The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in office for almost six months in what has been an active period, especially on the national security and foreign policy fronts. There have been several important international visits during this period, including Modi’s visits to Japan and the U.S. and state visits to India by the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Chinese in particular have been seen to be courting India since the Modi government took charge in New Delhi. India represents enormous opportunities on the economic front and is also important from a security perspective, given the increasing flux and volatility in Asian geopolitics. Xi’s visit to India was an opportunity to take the relationship to a higher level. From China’s perspective, the visit was meant to solidify its interest in bringing out the full potential of the bilateral economic agenda, as it was looking to sign agreements on high-speed rail and major infrastructure projects including ports. The Chinese consul general in Mumbai stated that China “will commit investments of over $100 billion or thrice the investments committed by Japan.” However, what was finally committed was only $20 billion, no small amount, though far smaller than the hype had suggested.
The border standoff that began on the day of Xi’s visit did have a spoiler effect on their interactions. Even though the Indian leadership has always raised the tricky issues of border disputes and the trade deficit with China, Modi went one step further by raising them during the press statement, stating “peace and stability in our relations and along our borders are essential for us to realize the enormous potential in our relations. If we achieve that, we can reinforce each other’s economic growth.” In response, Xi noted that the border issue is “left over from history” but that China is determined “to work with India to settle… at an early date.” He also underlined the fact that the “two sides are fully capable of acting promptly to manage incidents on the border.” However, the Chumur incident has sent mixed signals about China’s message.
The author had the opportunity to discuss these issues extensively with the academic and think-tank community in Shanghai during a recent visit, which offered some insight into how China views the new government in New Delhi.
The border issue is obviously a serious concern. Chinese scholars were of the opinion that Xi genuinely wanted to settle the border problem, though this does not square with what happened on the border during his visit. The fact that it took three weeks for the issue to settle down, despite it being raised at the highest levels during the bilateral discussions, suggests two contradictory conclusions. One is that this was a deliberate policy approach by the Chinese leadership to offer a hand of friendship and cooperation, while also hardening its position on the border in the hope that India would adopt a conciliatory position on the territorial issue. Alternatively, the border stand-off is a completely local affair and the central leadership is not able to control its local commanders. This is certainly the more dangerous scenario if true. The fact that on his return from New Delhi, Xi made a statement that the local commanders must obey the instructions from the central leadership suggests that there may well be a problem with control. It has been generally assumed that Xi has tighter control of the PLA (as compared to Hu Jintao), since he chairs the Central Military Commission (CMC), in addition to serving as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the foremost member of the Politburo Standing Committee. But if there is indeed a problem in the chain of command between the central leadership and the PLA’s local commanders, the implications for important bilateral relations, such as those with India, could be serious.
One of the academics that I interacted with suspected that the border encroachments by the local commanders may be the result of Xi’s severe clamp down on corruption within the PLA. Chinese scholars opine that taking action against senior PLA officers (including generals) may have triggered a response within the PLA, the leaders of which are expressing their displeasure by not following orders from the central leadership. Xi’s statement at a meeting with the PLA chiefs of staff that the “Headquarters of PLA forces must have absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China, guarantee a smooth chain of command and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented,” may suggest this is the case. Xi made a similar point again at a military political work conference in Fujian province, saying “the Party commands the gun” and that the PLA is under the “absolute leadership” of the party. These examples also strengthen the argument of some China scholars that the PLA has an independent agenda, especially on important foreign policy issues and where territorial disputes are involved.
A related point that dominated my discussions revolved around the segmentation of the border issue. Sticking with its official line, China argues that border issues along all three sectors of the Sino-Indian border must be taken together, as opposed to the current Indian approach of dealing with the disputes sector by sector.
Another important point of debate relates to India’s stance on China’s maritime disputes, specifically in the South China Sea. The U.S.-India joint statement at the end of Modi’s visit to Washington, which referred to the South China Sea dispute twice, appears to have perturbed the Chinese quite a bit. That India was taking a similar position to the U.S. seemed to trouble my interlocutors far more than the Indian position per se. India’s deepening relationship with countries in China’s sphere of influence as well as with the U.S. raises China’s level of discomfort.
Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s status also continue to worry the Chinese. This has come up in formal and informal discussions in China. The fact that Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Cabinet chairperson (often referred to as the prime minister) was an invited guest at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony has made the Chinese nervous about his intentions regarding Tibet. Despite India’s stated policy that Tibet is part of China, this is an issue on which the Chinese feel that India has a hidden agenda.
There are other issues that also bedevil the Sino-Indian relationship. For example, nuclear questions have clouded India-China dialogue for several decades, although the contours of the debate have undergone a change. Since the conclusion of the U.S.-India nuclear deal and the India-specific exemption of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), China has agreed to talk to India on nuclear matters on a bilateral basis. There have been several rounds of Track II discussions on nuclear and other strategic issues, and these have been significant, particularly if one were to look at the Chinese participation. Concerning India’s NSG membership, China continues to reiterate its official position that China is not in favor of making country-specific exemptions. The Chinese do not want India to assume greater influence within the sphere of global nuclear governance. China will continue to resist India until a similar case is made for Pakistan.
Lastly, the visa issue has continued to create bitterness. Visas for Chinese were tightened a few years ago as a protectionist measure to stem the influx of Chinese labor into India. New Delhi’s policy was that unless it is skilled labor, Chinese companies should be using the local labor force. This issue has yet to be resolved. There is thus both some hope as well as significant continuing concern about China’s attitude towards the Modi government.
Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. She served at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India from 2003 to 2007.