Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 20, 2016
Wang Yi during his visit to India, paid a call on PM Modi and held discussions with Sushma Swaraj and familiarised himself with the Goa BRICS Summit.
India-China ties in focus — Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits India

India-China relations will be under a glare in the coming months. Prime Minister Modi will travel to Hangzhou, China, for the G-20 Summit on September 4 and 5, where he and his host President Xi Jinping will have an opportunity to discuss bilateral ties, in addition to G20 matters. Xi is scheduled to travel to India to participate in the BRICS Summit in Goa on October 15 and 16. The two leaders will also participate in the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos, on September 6 and 7.

Modi and Xi have met on several earlier occasions over the last two years. During Modi's first international travel to Fortaleza, Brazil, for the BRICS Summit in 2014, he met President Xi for the first time. Their last meeting was in Tashkent on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in June. With the possible exception of President Obama, PM Modi has probably met President Xi more often than any other world leader since taking charge. While relations with the US has soared, relations with China are mired in tension and distrust. Hopes which had surfaced after Modi's victory that relations with China will improve have been sorely belied. Modi had embraced China with eagerness after coming to power to make it an active partner in India's economic development. This initiative has fallen flat. China has not accorded appropriate importance to India's concerns as India had hoped. These relate not only to issues bedeviling bilateral ties, but equally to China's all out support to its ‘’iron friend’’ Pakistan. China has been unmindful of Pakistan’s funding and support to terrorism which could adversely impact China's own security in the not too distant a future.

South China Sea dispute and the centrality of UNCLOS

Some major issues that have afflicted bilateral relations in recent months include China's blockade of India's Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership bid at Seoul in June, putting a ''technical hold'' on designating Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as terrorist by UN Security Council, and extensive support to Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) — a region that juridically belongs to India. China has claimed that it is unfair to single it out because there were several other countries which were opposed to a non-NPT signatory becoming a member of the NSG.

On the Chinese side, the raging debate on the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute filed by the Philippines, which has gone completely against all positions advanced by China, is a matter of serious concern. India had issued a balanced and mature response after the verdict, which, while noting the clear decision, stated: "India supports freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS." It further added: ''Sea lines of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS." Centrality of UNCLOS in resolving the dispute was emphasised in the Indian statement.

Foreign Ministers of Russia, India and China met in the regular RIC (Russia, India, China) format in Moscow in April, a few months prior to the announcement of the Award, and on the issue of SCS stated: ''Russia, India and China are committed to maintaining a legal order for the seas and oceans based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). All related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned. In this regard, the Ministers called for full respect of all provisions of UNCLOS." China has sought to use this statement by focusing on the formulation that ''disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned'' and thereby claiming that India supports its position of resolving the issue through negotiations among parties concerned. As is obvious, this is only a partial reading of the text. Complete reading of the statement demonstrates that full respect for all provisions of UNCLOS is the sine qua non for resolving the dispute.

Wang Yi’s visit

The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to India on August 12, 13 and 14, paid a call on PM Modi, also holding discussions with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and familiarising  himself with arrangements for the BRICS Summit in Goa.

Wang Yi's principal objective during his India visit, in addition to discussing matters related to G-20 and BRICS, seems to have been to try to co-opt India to its side on the South China Sea issue, particularly when the matter is raised at the G-20 and East Asia Summits by USA, Japan and some others.

It is in this context that even before Wang Yi set foot on Indian soil, China’s state-run media dangled a carrot in front of India and stated that the door for India’s admission to NSG is “not tightly” closed and that New Delhi should “fully comprehend” Beijing’s concerns over the disputed South China Sea, thus drawing a parallel between the NSG and SCS issues. State-run Xinhua News Agency said, ''the South China Sea correlates with China’s vital national interest.. and (India should) continue to play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific." China’s Global Times urged India “to avoid unnecessary entanglement with China over the South China Sea debate.. if the country wishes to create a good atmosphere for economic cooperation.”

Chinese state media pitched in to advocate that India-China ties should focus on amplifying their economic agenda, which required urgent attention since "India’s exports to China have dropped 16.7 percent year-on-year in the first seven months of the year, suggesting that Indian enterprises are having a hard time amid simmering tensions between the two countries." Days before Wang Yi’s departure for India, Global Times warned New Delhi that its seemingly inimical posture on the South China Sea (SCS) was potentially damaging for bilateral ties and could create obstacles for Indian businesses in China.

With the United States and some others certain to raise the SCS dispute at the forthcoming Summits, China has embarked on taking pre-emptive measures to shore up its support. It would hope that India will not take a strong stand against it at the Summit meetings.

It is understood that detailed discussions took place on a range of issues at the lengthy meeting between delegations led by the two foreign ministers. These included, India's NSG membership, China's ‘’technical hold’’ on designating Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar as terrorists on the UN list, Chinese activities under CPEC in POK and others. No discussions on SCS apparently took place in the open meeting. Considering the Chinese sensitivity on this issue, it is quite likely that this matter was taken up between the two ministers in a private tete-a-tete.

Two decisions were adopted by the foreign ministers which have the potential to stabilise bilateral ties and enhance mutual trust. On the contentious issue of China’s opposition to India’s membership of NSG, both sides agreed to engage in a dedicated dialogue between the Indian Joint Secretary dealing with disarmament issues and China’s Director General of Arms Control and Disarmament. On other issues causing an impediment in the growth of bilateral relations, another structure was created between the Indian Foreign Secretary and his Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. This would supplement the already functioning annual Strategic Dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level and the regular Special Representatives dialogue which focuses on border talks, but at times goes beyond that limited circumference. It would appear that issues of China’s "technical hold" on the listing of Masood Azhar and Chinese activities in POK will be covered by this mechanism.

While these decisions do provide an impetus to bilateral partnership, recent attitude, behaviour, body language and statements from China would repudiate any hope that China will relent on issues of serious interest and concern to India. Bilateral ties are hence expected to continue to be stressed and strained and significantly below par in the foreseeable future.

Speaking after Wang Yi’s visit, the Chinese foreign office stated that India and China had "candid" exchange of views on some "specific issues" and agreed not to let the "differences" affect their overall ties as they vowed to resolve the issues through dialogue and consultation. Use of words like "candid" and "differences" in the Chinese foreign ministry statement would imply that hard and tough talks took place between the two sides.

SAARC Summit

Another significant issue that India will need to contend with in the coming days is the proposal of China’s membership of SAARC which is likely to come up at the forthcoming SAARC Summit in Pakistan in November. Most SAARC members except India and Bhutan are actively supportive of China’s membership. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China and like India, has an unsettled border with it. India should stand firm against the proposal and if need be, veto the suggestion. As a backup Plan B, India should persuade Japan to be ready to join SAARC in future when it might become impossible to keep China out. Japan’s presence will help to restore a semblance of balance if and when China manages to join the Organisation.

Meetings over the next two months provide an opportunity to both India and China to put their ties on an even keel. This can happen only if China pays serious and positive attention to issues of vital concern to India. Going by current trends, this appears less than likely. Both sides however need to continue talking at all levels to sensitise each other about their core concerns and try to find mutually acceptable solutions. Otherwise a new paradigm for managing bilateral relations will have to be constructed which could fall well short of the inherent potential of the partnership.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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