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An uneasy truce: India, China balance decades-old strategic mistrust with diplomacy

In foreign secretary’s quiet visit to Beijing, experts see some thaw in frosty Sino­Indian ties, but it doesn’t signal end to layered game of diplomacy between the world’s two most populated nations and neighbours

india Updated: Mar 07, 2018 08:37 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
India,China,Arunachal Pradesh
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh angered Beijing.(AFP File Photo)

A day ahead of China’s biggest holiday on February 16, the first day of the Lunar New Year, Beijing came out bristling with anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh or “south Tibet” as it is claimed here to be.

Instead of sitting down for the traditional family dinner on New Year’s Eve, a group of Chinese diplomats had to rustle up an angry response to the visit: “The Chinese government has never recognised the so-called AP and is firmly opposed to the Indian leader’s visit to the disputed area”.

The Chinese Year of the Earth Dog, it seemed, had begun on a sour note for Sino-Indian ties; Nothing new, of course, after the low of the Doklam (Donglang in Chinese) military standoff near Sikkim that started in June and ended in August.

Eight days later, on Feb 23, foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale landed in Beijing on an unannounced visit, which had been decided mutually soon after he had taken over as foreign secretary in January.

Gokhale held talks with the vice-foreign minister Kong Xuanyou, foreign minister Wang Yi and state councillor Yang Jiechi.

As it turns out, for one, Gokhale is likely to have assured the Chinese side that the Modi government had instructed government functionaries to avoid events arranged by the Tibetan government in exile to mark 60 years in exile of the Dalai Lama.

Dalai Lama is China’s all-weather “separatist” and “splittist” and it was his visit to AP in April that, many say, partly set the dark tone for Sino-Indian ties in the year 2017.

The statements subsequently released by both sides were expectedly civil, talking about “addressing differences and being sensitive to each other’s concerns”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Pema Khandu, presenting a gift to mark the 30 years of statehood at the inauguration of the Dorjee Khandu State Convention Centre in Itanagar. (PIB)

Around the same time, in Paris China withdrew its opposition against a US-led move to place Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) watch list.

It was a reminder of the declaration issued at the end of the BRICS summit held in China in September when the group had bracketed Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed with global terror groups Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

So, the layered game of diplomacy between the world’s two most populated nations and neighbours continues: India and China balance decades-old strategic mistrust with diplomacy; balance the disputed border -- the unmarked root of all troubles -- with the promise of bilateral economic potential and balance domestic political compulsions with regional and global obligations.

India watchers here were not willing to comment why Beijing decided to withdraw support for Pakistan, its “allweather strategic ally” at FATF even if they knew it was for economic and strategic interests in the region crucial to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

They, however, had words of both optimism and caution for Sino-Indian ties.

“Managing the relationship between India and China is like rowing a boat against the current – if you don’t strive to move forward, you will naturally drift backwards. Cooperation benefits both parties, while confrontation will only hurt both,” said Lan Jianxue, associate research fellow of China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).

“However, the relationship now seems stuck in a “strategic drift”, and is running the risk of free falling down. It is, however, still possible for both parties to avoid hostility. A basic consensus on the relationship of the two countries still exists; all we need to do is to refocus on it,” Lan Jianxue added.

“The Indian foreign secretary’s quiet visit to Beijing last week was of great significance as his visit may mark the turning point in bringing bilateral tries back on track,” said Wang Dehua, south Asia expert at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies.

Much more, however, needs to be done to improve ties especially between the two armed forces, keeping in mind that soldiers from both countries are the ones who to have to deal with each other on hostile terrain through the year.

The “hand-to-hand” anti-terror exercise, which was to be held in China last year, for example, was cancelled because of the military standoff.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has held exercises on the high plateaus of the Tibet Autonomous Region and strengthened its forces, especially the air force, by deploying fighter jets along the disputed border.

“Since the Donglang standoff, hostility between the militaries of China and India is obviously greater than cooperation. China is very dissatisfied with India’s foxy action, taking advantage of its ties with the US and Japan to contain China’s posture in the east,” said Ni Lexiong a Shanghai-based military expert.

“The suspension of the military exercise is a direct consequence of the Donglang incident. It shows that the relations between the two countries and relations between the two armies are abnormal and trustless,” Ni added.

Zhang Jiadong, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, cited the recent visit of Gokhale, army chief general Bipin Rawat, and NSA Ajit Doval to Bhutan as part of India’s attempts to prepare Thimpu in case of another military standoff in the region.

At the same time, Zhang was optimistic that a similar incident will not recur and bilateral ties are set to improve this year.

“Traditionally, after a bad period, we will have a good period. Both governments are trying their best to have a better relationship this year. So, a state visit between China and India is very likely to happen this year,” Zhang said indicating a visit by a top Chinese leader, possible Premier Li Keqiang, to India in 2018.

Modi, meanwhile, is likely to visit the coastal city of Qingdao in China in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit where both India and Pakistan will participate for the first time as full members of the group.

A number of high-level visits from India are expected in the run-up to the summit of the SCO, a security organisation led by China.

Interestingly, if the amazing success of Aamir Khan’s Dangal preceded the Doklam standoff, Khan’s Secret Superstar – which made some $120 million in China – was a hit here five months after the militaries disengaged.

It has to be remembered that Secret Superstar succeeded despite the Chinese government’s concerted anti-India rhetoric through official and online media during and after the Himalayan face-off.

“The recent success of Indian films in China shows us that we do share common values and these commonalities could be the basis that we build a healthier and more sustainable relation,” Guo Suiyan, who focusses on south Asia at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences said.

Easier said than done. But for the 2.5 billion people in India and China, bonding over Dangal would likely be more desirable than the dangerous uncertainty that another military standoff like in Doklam could trigger.

First Published: Mar 07, 2018 07:52 IST