Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 07, 2018

The renewed hopes on India-China relations comes in the midst of a possible new thaw in New Delhi’s bilateral ties with Pakistan.

Recalibrating India’s ties with China and Pakistan

Source Image: PTI

Meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Buenos Aires, Argentina, their fourth meeting in the current calendar year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jiping have reported ‘perceptible improvement’ in the bilateral relations and in “working together to build on the Wuhan spirit” created by their first informal, two-day talks in the Chinese city, post-Doklam. The two leaders also injected renewed energy into trilateral relations with Russia, through a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, also at the same venue, according to reports.

The renewed hopes on India-China relations in particular comes in the midst of a possible new thaw in New Delhi’s bilateral ties with another adversarial neighbour in Pakistan. In the midst of much cacophony on India-Pakistan relations in recent days, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, at Jaipur, Rajasthan, has made a pointed proposal for New Delhi lending help to Islamabad, for facing off terrorism in that country.

A perceived hardline ‘nationalist leadership’ with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the bicameral Indian Parliament, would have been a better bet for ‘marketing’ any ‘agreeable solution’ to the nation than any other in the past and/or possibly in the future. Doklam and BRI killed that possibility.

Taken to their logical conclusion(s), the two-directional initiatives have the potential to normalise relations along India’s vexatious border, though not as easy and fast as it may otherwise sound. At the end of the day, tensions along the India-China and India-Pakistan borders have contributed to high-spending, especially by New Delhi and Islamabad, on military acquisitions for a war that they may not any more want to fight.

Between India and China, Doklam, likewise, has taught both nations lessons in how not to start off a stand-off. If nothing else, post facto, China, if sincere as it may want to sound, would have understood that 2018 is not 1962 — in more ways than the possible obvious one — and that India cannot be forced to the negotiating table, this way or any other. Rather, a perceived hardline ‘nationalist leadership’ with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the bicameral Indian Parliament, would have been a better bet for ‘marketing’ any ‘agreeable solution’ to the nation than any other in the past and/or possibly in the future. Doklam and BRI killed that possibility.

‘Two-plus-one’ ties

At Buenos Aires, Modi reportedly told Xi that the bilateral relations have made huge strides in the past year, and “such initiatives are helpful in maintaining the (Wuhan) momentum” and also pointed to the “two review meetings — in Qingdao and in Johannesburg.” According to Chinese media reports, the two leaders also stressed the need for promoting ‘greater multilateralism’ in global affairs.

Briefing newsmen on the bilateral, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale also said that the two leaders agreed that “there had been a positive improvement in border management,” which has been the one key area of concern and tension between their nations since the India-China conflict of 1962. “Both sides also specifically mentioned that the first bilateral cooperation that had begun in Afghanistan which is the training of Afghan diplomats, had been successful and that they were looking for further such opportunities,” PTI quoted Gokhale from the Argentine capital.

Be it as it may, the progress could well be slow and both New Delhi and Beijing would have to overcome inherent suspicions that might continue to haunt their bilateral ties for some more time, at least.

As may be recalled, China had recently added Maldives as another country in the Indian neighbourhood where the two nations could work together for the betterment of third, smaller nations. Be it as it may, the progress could well be slow and both New Delhi and Beijing would have to overcome inherent suspicions that might continue to haunt their bilateral ties for some more time, at least.

Possibly, China had plotted out the prestigious BRI scheme as a politico-economic initiative that could have made such cooperation possible within a larger framework. However, insensitivity to traditional Indian concerns on finalising the BRI route through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) meant that New Delhi could not even be able to consider the Chinese proposal on merit, if any otherwise. A Wuhan ahead of the BRI launch might have helped, or so it would now seem.

Border talks

Ahead of Buenos Aires, the two nations also held border talks at a high-level, with National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval representing India and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi leading his country’s delegation. While some progress has been made, going by the Indian statements, both after the border talks in Chengdu, China, and also at the Buenos Aires meeting, it is unclear if Beijing has been able to accept the well-reiterated the Indian position about keeping bilateral issues, bilateral.

There were perceptions in the past that China wanted India to treat bilateral talks with Pakistan, especially on the Kashmir border, as part of larger ‘trilateral’ as Islamabad had ‘ceded’ the Aksai Chin part of PoK to Beijing, citing historic positions unacceptable to India. There may also be need for greater Chinese understanding that India-Pakistan issues are as much emotional as they are politico-military in nature, and could not be linked with the India-China border dispute, if any early breakthrough were to become possible, on either front.

While some progress has been made, going by the Indian statements, both after the border talks in Chengdu, China, and also at the Buenos Aires meeting, it is unclear if Beijing has been able to accept the well-reiterated the Indian position about keeping bilateral issues, bilateral.

If nothing else, at least a section of the strategic community in India is bound to doubt Chinese sincerity and non-partisanship if it were to join any bilateral border talks between India and Pakistan, given Beijing’s long history of love for Islamabad, based near-exclusively on mutual adversity towards India. More importantly, having stuck to the bilateral route since the ‘Shimla Accord’ of 1972, no government in New Delhi could be seen, either nearer home or overseas, to have given up on a long-held position. Given the geostrategic complexities of the region, more so post-Cold War, it could not be otherwise, either.

Revisiting terrorism

In a way, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s Jaipur offer for India working with Pakistan to help address terrorism in that country tantamount to New Delhi revisiting the nearly two-decade old position, dating back to the Vajpayee Government. Handing over a list of names of 20 terrorists wanted by India, while calling on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at New Delhi ahead of the failed ‘Agra Summit’ in 2001, then Home Minister L.K. Advani had said that there could not be any progress in bilateral ties until Islamabad reacted positively to Indian demands on this score.

At the time, Musharraf in particular had stressed that Pakistan was also a victim of terrorism as India had been for a longer period. Neither he, nor his successors since then, have amplified on the request for handing over the 20 terrorists wanted by India, as it might have been proof of Islamabad’s sincerity in the matter. Despite the Indian experiences with 26/11, and terror-attacks that followed PM Modi’s Lahore visit of end-2015, New Delhi seems wanting to give peace with Pakistan yet another chance. ‘Cautious optimism’ continues to be India’s watchword, however.

Though Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan did say a week ahead of Minister Rajnath Singh’s Jaipur exposition, that all sections in his country were together at wanting to improve ties with India, experience has shown that every time the civilian leadership of the two nations had tried to talk peace in whatever form, the Pakistani ISI and anti-India terrorists based in that country had erupted, to ensure that no progress was made on the peacemaking front. The last one was the ‘Pathankot terror-strike’ of January 2016, in the footsteps of PM Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore, to greet then counterpart, Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.

It now remains to be seen if the Modi-Imran initiative on the ‘Khartarpur Corridor’ would go Vajpayee-Sharif’s ‘Lahore Bus Diplomacy’ way or would produce genuine progress. After all, the Pakistani armed forces, then under General Musharraf, showed, post-bus diplomacy,’ Kargil War was their answer to the political initiatives of their own Prime Minister, on the road to try and achieve permanent peace between the two nations.

It now remains to be seen if the Modi-Imran initiative on the Khartarpur corridor would go Vajpayee-Sharif’s ‘Lahore Bus Diplomacy’ way or would produce genuine progress.

It thus remains to be seen how PM Imran Khan is going to take the Indian initiative forward, or is he at all be able to carry the whole nation with him, as promised. After all, homegrown terrorism in India is targeted against the nation, whatever the nomenclature, but from across the border(s), it is both the ISI targeting India exclusively and the religious stuff, which alone impacts Pakistan, as well. When it comes to anti-India terrorism from across Pakistani border, religion is also used to cover up ISI terrorism, and any help from New Delhi, if taken to the logical end, would involve Islamabad’s willingness to delineate one from the other, and act where it alone can act.

Redefining multilateralism

In the overall context, constant Chinese mention of ‘multilateralism’ in the post-Cold War period relates to delinking the world economy from the perceived clutches of the US-led global West since the Second World War. While China has succeeded in launching the BRI with participation from 80-plus nations, as against the G-18 ‘Marshall Plan’ States, Beijing cannot seek to replace one set of ‘unilateralism’ with another, and claim it ‘multilateralism,’ given that BRI has remained a Chinese initiative through and through, and most beneficiaries are small and marginal states, with only their sovereignty and territorial integrity to surrender in return.

In a way, it’s similar to what the West, especially the US, had purportedly done since the Second World War, by using bilateral and multilateral aid of the IMF-World Bank kind, for obtaining political clout and/or military bases in host-nations, mostly small, poor and power-less. In a way, the western perceptions of China’s development investments, leading up to the likes of ‘debt-equity swap’ deal on Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, may have flowed from their own practices from the past. Despite contesting such claims, China has not done enough to disprove those charges. If anything, viz India, Beijing has ended up proving western theorists on the ‘String of Pearls’ right.

While China has succeeded in launching the BRI with participation from 80-plus nations, as against the G-18 Marshall Plan States, Beijing cannot seek to replace one set of unilateralism with another, and claim it multilateralism.

In possibly having to revisit the BRI and the border dispute with India, in an attempt to normalise bilateral ties and recreate a new geostrategic environment all along the region, possibly including Russia, Iran and Afghanistan, too, China may also have to rethink its current stress on institutions such as BRICS, where incoming Brazilian President, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, seems to be having other ideas closer to the current American thinking. He visited Taiwan, not China, during the year, and has declared that he preferred bilateral ties (including with China, with which his country has huge business?) to multilateral institutions (of the BRICS kind?).

Against all such complexities, most of China’s problems with India are bilateral in nature, and building trust on this score could also make New Delhi’s strategic community to understand Beijing’s greater position and aspiring role in the global/multilateral scene. The two nations do share a 4,000-km border, where they need to live with each other over the medium and long term, the short-term having passed by them since 1962.

By linking border dispute with India to its perceptions over New Delhi’s purported thinking on a future Dalai Lama, and also bringing in the Pakistani angle through PoK and Aksai Chin, China has only complicated matters with India. The incumbent Dalai Lama, more than any other stakeholder, has clarified for years now, how after him, the religious functions of the office and the political role played by him would be separated.

This could imply that a future Dalai Lama would have no political role, which would be exercised only by the ‘Tibetan government in exile,’ based now in Dharmashala in the north-western Indian State of Himachal Pradesh. As may be recalled, India offered asylum to the present Dalai Lama, who combined religious and political leadership of Tibetans, and his separation of the two institutions means a lot in context.

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Author

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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