India-China Relations in Uncomfortable Zone
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out the red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit in his new capacity to India (Sept. 18-20).
September 18 was Mr. Modi’s 64th birthday. Mr. Xi’s reception was shifted to Ahmedabad, capital of the state of Gujarat, which Mr. Modi ruled as a Chief Minister for three terms before becoming prime minister. Lavish entertainment and dinner was arranged on the picturesque banks of the Sabarmati River. This was unusual, as the visiting head of state or government is officially received in the capital New Delhi.
Unfortunately, the visit was clouded by the incursion of around 1500 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Chumar in the western sector, an area well within the line of Actual Control (LAC). This time, the Indian border forces and army responded accordingly, massing around 1000 troops in a close face off, forcing the Chinese forces to retreat to an extent. Currently, the Chinese have introduced another 35 troops after the visit.
In May, 2013, PLA troops had made similar incursions jeopardising the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The matter was finally resolved, and the Chinese troops withdrew to their original position before Premier Li’s visit.
This time, the Chinese have taken a more aggressive stand apparently in line with their policy on territorial issues as witnessed with their actions over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. The Chumar incident was immediately brought to the notice of Mr. Xi by Prime Minister Modi in the Ahmedabad talks and later the next day in New Delhi. Mr. Xi reportedly assured that he had conveyed to the concerned in Beijing that they should rectify the situation. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson in Beijing, Hong Lei, assured that with “immediate and effective communication” the incident had been “effectively controlled and managed”. On the ground, however, nothing had changed. What did Hong Lei mean by “effectively controlled and managed”?
Mr. Xi reportedly told Mr. Modi that the PLA transgression was a small incident. Mr. Modi retorted in his typical way that a “tooth ache” was a small thing but it could ‘paralyse’ the whole body. Mr. Modi had invested a lot of his political vision in this visit, and disappointment was natural.
Signals from Beijing on the Xi Jinping visit suggests some confusion. On the one hand the Chinese official media and think tank experts are trying to downplay the intrusion lest it over shadow what they call a ‘successful visit’ laying the path for future development. The Chinese communist party mouthpiece, the ‘People’s Daily’ highlighted the bonhomie between Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi with photographs and reports on the front page.
The Global Times said that India continues to make efforts to “improve mutual political trust between the two countries” but now “attached more attention to fostering personal friendship between top leaders from both sides”. But it also acknowledged that because of “historical reasons” and “more recent problems”, relations have been plagued by mutual distrust.
The expression “more recent problems” extending mutual distrust is a new phraseology in addition to “historical reasons” in the context of the border resolution. The article does not explain the phrase.
An explanation may be found in the same ‘Global Times’ article, when it said ambitious defence plans targeting China were made by former prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, and that Mr. Modi was further expanding on this strategy by consolidating infrastructural facilities in disputed areas of the border. It added that India’s stance on the border was getting tougher, “brewing new strategic adjustments”. Finally, the article asked why India was mentioning the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh) when talking about “one India” and not the western part? If Mr. Modi was considering more “strategic adjustments on this issue” it deserved China’s close attention.
The visit made Chinese political strategy towards India clearer. The overall strategy reemphasized the containment of India in South Asia using the new formulation “maritime Silk Road”, having tied up the Maldives and Sri Lanka in this strategic trade line project, before coming to India. This Silk Road is to connect China’s coast to South Asian countries using the Sea/Ocean route. The initiative and control will remain with Beijing.
One important line in this entire project still depends to a great extent on India’s cooperation -- the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar, or BCIM, land route emerging on Bangladesh’s coast in the Chittagong area into the Bay of Bengal. At this end, China is keen to construct alone, or in joint venture, a deep sea port at Kutubdia, Bangladesh, much in the nature of the Gwadar port in Pakistan. An eminent plan for the Chinese naval deployment in the Indian Ocean to protect its “Maritime Silk Road” and impose China’s influence is in the works.
In a veiled warning, India has been told that if it does not cooperate on the BCIM route, China may demonstrate its unhappiness in other ways. Prime Minister Modi’s initiative with Japan (read the hardline Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe), and growing relations with the USA, is seen by Beijing as a threat to its domination of Asia. Pressure on India is, therefore, expected.
But there appears to be a division in China on how much pressure to put on India. President Xi Jipning arrived in India on September 18, and the same evening Mr. Modi brought to his attention India’s concern over the Chumar intrusion by the PLA. Mr. Xi assured Mr. Modi that he was sending directions to Beijing to correct the situation. But only on September 22, full two days after his return to Beijing, did the Chinese Defence Ministry published on its website that the PLA troops were directed to obey Chairman Xi’s orders. Mr. Xi is also the head of the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest Party-PLA body.
This is a highly significant, and potentially dangerous, development both for China’s internal politics and its foreign policy. Obviously no action was taken by the CMC on Mr. Xi’s message from India. He had to make hard bargaining with the PLA and some top civilian leaders to get way with a reluctant message to the commander of the Lanzhou Military Region that controls the area opposite Chumar.
It would, therefore, appear that President Xi Jinping may not be as strong as read by international observers of China.
The evolving situation calls for close monitoring of the Chinese political situation in New Delhi. Prime Minister Modi will be away to USA from September 25 for a week plus visit, when he will be meeting US President Barack Obama, and China will certainly be on the agenda for discussions. India, however, must be extremely careful and retain its independent position.
Note: The writer, an expert on China and Asia, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst and former senior Indian Government national security official. A version of this paper was first published by the South Asia Group on 23 September, 2014.