China and India seem to be resetting ties. Chinese minister Li Xiasan, the Organization Department head of Yunnan Province and Central Committee member of the Communist Party of China, visited India in September 2017, becoming the first Chinese official to visit India since the Doklam (Doka La, Donglang) standoff between the two countries.
In Kolkata, the first Indian city to host him, Li’s visit was seen as part of the relationship-building process that was “being strategically started from Bengal because of its proximity to the Yunnan Province.” Li was accompanied by a retinue of senior faculty and administrative officers from colleges and universities of the Yunnan province to meet their counterparts.
Chinese Consul General in Kolkata Ma Zhanwu observed: “Bengal has been identified as an educational and cultural hub of the country and hence we are looking to improve ties through education in this zone,” and noted that this was the first ever visit of a Chinese minister to India after the Doklam impasse, “which we have overcome now.” Education and cultural ties are one of the areas where increased people-to-people engagement is being strengthened.
The immediate period of bonhomie post-Doklam between the two neighbors is only to be expected. The standoff came as a wakeup call to both countries and analysts predict that it will go down in history as a watershed moment in bilateral relations.
The Doklam standoff was the first of its kind since the 1962 war that the two giant neighbors had fought. In spite of the economic and military asymmetries between the two, each dared the other to blink first. In the end, however, quiet diplomacy had to be resorted to. The Chinese media was belligerent, exposing a raw nerve; the fact that the Indian media faithfully narrated what the Chinese media was publishing demonstrated how rattled the Indians were.
Since tensions were defused, reports had emerged detailing how back channel talks held away from the media glare had ultimately led to an amicable resolution of the impasse.
The perceived wisdom in India was that with the BRICS summit to be held in September in Xiamen, President Xi Jinping could not allow the Doklam impasse to play spoilsport and keep India away from the summit. India had already boycotted the Belt and Road Forum held earlier this year in Beijing. Furthermore, with the very crucial 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China coming up soon on October 18, where Xi’s leadership is expected to be reaffirmed, it was important to bring the protracted standoff to an amicable end, without either country appearing to have blinked first. On the other side, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already completed three years of its five-year term, and the economy is struggling to keep up to the promises made.
It served the interests of both countries, therefore, to diplomatically resolve the standoff and revert back to the status quo. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs thus issued a terse statement on August 28 announcing that the Doklam standoff was over. The Chinese Ministry also announced the end to the impasse, although it went on to add that “the Indian side has pulled back all the trespassing personnel and equipment to the Indian side of the boundary.” Prime Minister Modi then attended the BRICS summit in Xiamen and a Modi-Xi meeting on the sidelines ensued. Originally slated for half an hour, it lasted for more than an hour.
Even more welcoming from the Indian point of view was the inclusion of Pakistan-based India-centric terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Muhamad and Lashkar-e-Taiba in the BRICS Xiamen declaration. India had long wanted Chinese recognition of such groups as terrorists and the inclusion had eluded the joint BRICS declaration at last year’s Goa summit in India. China continues to block any attempts at the UN to sanction individuals like Masood Azhar, who is accused by India of fomenting terror strikes inside India.
Following the pullback, the Chinese media began publishing a series of articles which showed India in a positive light, striking a conciliatory pose. Indian experts on China also wrote and spoke widely on how to use culture to reduce the trust deficit and the information gap between the two countries, and thus contribute to enhanced understanding of what drives each other’s world views.
No doubt both countries will tread cautiously with the realization drawing anew that no conflict will result in an outright victory for any one side.
The Chinese Ambassador in India wrote a commentary in The Hindu, suggesting that India and China turned the page to a new chapter in bilateral relations. His prime message was that the two countries should work towards a sound and healthy bilateral relationship by focusing on cooperation, and narrowing and resolving differences.
The thaw in bilateral relations was evident and welcome, but the obvious question is: can India and China truly reset ties and turn the page to a new chapter in bilateral relations? The Indian army chief, General Bipin Rawat, speaking at a seminar soon after, said that “flexing of muscles” had begun and that China was “salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold,” which India had “to be wary about.” He also called for preparedness for a two-front war scenario.
More recently, the Indian Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said that the Indian Air Force has the capability of locating, fixing, and striking across the border, and added that any decision on a surgical strike would be taken by the government. He also asserted that India is prepared to effectively counter any threat from China while confronting a two-front war also involving Pakistan.
Soon after the bonhomie of the BRICS summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited India in a strong show of friendship and cooperation with India. Abe and Modi launched India’s first bullet train project, for which the Japanese extended India a soft loan of USD 15 billion.
On the other hand, reports suggested that China was maintaining a sizeable presence of its troops near the site of the Doklam standoff and even started widening an existing road which was at a distance of around 12 km from the area of conflict. On October 1, in a departure from usual practice, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army did not observe the convention of inviting representatives from the Indian Army for the annual border personnel meeting to mark their national day.
China also went on to stoutly defend Pakistan after US President Donald Trump called out Pakistan for its ambiguity in fighting terrorism, and after India called out Pakistan in the UN for supporting cross-border terrorism.
The Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, a reputed defense think tank, warned in a recent paper that the Doklam standoff between India and China was likely to be the new normal, and that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) will be “constantly and continuously” under stress with “increase in frequency, intensity and depth of (Chinese) transgressions leading to more and more standoffs.”
India would also have noticed that all major powers maintained studied silence during the entire duration of the almost three-month-long standoff. China for its part, will seek to outmaneuver India in the region, most significantly through economic diplomacy.
Yet, both India and China also seem to demonstrate wariness and caution in how to tread ahead. For instance, India and Japan did not make any references to the South China Sea in the joint declaration issued during Abe’s visit. Similarly, China’s Oppo handset maker just announced that it would be building 550 service centers in India, spread across the country, by the end of 2017. The company was granted permission earlier this month to open retail stores selling only products from its own brand.
China is India’s largest trading partner with their bilateral trade exceeding USD 70 billion last year, with the trade balance tilted in China’s favor. Meanwhile, Indian exports to China have also registered a 40.69 percent year-on-year rise to reach USD 10.6 billion in the first seven months of 2017.
No doubt both countries will tread cautiously with the realization drawing anew that no conflict will result in an outright victory for any one side. On the other hand, negotiations and diplomacy allowing for the peaceful resolution of differences will be the way forward for both Asian giants. Both countries will therefore have to engage with the other in more creative and newer ways.