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Recent events ensure low expectations from PM’s China visit

While recent events have marred India-China relations ensuring low expectations, Beijing’s assessment of India’s ties with the United States and Japan is pertinent. Jayadeva Ranade writes.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2013 01:16 IST
Jayadeva Ranade

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China from October 22 comes soon after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s stopover in Delhi in May. It will not be a stand-alone visit and, as Li Keqiang went to Islamabad to meet China’s ‘iron brother’, the PM will first travel to Moscow.

As the PM prepares for his visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping has turned his attention to domestic issues and launched two major nationwide campaigns. The campaign against corruption, directed by Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Wang Qishan, has already netted some high-ranking cadres. More important is the ‘mass-line campaign’ being supervised by all seven PBSC members and which is intended to revitalise, streamline and enforce discipline in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One objective is to focus on the quality of members in the CCP and, if required, reduce their numbers. Faint hints of the ‘struggle’ sessions of the Cultural Revolution era, however, appear poised to tint the ‘criticism and self-criticism’ sessions of the ‘mass-line campaign’. Both campaigns encompass the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

While recent events have marred India-China relations ensuring low expectations, Beijing’s assessment of India’s ties with the United States and Japan is pertinent. A commentary sharply critical of the US published on October 13 in Xinhua news-agency made Beijing’s views manifest. It calls for a “befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanised world”.

Just days earlier, a senior officer of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) privately confided to some interlocutors about China’s anxiety at the growing proximity between India and the US as evidenced in the Indo-US Joint Statement signed in September. He expressed concern at the use of the term ‘closest partners’ to describe the bilateral relationship. The officer specifically pointed to the India-US Joint Declaration on Defence, which stated that the “United States and India share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners. This principle will apply with respect to defence technology transfer, trade, research, co-development and co-production for defence articles and services, including the most advanced and sophisticated technology”. He singled out the provisions for technology transfer, co-development and co-production of defence equipment for particular mention.

The PLA officer noted too that India had for the first time decided to participate in the world’s largest US-led multilateral military exercises — the 2014 Rim of the Pacific Exercise — in Hawaii. He hinted that Beijing could now revisit its decision and also consider joining the exercises.

The manner in which the PLA appears to be distancing itself from the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) likely to be signed during the PM’s visit is interesting. A Delhi-based senior PLA officer recently observed that whether the agreement is signed or not would be a “political” decision. Indicating that the PLA’s concerns regarding construction of border defences by India are not addressed in the BDCA, he said the PLA is no longer involved and that state councillor Yang Jiechi will now report on the matter to the politburo. Considering that the PLA has a dominant voice on issues concerning territorial integrity and sovereignty, these remarks merit attention.

The other subject of importance that impacts directly on the livelihood of crores of Indians, relates to the South-North Water Diversion project, or the diversion of the Brahmaputra to northern China. Work on the $65-billion project has been proceeding apace with a series of dams being built along the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is called in Tibet. China’s new Energy Development Plan, which was made public in January, includes the construction of mega hydropower dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo. The project continues to be under the Chinese premier’s jurisdiction.

The subject resurfaced when Li Zhefei, a researcher at the National Institute of International Strategy at China’s largest government think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), wrote a commentary in Global Times, a subsidiary of the authoritative party mouthpiece People’s Daily on October 8. He recommended that China should not pay heed to India’s concerns and go ahead with the diversion of the Brahmaputra while trying to address the dispute through peaceful negotiations. He accused India of “putting more pressure on China by exaggerating the facts and drawing attention from the international community, with the intention of preventing China from developing Tibetan water resources”.

India, he said, had already built a number of hydropower stations in the “so-called Arunachal Pradesh” and had also “totally disregarded the interests of Bangladesh in the lower reaches through its own exploitative usage”.

China’s investment in Special Economic Zones in India is likely to figure in the discussions. Sixty two-year-old Liu He, a confidante and member of Xi Jinping’s ‘brains trust’ who accompanies Xi Jinping to all meetings, will be a key behind-the-scenes player in these discussions. Meanwhile, economic officials in the Chinese consulate in Mumbai are exploring the feasibility of purchasing a large tract of land for establishing a Chinese-owned Special Economic Zone.

While the events of recent months ensure low expectations from the upcoming visit, the observations of the PLA officers are interesting.

They reveal that Beijing is apprehensive of growing Indo-US ties and views these developments through the prism of US-led efforts to contain China. The BDCA, as indicated by the PLA’s apparent stance, is being viewed by it as diluted to another confidence-building measure. The Global Times commentary, however, suggests that Beijing will stonewall any response on the issue of diversion of the Brahmaputra.

Jayadeva Ranade is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

The views expressed by the author are personal.