Eye on External Affairs: How Modi mishandled India’s China policy

Criticising China on Japanese soil displayed both indiscretion and naivete. India’s commerce with China, the PM should have remembered, is four times higher than with Japan



Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
user

Ashis Ray

After the Chinese invasion of India in 1962—notwithstanding their subsequent withdrawal—relations between the two countries entered a state of freeze. Indeed, the ice wasn’t broken until Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, when in the more relaxed post-Mao environment an outward looking Deng Xiaoping warmed to the young Indian leader.


Five years later, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao delivered on the détente with a peace and tranquillity treaty, which put on the back burner the border disputes between the two nations in Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin.


The dramatic impact of Rao’s move can be best judged by the fact that trade between the two nations soared from a few hundred million US dollars to $70 billion in about 20 years. This, though, represents a more than $50 billion surplus enjoyed by China; and might lead one to think Beijing would not jeopardise such a favourable state of affairs by rocking the boat on the political side of the relationship.


Yet, quite the opposite has occurred since 2014. China has increasingly hardened its attitude towards New Delhi, with the latter floundering under the onslaught. The much-touted muscular foreign policy of Narendra Modi has, in fact, come a cropper.


Why has this happened? It is well known, the Chinese establishment is ultra-sensitive to issues like Taiwan and Tibet (this was the cause of the deterioration in relations with India in the 1950s), but also about its somewhat adversarial ties with Japan, regardless of the latter’s heavy investments in China. In effect, President Xi Jinping is both reformist and ruthless, just as Deng was an economic liberal but a political hardliner— as exemplified by the unapologetic 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

China has increasingly hardened its attitude towards New Delhi, with the latter floundering under the onslaught. The much-touted muscular foreign policy of Narendra Modi has, in fact, come a cropper.

Engagement with China under Congress party governments, indeed even when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, yielded incremental success, because both sides steered clear of pacts with third parties which were overtly hostile to the other.


The Chinese even slightly tempered its ties with its closest ally, Pakistan, which is essentially an anti-India alliance. India convinced China about the danger of extremism emanating from Pakistan, which was affecting calm in Xinjiang. Co-operation on counter terrorism entered the bilateral dialogue; and Beijing issued a demarche to Islamabad to check the export.


Public criticism of each other from their respective capitals has been par for the course and has not disturbed the gradual development in relations. But Chinese officials have generally been increasingly careful not to censure India when, for instance, visiting Pakistan. And Indians have returned this compliment when in a country which has tensions with China.


Therefore, when Modi indulged in remarks critical of China on Japanese soil, this was seen in Beijing as a breach of an unwritten code. While closer relations with Japan are in India’s best economic and strategic interests, it was naïve and indiscreet of him to remark: “The world is divided in two camps. One camp believes in expansionist policies, while the other believes in development.”

When Modi indulged in remarks critical of China on Japanese soil, this was seen in Beijing as a breach of an unwritten code. While closer relations with Japan are in India’s best economic and strategic interests, it was naïve and indiscreet of him to remark: “The world is divided in two camps. One camp believes in expansionist policies, while the other believes in development.”

When a leader travels to Tokyo and speaks of expansionism, there is no doubt in any diplomat’s mind as to which country is being referred to. China’s state-owned Global Times cited the reality by commenting: “Japan is located far from India…China is a neighbour it can’t move away from.” Even the United States-headquartered Bloomberg, looking at the practicalities, reported: “As India’s largest trading partner, China accounts for nearly 10 percent of its total commerce, more than four times that of Japan.”


There was no governmental reaction from China. But in its inscrutable style it decided to fix Modi, indeed rub his nose into the ground. While Modi was merrily swinging with Xi on a dolna in Gujarat, Chinese troops were entrenched inside Indian territory in Ladakh. As Xi smiled, he was basically humiliating Modi.


Whether the latter understood what was going on—at least the Sinologists in the Ministry of External Affairs should have—he did not hold back from signing a slew of agreements and welcoming Chinese investment into India. In contrast, China triumphantly demonstrated India was desperate to benefit from the former’s financial and technical strength, notwithstanding its forces infiltrating into India.


By tactically postponing signature of an agreement valued by China, India would have signalled its displeasure and Beijing would have taken note. But Modi is out of his depth. He is also unfortunately fooling people with fanfare.

“As India’s largest trading partner, China accounts for nearly 10 percent of its total commerce, more than four times that of Japan.”
Bloomberg

In May 2013, when a People’s Liberation Army platoon was encamped in Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh in transgression of the Line of Actual Control, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid threatened to cancel his trip to China if the Chinese forces did not withdraw. The 20-day stand-off ended soon afterwards, as Khurshid calling off his visit would have scuttled the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s tour of India the same month. It was a slight China could not afford.


Beijing knows when to back off. Left to professional diplomats—as was then delegated—India has more often than not come up trumps. But not when a politician thinks he knows it all and conducts foreign policy like a bull in a China shop.


Modi failed to discern China’s mood had transformed into an uncooperative one. Indeed, in his incredible inclination for foreign junkets, he turned up in Beijing in May 2015 without the need of a return visit so soon after Xi’s presence in India and persisted in making concessions—like an e-visa facility—without obtaining anything substantial in return. (Far from melting from such gestures, China has recently terminated visa-free travel to Hong Kong for Indians.)

However, by April 2015 China decided to proceed with the project, involving an investment of nearly $50 billion, and announced it during Xi’s visit to Islamabad in April 2015. In an open editorial aimed at India, the Chinese president wrote: “This is my first trip to Pakistan, but I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother.”

Meanwhile, Chinese steps against India have escalated significantly. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was a silken dream rather than a serious option, simply because it was doubtful if, from a Chinese perspective, it was cost effective. Experts asserted it would still be cheaper to tranship goods by sea from Chinese ports to the Gulf than by road through Pakistan.


However, by April 2015 China decided to proceed with the project, involving an investment of nearly $50 billion, and announced it during Xi’s visit to Islamabad in April 2015. In an open editorial aimed at India, the Chinese president wrote: “This is my first trip to Pakistan, but I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother.”


The Pakistani capital was emblazoned with banners proclaiming the Chinese phrase: “Pakistan-China friendship is higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel.” Sino-Pakistan relations, intimate for decades, had, thanks to Modi’s faux pas, transcended to unscaled heights.


China, quite restrained on various matters during Manmohan Singh's rule, had, in fact, chosen to build CPEC through the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir in complete disregard of India’s objections.


Subsequently, it has been among the countries thwarting India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and has consistently blocked India’s attempt to ban the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist at the United Nations for his alleged role in a terrorist attack on the Pathankot Air Force base in 2016.


Both issues have been mishandled because diplomacy is at its most effective when carried out behind the scenes, not by playing to the gallery or internationally painting your interlocutor as a villain.


Tomorrow: What has India gained by playing Washington’s game in Asia?

London-based Ashish Ray, former head of CNN in India, is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.

next