India, China closer but still cautious as Xi visit ends

  • Jayanth Jacob and Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 20, 2014 13:07 IST

Incursions cast a shadow over the visit of President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, but the joint statement issued on Friday reiterated their commitment to seek a "fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution". The two sides also said that ‘an early settlement of the boundary question’ ought to be ‘pursued as a strategic objective’.

Policymakers are grappling with the implications of the Xi’s visit. While some are underwhelmed, others point to the achievements. But all agree that border troubles dampened the mood.

And there were indeed positives. PM Narendra Modi and Xi got to know each other well. The entire edifice of the relationship rests on the 1988 breakthrough achieved by PM Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping – the two countries would try to resolve the border issue, but they would not let its non-resolution hold other bilateral issues hostage. This has held, and the joint statement spoke of enhancing development partnership, political communication, economic dialogue, investment and trade, cultural and people to people exchanges.

But this has come under increasing strain as Chinese incursions have triggered public outcry. Indian officials are left wondering why Beijing acted the way it did at such a crucial moment, for the Chinese were understood to be heavily aligning their strategy towards India with prime minister’s economic agenda.

“What is really confusing is the timing of the incursions where soldiers intruded in large numbers. In Chinese scheme of things it’s not possible without the authorization at the higher political level”, said a government source, indicating they did not buy the theory of Chinese People’s Liberation Army acting autonomously.

SD Muni, professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, tweeted, “Modi’s Sabarmati charm and dhokla diplomacy do not seem to have really worked on Xi. No indications of a new beginning.” He pointed to a ‘delayed border settlement’, the USD 20 billion dollar investment commitment rather than USD 100 billion, and China’s ‘eyes on SAARC’ and called visit 'below expectations'.

The hope is this may lend some urgency and energy to border negotiations. PM Modi said ‘clarifying the LAC’ was important and this needed to be ‘restarted’; Xi stressed Chinese ‘determination’ to settle the boundary question. Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, a strategic analyst, says, “The political leadership is back in the saddle. Modi and XI bring political determination, and do not seem daunted by the scale and complexity of problems they have inherited.”

The joint statement for the third in row time missed, mention of one-China policy-- an affirmation by India of One-China principle, which recognises Tibet and Taiwan as part of China. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent formulation is that they expect China to support a One India policy – and respect its sensitivities on Arunachal Pradesh – in return for India’s support for one China policy.

There was another strategic subtext to the visit. Analysts like Bhaskar believe that more than the border, India’s real concern is to pre-empt another 26/11 situation. “Except Beijing, all world capitals accept Pakistan supports terrorist groups. I hope India has raised this privately with Beijing, and I would have liked to see some public reference to it.” But some officials believe that China sent a positive signal by not making Pakistan a part of the itinerary.

Xi decided instead to visit Sri Lanka and Maldives, and indicated the desire to deepen ties with the rest of South Asia. A retired intelligence official says, “We may not like it, but we can’t prevent it either. China will expand its influence here, as we will try do in its neighbourhood. Note Modi’s visit to Japan and President Pranab Mukherjee visit to Vietnam.”

The optics may have been warm and some achievements substantial, but the visit showed that there are difficult strategic issues at play, and both India and China remain cautious about going all the way with each other.

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