‘China Should Reconsider Approach On Issues That Hold Back Our Partnership’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China. Credit: PTI Photo

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. Credit: PTI Photo

With the border dispute and differences over market access for Indian companies top of his mind, Narendra Modi wrapped up the formal part of his visit to China on Friday by publicly urging the Chinese side to “reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership.” He made this call with Chinese premier Li Keqiang standing by his side at a joint press conference to mark the end of his summit-level talks in Beijing.

Modi said he “suggested that China take a strategic and long term view of our relations” and that he found the Chinese leadership “responsive”. On the boundary issue too he found China displaying “sensitivity to our concerns … and an interest in further intensifying confidence building measures.” He also reiterated the long-standing Indian position that clarifying where the Line of Actual Control lies is also important, something the Chinese side has been — and continues to be — reluctant to do.

If Modi’s remarks make it clear that India will not shy away from amplifying its strategic concerns, the joint statement and the host of other agreements and statements issued immediately thereafter represent a clear attempt on the part of India and China to deepen their relationship at the bilateral and global level.

When it comes to the Asian region, however, the two countries continue to dance around the obvious geopolitical challenges that their rise and pursuit of influence and connectivity pose for each other. In January, Prime Minister Modi and President Barack Obama released a joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific which underlined New Delhi’s willingness to develop a closer strategic partnership with the US and its regional allies like Japan and Australia. Though India has joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, New Delhi and Beijing have not had a serious discussion on Beijing’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative for building road and rail links across Asia, nor has maritime cooperation figured in detail as an agenda item, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar told reporters later.

The Indian side’s repeated references to the need for clarification of the LAC, a process Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar acknowledged the Chinese do not believe is important, underlines the vulnerability of the undemarcated boundary to military incursions. But in a recognition by the two sides of the potential these incursions have to cast a shadow over their relationship, the political leaderships have agreed to improve military communication along the border and remain alert to problems as and when they crop up.

While Modi’s remarks at the joint press gathering provided a partial glimpse of India’s concerns, he was more direct and forceful in his address to students at Tsinghua University later on Friday.

Consider the following points he made:

On connectivity in Asia

“India and China conduct their international commerce on the same sea lanes. The security of sea lanes is vital for our two economies; and, our cooperation is essential to achieve it.

Equally, we both seek to connect a fragmented Asia. There are projects we will pursue individually. There are few such as the BangladeshChina India Myanmar Corridor that we are doing jointly.

But, geography and history tell us that the dream of an interconnected Asia will be successful, when India and China work together.

Today, we speak of Asia’s resurgence. It is the result of the rise of many powers in the region at the same time.

It is an Asia of great promise, but also many uncertainties.

On global cooperation

Asia’s re- emergence is leading to a multi-polar world that we both welcome. But, it is also an unpredictable and complex environment of shifting equations. We can be more certain of a peaceful and stable future for Asia if India and China cooperate closely.

A resurgent Asia is seeking a bigger voice in global affairs. India and China seek a greater role in the world. It may be reforms in the United Nations Security Council or the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But, Asia’s voice will be stronger and our nation’s role more influential, if India and China speak in one voice – for all of us and for each other.

Simply put, the prospects of the 21st century becoming the Asian century will depend in large measure on what India and China achieve individually and what we do together.

On the border

Yet, if we have to realise the extraordinary potential of our partnership, we must also address the issues that lead to hesitation and doubts, even distrust, in our relationship.

First, we must try to settle the boundary question quickly. We both recognise that this is history’s legacy. Resolving it is our shared responsibility to the future. We must move ahead with new purpose and determination.

The solution we choose should do more than settle the boundary question. It should do so in a manner that transforms our relationship and not cause new disruptions.

We have been remarkably successful in maintaining peace and tranquility along the border. We must continue to do that on the principle of mutual and equal security. Our agreements, protocols and border mechanisms have been helpful. But, a shadow of uncertainty always hangs over the sensitive areas of the border region. It is because neither side knows where the Line of Actual Control is in these areas.

That is why I have proposed resuming the process of clarifying it. We can do this without prejudice to our position on the boundary question.

We should think of creative solutions to issues that have become irritants – from visa policies to trans-border rivers.

On Asian security

We are both increasing our engagement in our shared neighbourhood. This calls for deeper strategic communication to build mutual trust and confidence.

We must ensure that our relationships with other countries do not become a source of concern for each other. And, wherever possible and feasible, we should work together, as we did in responding to the earthquake in Nepal.

If the last century was the age of alliances, this is an era of inter-dependence. So, talks of alliances against one another have no foundation. In any case, we are both ancient civilizations, large and independent nations. Neither of us can be contained or become part of anyone’s plans.

The Prime Minister also told Tsinghua’s students that his government had decided to grant e-visa facilities to Chinese visitors to India, contradicting a statement Jaishankar had made a few hours earlier while answering media questions that no decision had yet been taken on this.

Asked about India’s attitude to China’s  ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR) project — under which, for example, the Chinese will invest billions of dollars developing a rail link from China through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir down down to the Arabian sea ports of Karachi and Gwadar, Jaishankar said this was a “national Chinese initiative.” “If any country wants other countries to discuss and collaborate on national initiatives, it is for them to take an initiative to discuss that,” he said, adding that India was “open to discussing this with China when they wish to.” India’s decision to work with China on the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor predates OBOR, Jaishankar said, even if Beijing now considers BCIM as  part of its wider connectivity strategy.

Jaishankar highlighted Modi’s view that “going back or standing still” were not options and that India and China had to move their relationship forward. In the same vein, Li Keqiang had spoken of “the past image of the relationship being adversarial” that both countries must now “credibly project a partnership.”

On the economic side, Jaishankar said the two leaders had agreed to set up a high-powered committee to look into all the outstanding issues holding back trade, such as market access for Indian pharmaceuticals. India and China had also agreed to deepen their military-to-military cooperation by focussing on developing joint capabilities in the humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) field.

Mindful of incidents at the border spoiling the atmospherics, Jaishankar said Modi and Li had also agreed to expand the number of border personnel meeting points, which currently stand at four. “The frequency and context of these meetings could be increased and expanded,” he said, and the political leadership “will pay close attention to the border situation.”

Jaishankar also drew attention to the reference to the joint statement’s reference to the Nuclear Suppliers group:

The Chinese side took note of India’s aspirations to become a member of the NSG, in a bid to strengthen international non-proliferation efforts.

This was the first time the issue of Indian membership in the multilateral grouping had figured in a bilateral document, he said. Translating this into actual Chinese support for India’s entry is, of course, a more difficult goal, Indian officials concede.

In sum, however, Modi’s visit and the outcomes that are so far apparent represent a conscious effort by both India and China to see how far they can take their bilateral ties forward independently of the strategic vectors along which their respective foreign policies are proceeding. If the two countries manage to add enough economic heft to their relationship, there is always the possibility that those vectors may begin to converge.