Chinese side promised more access to the Indian pharmaceutical, agricultural and fuel products. China will be setting up two industrial parks in India, one in Gujarat and the other in Maharashtra. Important agreements were also signed relating to Chinese investments and participation in the telecom, railways and aviation sectors. Chinese expertise in railways which some say has surpassed Japanese technology will now be available to the Indian Railways. On the campaign trail, Modi had taken a tough stance on China, stating that he would not concede an “inch of sacred Indian territory”. There is a general consensus that bilateral relations between the two giant neighbours can be truly normalised only if the long pending border issue is resolved. The border issue was among the dominant themes figuring in the bilateral talks. The Indian prime minister during the joint press conference with the Chinese president said that he had flagged “serious concerns” about the “repeated border incidents”, during bilateral talks. He urged a “speedy resolution” of border issue and the “clarification” of the LAC. Xi sought to downplay the border incidents saying that the “two sides are fully capable of acting promptly and effectively managing the situation”. Last year, the two sides had signed a Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). President Xi emphasised that as the area is still un-demarcated, “there may be some incidents”. DIFFERENT PERCEPTIONS There are different perceptions on where the LAC runs through on both sides. The Chinese side feels that it is the Indian army which is responsible for trespassing. There have been no violent face offs between the two sides for over forty years. President Xi said that he was committed to working with India to maintain “peace and tranquility” along the border. During the Xi visit, it was announced that an additional pilgrimage route for Indian devotees will be opened to Mansoravar via Nathula. During the Chinese president’s visit, the two sides agreed on cooperation in the civil nuclear energy sector. The Chinese have signaled that they would be willing to sell their nuclear reactors in the near future. China, has now joined Russia, the US, France and Japan in the race to partner India in the construction of nuclear reactors. China has however not yet recognised India as a “nuclear weapons” power but has signaled that it is willing to do business despite India being a non-NPT signatory. The first NDA government under Atal Behari Vajpayee had justified Pokhran II nuclear tests on the basis of the alleged threat posed by China. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, during his visit to India in early September had signed a deal to sell uranium to India. India and China have also agreed to start a “maritime cooperation dialogue”. The first meeting will be held later this year. The two sides will exchange views on maritime affairs security every year and explore ways of cooperating in ensuring freedom of navigation. A joint statement issued on the last day of the Xi visit stressed on a “closer developmental partnership” that the two countries have cemented. The statement said that this partnership would be the “core component” of their strategic and cooperative relationship. Both sides affirmed their commitment to strengthen their partnership “on the basis of the principle of equal security and mutual sensitivity for each others concerns and aspirations”. The two sides also formally pledged to maintain peace and tranquility along the border and expressed their commitment to “an early settlement” of the border dispute. There was also a commitment in the joint statement that the two sides will resolve all issues on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.