There has always been a touch of rhetorical excess in delineating joint statements between India and China. In 1954 when we signed the agreement on trade and intercourse with the Tibet Region of China, it was prefaced by what came to be known as the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Years later in 2003, when Prime Minister Vajpayee made his visit to Beijing, it was entitled “a declaration of principles for relations and comprehensive cooperation”.
In 2005, the Sino-Indian joint statement following the visit of Wen Jiabao in April 2005 said that it was under the rubric of a new “India-China strategic and co-operative partnership for peace and prosperity.” So it was not surprising that when Manmohan Singh visited Beijing, the joint statement was subtitled “ a shared vision for the 21st Century of India and China.”
In his October 2013 visit, the subtitle was “a vision for future development of India-China strategic and co-operative partnership”. And last year when Xi Jinping came visiting, the joint statement set India and China on the course of “building a closer developmental partnership.”
No high sounding tag
So, it is a surprise that the much-touted joint statement during the visit of Narendra Modi does not have any kind of a high-sounding tag.
When you read the 2015 document and then you read it alongside Prime Minister Modi’s press statement on Friday, it becomes apparent why. From 2005 when India and China undertook a “strategic partnership”, albeit only for peace and security, it has had an iconic status in joint statements. It figured in the 2008 and 2013 joint statements when Manmohan Singh visited Beijing, and it did so again in 2014 when Xi Jinping came to New Delhi. However, this year it is absent. The only reference to anything strategic is “the imperative of forging strategic trust.” Realism seems to be the leitmotif of the document.
There is no reference to the signature Chinese outreach project, now known as the Belt Road Initiative. This is something of a surprise considering the importance China assigns to India in its maritime scheme of things. This can only mean that New Delhi is not quite sold on the idea. However, the more limited Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor does figure.
In the September 2014 Joint Statement, the two sides had promised to hold a maritime dialogue and cooperate on anti-piracy, naval escort missions, as well as work together in peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The May 2015 statement does not mention them, a somewhat strange omission in the context of the recent Nepal earthquake. However, in his remarks to the students of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, later on Friday, Modi was quite emphatic in stating that India and China use the same sea-lanes around the world, and that the cooperation of the two nations was “essential” to secure them.
In talks such as the ones Modi has had with his Chinese counterparts, the discussions are often candid and blunt. But it is rare that a visiting leader makes a pointed reference to the differences. Modi’s remark that he “stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing full potential of our partnership” tells the story. India and China have a vast potential for cooperation, but, as some Chinese themselves have been saying, the border issue has become an obstacle.
Balance of terror
But this is only one of the grouses. Even deeper is India’s unhappiness with China’s Pakistan connection. By giving Islamabad nuclear weapons and missiles China has created a balance of terror in South Asia and also given Pakistan a shield which it uses to protect itself against Indian retribution for its support for terrorists operating in India. The latest development, a possible sale of Chinese submarines capable of firing ballistic missiles would be in keeping with Beijing’s strategy of balancing India with Pakistan. Modi’s somewhat plaintive observation that “ I suggested that China should take a strategic and long term view of our relations” points to India’s belief that China is not doing that and is motivated by short-term interests.
Through his remarks we also have a good idea as to what the discussions were about, and where there was little or no movement. Primarily, it was about the border and the joint statement formulation was fairly standard and more or less identical to the statements made earlier. There was no reference in the joint statement on Modi’s suggestion, made first during Xi’s visit in September 2014, and reiterated this time as well, on “the importance of clarification of Line of Actual Control.” Since the 2000s, China has abandoned this track that sought to work out a commonly accepted version of the LAC as per the 1993 agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity on the border. The reason, say knowledgeable sources, is that the Chinese are afraid that a commonly accepted LAC would, over times, be vested with a kind of permanence.
Modi was being Modi when he pressed his views on the border issues in his speech at Tsinghua University later on Friday. Beyond the rhetoric of what India and China could do together in Asia, and of the economic potential of the relationship, he pointed to the need to resolve the border dispute and in the interim, clarify the Line of Actual Control and “ ensure that our relationships with other countries do not become a source of concern for each other.”
There seems to be a remarkable turnaround on the issue. It was Xi Jinping in March of 2013 who had, at the sidelines of the BRICS meeting in Durban, first called for an “early settlement” of the border dispute. Yet, here we see Indian leaders endorsing the idea and the Chinese seemingly quiet. Obviously there seem to be deep differences that are unbridgeable for the present.
Both India and China seem to be fixated on a “status quo plus” option, in that each side wants something more than the current LAC. China wants the Tawang tract and India is seeking thousands of square kilometres of territory that the Chinese seized in the western sector during the 1962 war. And this is despite the 2005 agreement on the political parameters and guidelines of a border settlement through which both sides had agreed on a framework which would take into consideration the settled populations of the border regions and the strategic interests of the two sides.
Clearly, much more work needs to be done. For the moment, incremental progress is better than no progress at all.
Meanwhile, as they have done since 1988, the two sides seem committed to promoting relations in other areas. They are already important economic partners, though the trade imbalance remains a niggling worry. However, given China’s resources and India’s needs, the scope for economic cooperation is indeed great. Equally, the two sides already find a great deal of common ground in co-operating in multilateral issues, whether it is the AIIB or the New Development Bank, or climate change and WTO.
However, and Modi is right on this, unless the two sides can fix their “strategic mistrust” they will not be able to fulfill the potential of their relationship.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.