China and India are scheduled to exchange a series of high-level visits over the next three months. A visit to Delhi by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on August 12 will be followed by that of Chinese state councillor and former foreign minister Yang Jiechi, who is Beijing’s designated special representative for border negotiations. In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Hangzhou to attend the G-20 Summit while Chinese President Xi Jinping is slated to attend the Brics Summit in Goa in October.
The visits are taking place at a critical time in India-China relations. Recent developments have imposed strains on the relationship and though these high-level exchanges are China’s design to maintain strategic equilibrium, they — and especially the summits — offer the potential for the leaders to discuss substantive and troubling issues.
Since April 2015, particularly, there has been a qualitative upgradation in China’s relationship with Pakistan. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing dispelled all ambiguity on its stance on the Kashmir issue to overtly support Pakistan. The proposed construction of 51 infrastructure, energy-and military-related projects in the CPEC, with many sited in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), Gilgit and Baltistan, accord China’s de facto acknowledgement to Pakistan’s occupation of these territories. To protect the huge Chinese investment, Islamabad has begun to potentially bend borders with India by fully integrating Gilgit and Baltistan, including nominating ‘observers’ to its Parliament.
The CPEC will bind Pakistan to China since power generation, transport, commerce, R&D and the defence of Pakistan will all be increasingly tied to Chinese investment and interests. Bilateral intelligence cooperation has intensified and there is a definite military component to the CPEC. A $ 44 million secure fibre optic cable, for example, links the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) West Zone’s South Xinjiang Military District headquarters directly with the Pakistan Army GHQ in Rawalpindi. The West Zone is tasked with safeguarding China’s borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in addition to protecting Chinese investments and nationals in the CPEC. China, meanwhile, is raising a division-strength “private army” for deployment in the CPEC, to supplement the Pakistan Army’s 10,000-man special force.
An unmistakable signal of enhanced Sino-Pak military collaboration, including in the Arabian Sea, was the arrival of a Chinese nuclear submarine to Karachi in May this year. It is a first by a Chinese nuclear submarine to any port in South Asia. Of equal concern to India is China’s assistance to Pakistan in the design and development of tactical nuclear missiles. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had planned to discuss, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Summit (Mar 31-Apr 1), China “extending diplomatic or other substantive support” to Pakistan to counter US insistence that Pakistan go slow on the development of its tactical nuclear weapons.
China’s opposition to India joining international organisations has also spilled out into the open. It raised specious arguments to stymie India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in June, continues to oppose India’s entry to the UNSC as a permanent member and blocks India’s requests in the UN Sanctions Committee on terrorists harboured by Pakistan. In all these cases it is working in close collusion with Islamabad.
India must raise these and other issues of concern like the qualitatively different border intrusions during forthcoming interactions despite negligible expectation that there will be forward movement, including in the border negotiations or on the issue of stapled visas for the residents of Arunachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir. China’s official media has, in fact, laid claim to Ladakh describing it as “Little Tibet.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping is presently under pressure with China facing a degree of isolation consequent to the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which dismissed all its claims in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping, who has been strongly pushing nationalism and communist ideology to bolster the CCP’s legitimacy, is preparing for the 19th Party Congress late next year and cannot afford to be domestically perceived as weak. China’s charge d’affairs and career diplomat Liu Jinsong’s remark of April 19 that in future someone may dispute ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and its repetition in June, need to be viewed in this backdrop. They underscore approval at the highest echelons. Neither will Wang Yi, a member of the 18th Central Committee (CC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who served eight years in the Northeast Construction Army Corps in Heilongjiang Province, yield ground and could, in fact, have been instructed to adopt a tough stance.
Jayadeva Ranade is former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat and is president, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
The views expressed are personal