India-China Ties In Focus — Foreign Minister Wang Yi Visits India
While relations with the United States have soared, India’s relations with China are mired in tension and distrust.
Meetings over the next two months provide an opportunity for both countries to find mutually acceptable solutions to issues of vital concerns.
However, going by the current trends, this appears to be less than likely.
India-China relations will be under a glare in the coming months. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Hangzhou, China for the G20 Summit between 4-5 Sept 2016 where he and his host President Xi Jinping will get an opportunity to discuss bilateral ties, in addition to G20 matters. Xi will travel to India to participate in the BRICS Summit in Goa between 15-16 Oct 2016. The two leaders will also participate in the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos between 6-7 Sept 2016.
Modi and Xi have met on several earlier occasions over the last two years and three months since Modi assumed office. In fact, during Modi’s first international travel to Fortaleza, Brazil for the BRICS Summit in July 2014, he met President Xi for the first time. Their last meeting was in Tashkent on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit on 23 June 2016. With the possible exception of President Obama, Prime Minister Modi has probably met President Xi more often than any other world leader since taking charge.
While relations with the United States have soared, relations with China are mired in tension and distrust. Hopes which had surfaced after Modi’s victory that relations with China will improve have been sorely belied. Modi had eagerly embraced China, after coming to power, to make it an active partner in India’s economic development. This initiative has fallen flat. China has not accorded appropriate importance to India’s concerns, as India had hoped. These relate not only to issues bedevilling bilateral ties but equally to China’s all-out support to it’s ‘’iron friend’’ Pakistan. China has been unmindful of Pakistan’s funding and support of terrorism which could adversely impact China’s own security in the not too distant future.
South China Sea Dispute — Centrality Of The United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS)
Some major issues that have afflicted bilateral relations in recent months include China’s blockade of India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership bid at Seoul in June 2016 (although China claims that it is unfair to single it out because there were several other countries which were opposed to a non-NPT signatory becoming a member of NSG) and putting a ‘’technical hold’’ on designating Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as terrorist by United Nations Security Council. Another issue is the extensive support to Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), juridically belonging to India.
On the Chinese side, the raging debate on the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, filed by the Philippines, which has gone completely and comprehensively against all positions advanced by China is a matter of grave concern to it. India had issued a balanced and mature response after the verdict which, while noting the clear decision, stated: “India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS.”
It further added: “Sea lanes of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show the utmost respect for the UNCLOS..”. The centrality of UNCLOS, in resolving the dispute, was emphasised in the Indian statement.
Foreign Ministers of Russia, India and China met in the regular RIC (Russia, India, China) format in Moscow in April 2016, a few months before the announcement of the Award. On the issue of SCS, it was stated:
“Russia, India and China are committed to maintaining a legal order for the seas and oceans based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). All related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned. In this regard, the Ministers called for full respect of all provisions of UNCLOS...”
China has sought to use this statement by focusing on the formulation that “disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned”, thereby, claiming that India supports its position of resolving the issue through negotiations amongst parties concerned. As is obvious, this is only a partial reading of the text. A complete reading of the statement demonstrates that full respect for all provisions of UNCLOS is the sine qua non for resolving the dispute.
Wang Yi’s Visit
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India (Goa on 12 August and New Delhi between 13-14 August) and paid a call on Prime Minister Modi, had discussions with the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and familiarised himself with arrangements for the BRICS Summit in Goa.
Wang Yi’s principal objective during his India visit, in addition to discussing matters related to G20 and BRICS, seems to have been to try to co-opt India to its side on the South China Sea issue particularly when the matter is raised at the G20 and East Asia Summits by the USA, Japan and some others.
It is in this context that even before Wang Yi set foot on Indian soil, China’s state-run media dangled a carrot in front of India and stated that the door for India’s admission to NSG is “not tightly” closed and that New Delhi should “fully comprehend” Beijing’s concerns over the disputed South China Sea, thus, drawing a parallel between the NSG and SCS issues. State-run Xinhua news agency said that “the South China Sea correlates with China’s vital national interest...and (India should) continue to play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific”. China’s Global Times urged India “to avoid unnecessary entanglement with China over the South China Sea debate … if the country wishes to create a good atmosphere for economic co-operation.”
Chinese state media pitched in to advocate that India-China ties should focus on amplifying their economic agenda, which required urgent attention since “India’s exports to China have dropped 16.7 percent year-on-year in the first seven months of the year..suggesting that Indian enterprises are having a hard time amid simmering tensions between the two countries’’. Days before Wang Yi’s departure for India, The Global Times warned New Delhi that its seemingly inimical posture on the SCS was potentially damaging for bilateral ties and could create obstacles for Indian businesses in China.
With the United States and some others certain to raise the SCS dispute at the forthcoming Summits, China has embarked on taking pre-emptive measures to shore up its support. It would hope that India will not take a strong stand against it at the Summit meetings. It is understood that detailed discussions took place, on a range of issues, at the lengthy meeting between the delegations led by the two foreign ministers. These included India’s NSG membership, China’s ‘’technical hold’’ on designating Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar as terrorists on the United Nations list, Chinese activities under CPEC in POK and others. No discussions on SCS, apparently, took place in the open meeting. Considering the Chinese sensitivity on this issue, it is quite likely that this matter was taken up between the two ministers in a private tete-a-tete.
Two decisions, adopted by the Foreign Ministers, have the potential to stabilise bilateral ties and enhance mutual trust. On the contentious issue of China’s opposition to India’s membership of NSG, both sides agreed to engage in a dedicated dialogue between the Indian Joint Secretary, dealing with disarmament issues, and China’s Director-General of Arms Control and Disarmament. On other issues causing an impediment to the growth of bilateral relations, another structure was created between the Indian Foreign Secretary and his Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. This would supplement the already functioning annual Strategic Dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level and the regular Special Representatives dialogue which focuses on border talks but, at times, goes beyond that limited circumference. It would appear that issues of China’s “technical hold” on the listing of Masood Azhar and Chinese activities in POK will be covered by this mechanism.
While these decisions do contain the seeds of giving an impetus to a bilateral partnership, recent attitude, behaviour, body language and statements from China would repudiate any hope that China will relent on issues of serious interest and concern to India. Bilateral ties are, hence, expected to continue to be stressed and strained and significantly below par for the foreseeable future.
Speaking after Wang Yi’s visit, the Chinese Foreign Office stated that India and China had “candid” exchange of views on some “specific issues” and agreed not to let “differences” affect their overall ties as they vowed to resolve the issues through dialogue and consultation. The usage of words like “candid’’ and “differences” in the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement would imply that hard and tough talks took place between the two sides.
Another significant issue that India will need to contend with, in the coming days, is the proposal of China’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It is likely to come up at the forthcoming SAARC Summit in Pakistan in November 2016. Most SAARC members, except India and Bhutan, are actively supportive of China’s membership. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China and like India has an unsettled border with it. India should stand firm against the proposal and, if need be, veto the suggestion. As a Plan ‘B’, India should persuade Japan to be ready to join SAARC in the future when it might become impossible to keep China out. Japan’s presence will help to restore a semblance of balance if and when China manages to join the organisation.
Meetings over the next two months provide an opportunity to both India and China to put their ties on an even keel. This can happen only if China pays serious and positive attention to issues of vital concern to India. Going by the current trends, this appears to be less than likely. Both sides, however, need to continue talking at all levels to sensitise each other about their core concerns and try to find mutually acceptable solutions. Otherwise, a new paradigm for managing bilateral relations will have to be constructed which could fall well short of the inherent potential of the partnership.
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