India-China relations will be under the spotlight in the coming months. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Hangzhou, China for the G20 Summit on September 4-5, where he and his host, President Xi Jinping, will get an opportunity to discuss bilateral ties in addition to G20 matters. Xi will then travel to India to participate in the BRICS Summit in Goa on October 15-16. The two leaders will also participate in the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos on September 6-7.
Modi and Xi have met on several occasions over the last two years and three months since Modi assumed office. In fact Modi met Xi for the first time during the Indian premier’s first international trip, to Fortaleza, Brazil for the BRICS Summit in July 2014. Their last meeting was in Tashkent on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit on June 23, 2016. With the possible exception of U.S. President Barack Obama, Modi has probably met Xi more than any other world leader since taking charge.
However, while relations with the United States have soared, relations with China are mired in tension and distrust despite the frequent meetings. The hopes that surfaced after Modi’s victory that relations with China would improve have been sorely belied. Modi had embraced China with eagerness after coming to power, seeking to make Beijing an active partner in India’s economic development. This initiative has fallen flat. China has not accorded appropriate importance to India’s concerns as India had hoped. These concerns relate not only to issues bedeviling bilateral ties but equally to China’s all out support to its “iron friend,” Pakistan. China has been unmindful of Pakistan’s funding and support for terrorism, which could adversely impact China’s own security in the not too distant a future.
India, China, and the South China Sea Dispute
From India’s perspective, some major issues have afflicted bilateral relations in recent months: China’s blockade of India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership bid at Seoul in June 2016 (although China claims that it is unfair to single it out because there were several other countries which were opposed to a non-signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty becoming a member of NSG); China putting a ”technical hold” on designating Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist at theUN Security Council; and Beijing’s extensive support to Pakistan for the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), also claimed by India.
On the Chinese side, the raging debate on the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea (SCS) case filed by the Philippines is a matter of serious concern. The arbitral tribunal’s award went completely and comprehensively against the positions advanced by China, including its nine-dash line and claim to “historic rights” in the South China Sea. India issued a balanced and mature response after the verdict which, while noting the clear decision, stated: “India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS,” the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The statement further added, “Sea lanes of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS…” Clearly, the centrality of UNCLOS in resolving the dispute was emphasized in the Indian statement.
The foreign ministers of Russia, India, and China met in the regular RIC (Russia, India, China) format in Moscow in April, a few months prior to announcement of the tribunal’s award. The joint communique they issued touched on the issue of the SCS, stating, “Russia, India and China are committed to maintaining a legal order for the seas and oceans based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). All related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned. In this regard the Ministers called for full respect of all provisions of UNCLOS.”
China has sought to use this statement to its advantage by focusing on the formulation that ”disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned” and thereby claiming that India supports its position of resolving the issue through negotiations amongst parties concerned. As is obvious, this is only a partial reading of the text. A complete reading of the statement demonstrates that full respect for all provisions of UNCLOS is the sine qua non for resolving the dispute.
Wang Yi’s Visit
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India earlier this month — Goa on August 12 and New Delhi on August 13-14. During his visit, he paid a call on Modi, had discussions with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and familiarized himself with arrangements for the BRICS Summit in Goa.
Wang’s principal objective during his India visit, in addition to discussing matters related to the G20 and BRICS, seems to have been to try to co-opt India to China’s side on the South China Sea issue, particularly when the matter is raised at the G20 and East Asia Summits by the United States, Japan and some others.
It is in this context that, even before Wang set foot on Indian soil, China’s state-run media dangled a carrot in front of India and stated that the door for India’s admission to NSG is “not tightly” closed and that New Delhi should “fully comprehend” Beijing’s concerns over the disputed South China Sea, thus drawing a parallel between India’s NSG membership and the SCS issue. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said that “the South China Sea correlates with China’s vital national interest… and (India should) continue to play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.” China’s Global Times urged India “to avoid unnecessary entanglement with China over the South China Sea debate … if the country wishes to create a good atmosphere for economic cooperation.”
Chinese state media pitched in to argue India-China ties should focus on amplifying their economic agenda, which required urgent attention since “India’s exports to China have dropped 16.7 percent year-on-year in the first seven months of the year… suggesting that Indian enterprises are having a hard time amid simmering tensions between the two countries.” Days before Wang’s departure for India, the Global Times warned New Delhi that its seemingly inimical posture on the South China Sea (SCS) was potentially damaging for bilateral ties and could create obstacles for Indian businesses in China.
With the United States and some others certain to raise the SCS dispute at the forthcoming summits, China is taking preemptive measures to shore up its support. Beijing hopes that India will not take a strong stand against it at the summit meetings.
During Wang’s visit, detailed discussions took place on a range of issues at the lengthy meeting between delegations led by the two foreign ministers. These topics included India’s NSG membership, China’s “technical hold’’ on designating Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar as terrorists in the UN list, Chinese activities under CPEC in POK, and others. No discussions on the SCS apparently took place in the open meeting. Considering the Chinese sensitivity on this issue, it is quite likely that this matter was taken up between the two ministers in a private tête-à-tête.
Two decisions were adopted by the foreign ministers which have the potential to stabilize bilateral ties and enhance mutual trust. On the contentious issue of China’s opposition to Indian membership in NSG, both sides agreed to engage in a dedicated dialogue between the Indian joint secretary dealing with disarmament issues and China’s director general of arms control and disarmament. For other issues impeding the growth of bilateral relations, another dialogue platform was created between the Indian foreign secretary and his Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. This would supplement the already functioning annual Strategic Dialogue at the foreign secretary level and the regular special representatives dialogue, which focuses on border talks but at times goes beyond that limited circumference. It would appear that issues of China’s “technical hold” on the listing of Masood Azhar and Chinese activities in POK will be covered by this mechanism.
While these decisions do contain seeds of giving an impetus to bilateral partnership, recent attitudes, behavior, and statements from China repudiate any hope that Beijing will relent on issues of serious interest and concern to India. Bilateral ties are hence expected to continue to be stressed and strained and significantly below par for the foreseeable future.
Speaking after Wang’s visit, the Chinese foreign office stated that India and China had “candid” exchange of views on some “specific issues” and agreed not to let the “differences” affect their overall ties as they vowed to resolve issues through dialogue and consultation. Use of words like “candid” and “differences” in the Chinese foreign ministry statement would imply that hard and tough talks took place between the two sides.
Another significant issue that India will need to contend with in coming days is the proposal of China’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is likely to come up at the forthcoming SAARC Summit in Pakistan in November 2016. Most SAARC members, except India and Bhutan, are actively supportive of China’s membership. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with Beijing and, like India, has an unsettled border with China. India should stand firm against the proposal and if need be, veto the suggestion. As a backup plan, India should persuade Japan to be ready to join SAARC in the future, when it might become impossible to keep China out. Japan’s presence will help to restore a semblance of balance if and when China manages to join the organization.
Meetings over the next two months provide an opportunity to both India and China to put their ties on an even keel. This can happen only if China pays serious and positive attention to issues of vital concern to India. Going by current trends, this appears less than likely. Both sides however need to continue talking at all levels to sensitize each other about their core concerns and try to find mutually acceptable solutions. Otherwise a new paradigm for managing bilateral relations will have to be constructed, which could fall well short of the inherent potential of the partnership.
Ashok Sajjanhar is a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden, and Latvia, and also as Secretary/Principal Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, an autonomous organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Tehran and Dhaka.