Chinese president Xi Jinping refused to meet prime minister Narendra Modi in a structured bilateral meeting on the margins of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg over the weekend, though reports suggest that they had a “pull aside” interaction. The Chinese had categorically ruled out a “one-on-one” meeting, citing the stand-off in the Doklam area near the Bhutan tri-junction for past 19 days. (Doka La is the Indian name for the region that Bhutan knows as Doklam, while China asserts that it is a portion of its Donglang region.) Given the fact that less than 34 months ago, in September 2014, Modi was personally serenading Xi on the banks of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, it calls for a deep dive to discern why the Sino- Indian relationship has reached such a pass.
Is the deterioration in the relationship sudden or was it sliding steadily and surreptitiously hidden from the public gaze ?
Here’s an incident that is believed to have taken place when Modi visited Xian, Xi’s hometown, in May 2015. Apparently, the prime minister raised the matter of the unsettled border issue, expressing concern over the slow pace of the Special Representative process between the two countries. The response from the Chinese side was illuminating. They, evidently, told him that there are three segments of the border – Northern (Chinese Western) where India needs to sort out issues with Pakistan and only then would the Chinese talk about that sector; the Central (Middle), where the border is relatively settled; and the Eastern (Chinese Eastern), which India calls Arunachal Pradesh and the Chinese refer to as South Tibet, where substantive outstanding issues needed to be dealt with. In other words India should relinquish its claim on Arunachal Pradesh.
Why this piece of minutiae is important is because the current impasse is almost at the end of the Central (Middle) sector and the beginning of the Eastern sector where, even according to the Chinese, there were no major irritants even 26 months ago. This stretches from Himachal Pradesh to the Eastern end of the state of Sikkim. Even though the current stand off is in Bhutanese territory, the Chinese are not blind to the “special” relationship between India and Bhutan.
During a 2012 interaction with leaders of political parties from across Asia in Beijing, a Chinese Communist party apparatchik on the cusp of a major leadership elevation outlined China’s three objectives over the next decade as follows : to transform China from a low income to a middle-income country, to move manufacturing facilities further into the hinterland from the coastal regions and to consolidate individual grassroots democracy across the country. China, he said, needed another three decades of peace to properly fulfill this vision. Moreover, he emphasized, the rise of China in Asia would be peaceful.
Although, China’s conduct with regard to Japan qua the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea or generally with other littoral states of the South China Sea has been acerbic and belligerent, there is another dimension of Chinese behavior that should not be ignored.
To the exclusion of its territorial disputes with India and Bhutan, China has settled all its other land boundary disputes. In contrast, it has resolved none of its maritime border disputes, with the honorable exception of the Gulf of Tonkin dispute with Vietnam, that was partially resolved after protracted negotiations spanning three rounds i.e. in 1974, 1978-1979, and 1992-2000, spread over six decades.
China-watchers are bemused and a tad intrigued at the territorial concessions that China has repeatedly given to resolve its myriad conflicts. Of its 23 ongoing territorial disputes from 1949, China proposed generous concessions in as many as 17, often agreeing to receive less than half the land it initially claimed. A classical example is the Sino-Tajik border dispute that was settled by an agreement between the two countries in January 2011. The agreement that resolved a 130-year-old territorial dispute, required Tajikistan to cede around 1,000 square kilometers of land in the Pamir Mountains to China. It mandates that China will receive only 3.5 per cent of the 28,000 sq kms of land it had asked for by declaring it as historical Chinese lands. While, under its boundary settlements with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, China settled for just 22 and 32 per cent respectively of the land it had disputed, respectively.
This situation then begs the obvious question : Why have the Sino–Indian border talks not made progress. In the April of 2016, after a meeting of the Special Representatives, the Chinese foreign ministry came out with an interestingly quixotic formulation. The statement put out by the Chinese stated “Starting from the big picture of long-term development of bilateral relations, both sides will, with the positive attitude of mutual respect and understanding and on the basis of existing results from negotiations, stay on the track of political settlement, stick to peaceful negotiations to resolve the boundary question, meet each other halfway and continue to promote the process of framework negotiation so as to strive for a fair and reasonable solution that both sides accept”.
Significantly this offer to meet halfway came one year after the PM’s apparent dissatisfaction on the matter in Xian.
Settlement of territorial questions involves land swaps which requires political will. Given the fact that the 1962 wound is regularly dredged out and given an airing which has not allowed this injury to the “collective Indian psyche” to heal, notwithstanding the 1967 border clashes in Nathu La when the Indian Army gave the Chinese a bloody nose, as well as in Sumdorong Chu in 1986 when the Indians checkmated the Chinese…But we tend to forget all this and are obsessed with a sense of victimhood.
The Chinese have sensed this lack of political will in the current Indian leadership, despite all the grandstanding and bluster, and possibly feel that India being a traditional status quo power would not want to change the de jure for that would involve changing the facts on the ground. That is why they have decided to probe prime minister Modi even in an area that has for long been tranquil.
India’s refusal to participate in Xi Jinping’s OBOR (One Belt One Road) fantasy and the fact that only little Bhutan stood with India on boycotting that conference has underscored New Delhi’s isolation to the Chinese even in the neighborhood while singling out Bhutan for Chinese fire.
Coupled with that is the larger Asian canvas. The Asian power dynamic consists of the interplay between the US that considers itself to be an Asian power, Russia, China, Japan and India. It is a dynamic that has to be finessed very subtly. Unfortunately the current government has tripped badly. While it has not got anything substantive out of the US-Japan-India strategic trilateral despite the soon-to-commence Operation Malabar in the Bay of Bengal on July 10, 2017, featuring three aircraft carriers from all these three countries, it has lost both Russia and China. The Russians, despite their protestations, have supped with the Pakistanis and the dragon is breathing fire on the trijunction of Bhutan–China and India.
India does not have the luxury of being separated by two oceans from China. It also has had a positive relationship with it notwithstanding the boundary question over the past three decades after prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s momentous visit in 1988.
Prime Minister Modi would be well advised not to let TV anchors and their panelists masquerade as Indian public opinion. The equilibrium in the relationship with China needs to be restored through quiet old-world diplomacy, while continuing to work with the US and Russia to build our military capacity and capabilities that have woefully been neglected by the current government.
Nothing underlines it more than the fact that India does not have a full time Defence Minister. As for the “political will to settle outstanding territorial issues”, the less said the better.