By seeking and waltzing towards an India-China reset, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking a big risk and walking on the razor’s edge of foreign policy negotiations. Other than attempted hugs and frozen smiles at the ‘informal summit’ at Wuhan on 27-28 April, there are going to be no tangible outcomes from Modi’s meeting with China’s multi-designated ‘paramount’ and ‘core’ leader Xi Jinping. The underlying idea, to clear the air and fix the trust deficit between the two countries, offers little more than a photo-op.
And yet, on the 1-by-1 chessboard of India-China disputes, this is a much needed meeting, perhaps the first of several, that has a huge potential to fix geographical borders, undo military misadventures, balance trade relationships and move markets. India’s key moves would be to use Chinese pressure to neutralise state-sponsored terror from Pakistan and tell this aspiring global power to stay put within its own borders. China, whose aggression correlates with India and US getting closer in general and the 18 July 2005 Indo-US civilian nuclear deal in particular, will continue to assert its economic and military might to bend India. Trade imbalances in favour of China, China’s opposition to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group or UN Security Council are negotiable variables — Doklam, Arunachal Pradesh, CPEC are not.
India’s key moves would be to use Chinese pressure to neutralise state-sponsored terror from Pakistan and tell this aspiring global power to stay put within its own borders.
You may argue that India needs the reset more than China. Until recently that was true. But step back and watch the other ongoing foreign policy tournaments, and on the 3-by-3 chessboard comprising six major players — the US, the EU, China, Russia, Japan and India — the game is changing. It is no longer merely India seeking a reset; China needs it as much. Call it a correlation, if not a causation, pressure from US President Donald Trump has got a retreating China to smoothen the wrinkles out of its trade and investment barriers and intellectual property theft, upon which most of its much-celebrated growth story has been scripted. Again, events such as banning its distinguished telecom giant ZTE for selling equipment to North Korea and Iran in violation of US sanctions, are mere talking points.
In the face of trade wars with the US and its European allies, Xi meeting Modi could be little more than a short-term strategic manoeuvre, perhaps a signal to the West, but little else. Talks about an India-China reset will get international companies standing on the edge of the US-China engagement to find economic succour. Although we can expect nothing much to come out of this meeting, the smallest of signals will push up the global stock market indices by a few hundred points. Despite being closer to the US in terms of political ideology (democracy), US will need to remember that India operates in a hostile neighbourhood, with China-Pakistan hyphenated by an anti-India rhetoric and terror-support action.
Amid these tensions, Modi walks alone. Of course, he has the government and a few non-institutional followers and fans behind him. He walks to talk in an atmosphere of impending Karnataka elections, in a pre-election year, with a rejuvenated Opposition providing headwinds, and the rule of law and every flaw within it offering a stumbling block. On the other side, all the institutions of China, from the government and the party to the military and media — all controlled by Xi — are supporting and strengthening their arguments. The institution that oversees the rule of law in China, the judiciary, reports to the Party of which Xi is the head. Democracy has its institutional pitfalls, autocracy its rewards. We can look at the new global chessboard of tensions as a battle for a new era, where the axis of autocracy (China-Russia-Iran) is colliding with the axis of democracy (US-EU-India).
Talks about an India-China reset will get international companies standing on the edge of the US-China engagement to find economic succour. Although we can expect nothing much to come out of this meeting, the smallest of signals will push up the global stock market indices by a few hundred points.
With an aggressive China (‘assertive’ is an incorrect usage of the dragon’s economically-purchased and military-backed aspirations) trying to run the world, even a large economy like India, the world’s sixth largest, needs to think twice (at $2.5 trillion, our GDP is about one-fifth of China’s). Having got its way in smaller nations — Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal in our neighbourhood — China has got the habit of bullying its way through. With India, it meets a thicker and stronger wall. While it is true that India seeks a good relationship with China, China is not essential to India; we are not, and will never be, beholden to it.
And that’s why India will continue to oppose Xi’s closest idea — the Belt and Road Initiative that passes through India’s territory into Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Any negotiation that does not factor this violation of India’s sovereignty will be short-lived and transactional. It will not stand the test of time. If, despite pressure from the US and its allies (first France and recently Germany), China continues to think that trade and the accompanying strategic influence through the CPEC will give the nation a greater leverage and return, good luck to Xi and his moral contradictions.
Communication is better than silence, engagement loftier than sulking, negotiations superior to no-deal. But there can be no compromises on any nation’s sovereignty. Behind the hugs and smiles, India will continue to oppose China. The $51 billion trade deficit of India towards China can be negotiated. So can investments. As can tourism. And technologies. Or worker visas. A strong India-China relationship is good not merely for the two nations but for the region as well. What is non-negotiable is the slightest compromise on sovereignty, be it around Arunachal Pradesh or CPEC. Once this idea is out of the way conceptually, India can and will welcome any reset.
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