Prime Minister Narendra Modi is paying a return visit to China at a time when the international state system is in chaos, and there is an urgent need to restore a semblance of order to it. China’s President Xi Jinping is acutely aware of this and has made no secret of his desire to hasten the resolution of the border dispute to enlist India’s support in doing so.
He first unveiled his intention at the BRICS annual meeting at Durban in March 2013 when he replaced the earlier Chinese wording, “gradually narrow differences on border issues between the two countries” with “to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible”.
The Durban meeting of the two heads of government was followed by Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India a few weeks later. A senior Indian official who was present at his meeting with Manmohan Singh told me that their discussion had gone so well that it could have been choreographed. Singh summed this up in his formal statement when he said, “I am delighted that there are so many areas of convergence between us on which there is a great deal of meeting of minds”.
This visit set the stage for President Xi Jinping’s visit to India 16 months later. In the intervening months signs of the importance that Beijing placed on changing the locus of its relations with India multiplied. The Indian national Day reception at Beijing 2014 was attended by the Vice President of China, who delivered a 10 minute speech on that occasion extolling China-India ties since antiquity.
When Ambassador Ashok Kantha, who replaced current foreign secretary S Jaishankar, presented his credentials in June, he was one of only two of the 13 other Ambassadors who did so, whom President Xi asked to stay back for a short talk.
Finally, President Xi himself met National Security Adviser Ajit Doval when he visited Beijing on September 8 to prepare for his India visit. The last senior official who was granted this courtesy by a Chinese President may have been Henry Kissinger in 1970.
But the possibility of a wider strategic dialogue was sabotaged by the PLA when Chinese troops surrounded an Indian outpost at Chumar, in eastern Ladakh, only days before he arrived in India. The move was almost certainly an attempt by powerful generals in the PLA to prevent a change of policy in Tibet. This became apparent when Xi Jinping issued a stern reprimand to the PLA to follow the dictates of the Party’s military commission on September 21, barely a day after returning to Beijing.
Today, as Modi begins his return visit, Chinese spokespersons are making no secret of their hope that the two countries will be able to make real progress in resolving the border dispute, in order to pave the way for a wider strategic cooperation on international issues. They have repeatedly depicted Mr Modi as ‘a strong man’ and ‘reformer-in-chief’, who can take ‘strong decisions’.
Huang Xilian, deputy director-general of Asian affairs in the Chinese foreign ministry, told a visiting Indian journalist with long experience of working in China, that prospects for settling the border issue “are good so long as the two leaders showed strong political will”.
This was formally reiterated by Chinese foreign office spokesman Hua Chunying at a media briefing: “We are now in close communication with the Indian side on the preparations to host Prime Minister Modi in China. We believe with our joint efforts we can show Prime Minister Modi that we value China-India relations and his visit to China.”
There have been no statements by Indian officials on what Modi hopes to achieve during his visit to Beijing, but from India’s point of view the visit will be a resounding success if there is progress in two areas. The first is a resumption of the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas. The second is finding a mutually beneficial way to deepen Sino-Indian economic relations.
Demarcation will facilitate the disengagement and pull back of troops on both sides that was envisaged in the 1993 Agreement, but it has been stuck for more than a decade because of China’s reluctance to reconcile Indian and Chinese maps of the region. Without this there is no way to even know where to pull back from.
Further progress will probably depend upon Delhi’s willingness to deepen strategic cooperation with Beijing. China would welcome but does not need India’s support in its disputes with Japan and the US. What it would like is help in curbing the increasing appetite of the West for using unprovoked economic and military coercion against so-called ‘rogue states’ in flagrant disregard for the primacy of diplomacy and the need to respect the sovereignty of nations enshrined in the UN charter.
As the principal challenger to Western hegemony, China cannot rule out being put on the rogues’ list in the future. It therefore wants to enlist India’s considerable ‘soft power’ to check this trend. India had been one of the strongest defenders of both principles in the past, but is now practising a moral neutrality – justified as realpolitik — that has made it edge ever closer to betraying them: witness its abstention in the Security Council on the invasion of Libya and its silence on the destruction of Syria, and the Saudi attack on Yemen.
Since India’s own long term security depends on continued support for these principles, Beijing would be a good place for Mr Modi to reaffirm India’s adherence to them. If he does this he will also provide Obama with some of the moral support he needs to reverse the ‘force first’ security doctrine that Bush had initiated at West Point in 2002, and Obama renounced at the same venue in May last year.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist
The views expressed are personal