China and India’s relationship had begun to warm after the two countries signed the Agreement for Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, in 1993. Not only did trade between them grow at an astonishing pace, but they found themselves on the same side of the fence on a growing range of issues, from climate change to the invasion of Iraq and the need to build a multipolar world order. The first unambiguous signal that China was willing to set bilateral issues like the border dispute and Tibet aside in search of closer and more structured cooperation on strategic issues came from former premier Wen Jiabao, when he asked for a meeting with Manmohan Singh, who was then prime minister, on the side-lines of an ASEAN conference at Hua Hin, Thailand, in October 2009.
Confrontations on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) had multiplied during the previous three years. Tensions had heightened further in 2008 when a mini-revolt broke out in Tibet on the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, that the administration in Tibet ascribed to a conspiracy hatched in Delhi and Lhasa. Finally, by September 2008, prolonged attention in the international media had begun to turn a visit by the Dalai Lama to Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, to inaugurate a new hospital, into a confrontation between the two Asian giants that was threatening to spill over into war.
The need to defuse the mounting tension was apparent, so Delhi welcomed Wen’s initiative. What no one asked was why it was Wen, and not Singh, who had initiated the meeting. The media concluded that China had caved in when India ‘stood firm’ on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang and that this was the way to deal with it in future.
Detailed briefings given by the Chinese foreign office after Wen’s return showed that what Beijing had wanted was to find a way of preventing unwelcome media attention from forcing the two countries into a confrontation that neither wanted. The issue was speedily settled when Singh decided to ban the international media from Tawang, which is beyond the Inner Line, and allowed only a handful of Indian correspondents to cover the event. The rest of the discussions between him and Wen ranged over strategic issues that affected both China and India.
Beijing’s relief was writ large in the despatches of Xinhua and reports in Global Times. In diplomatic demarches, what is not said is usually more important than what is. The statements emanating from Beijing referred once more to the Himalayan impasse as a border dispute and not as an illegal occupation of ‘southern Tibet’. Premier Wen said it would be resolved ‘gradually’, and would not be allowed to impede cooperation on other issues. The term ‘South China” was not used. C-3S, the Chennai based centre for China Studies , summed up China’s goal pithily: “Premier Wen Jiabao, obviously conveying a message from the Chinese leadership, conceded there was enough space in the world for both China and India to grow”.
The breakthrough at Hua Hin created the launch pad for a Chinese bid to raise the level of Sino-Indian cooperation from the tactical to the strategic level. A participant at a closed door conference on India=China relations held by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, in 2012, defined it as follows: “There can be five levels of relations between two countries – ranging from total opposition (level 1) through occasional tactical cooperation (level 3) to strategic collaboration ( level 5). China and India are on level 3. We would like to take it to level 5”.
Measured by this yardstick, China and India began moving from level 3 to level 4 at the annual BRICS meeting at Sanya, on Hainan Island, in April 2011. They began to move from level 4 towards level 5 during the fourth and fifth BRICS summits at New Delhi and Durban in 2012 and 2013.
The trigger for broadening the scope of cooperation from the economic to political and strategic issues was provided by NATO’s abuse of the UN Security Council’s no-fly-zone resolution to embark upon regime change by force in Libya, and follow it up with a similar covert attack on Syria. For China, as indeed for Russia and India, the message was clear: The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had not been an aberration. For the US, victory in the Cold War had rendered the UN charter obsolete. The Westphalian international order that it embodied, and which insisted that force must be the weapon of last, and not first, resort was therefore well and truly dead. The world was returning to the ‘constant state of war’ that the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes had described as the state of nature. China decided that it could no longer rule out becoming America’s and Nato’s next target (only two years later Russia did become the US’s next target).
BRICS’ Delhi declaration in 2012 was therefore twice as long as the one issued at Sanya. It contained the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that had been voiced by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War. It demanded that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, be respected. It condemned the attacks on Libya and Syria, and warned that the threats to Iran “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict”. And it explicitly called for the establishment of a multi-polar world order.
The Delhi meeting gave a fresh impetus to China’s efforts to forge strategic cooperation with Delhi. President Xi Jinping made this clear at the Durban meeting of the BRICS heads of government in March 2013, within months of succeeding Hu Jintao.
The signal was a change in the wording of the joint statement with Singh on the border dispute. From saying that the two countries would “gradually narrow differences on border issues” it read that they would “strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible”.
Break with protocol by President Xi
At the Durban meeting, Xi also broke protocol when he told Singh that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s first foreign visit would be to India. On May 13 – days before Li Keqiang’s visit – Wei Wei, China’s ambassador to India, took what was for the Chinese government the unprecedented step of writing an op-ed piece in The Hindu, urging the Indian government to set aside the border dispute and focus attention on developing closer relations between the two countries. As in all diplomatic statements the words and phrases he used conveyed precise meanings.
“The China-India boundary question a problem left over from history … At present, the comprehensive development of China-India relations has created favourable conditions for solving border-related issues. …To strengthen good-neighbourly and friendly cooperation with India is China’s strategic choice and established policy which will not change. … Both sides “should proceed from a strategic height and a holistic perspective…. and strive for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the boundary question at an early date”. (emphases added)
The message could not have been more explicit: China regarded the border dispute as a legacy of the past, and wanted to get beyond it as soon as possible in order to cooperate with India on strategic issues of the future. The more China-India cooperation increased in the future, the easier would it be for both countries to find a mutually acceptable solution. One could not, however, find in history the solution to a problem created by history. One had, instead to go back to first principles and approach the task with a willingness to compromise.
Li Keqiang’s visit to India a few weeks later was an unqualified success. A senior Indian official who was present at his meeting with Manmohan Singh told me that their discussion had gone so well that it could have been choreographed. Singh summed up his own impressions in a formal statement when he said, “ I am delighted that there are so many areas of convergence between us on which there is a great deal of meeting of minds”.
Li’s visit set the stage for President Xi Jinping’s visit to India 16 months later. In the intervening months signs of the importance that Beijing attached to changing the locus of its relations with India multiplied. The Indian national day reception at Beijing in January 2014 was attended by the vice president of China, who delivered a 10 minute speech extolling the ties that had existed between China and India since antiquity.
Six months later, when ambassador Ashok Kantha, who had replaced the current foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, presented his credentials, he was one of only two out of 14 ambassadors whom President Xi asked to stay back for a short talk.
Finally, President Xi himself met national security adviser A.K Doval when he visited Beijing on September 8, 2014 to prepare for his India visit. The last senior official who was granted this courtesy by a Chinese president may have been Henry Kissinger in 1970.
Too mired in the past
In Delhi, unfortunately, only those closest to Manmohan Singh and key members of the foreign policy establishment fully grasped the signals that Beijing was sending. The intelligentsia, with only a handful of exceptions, remained too deeply mired in the past to shed its defensive mind-set towards Beijing. This was even more true of the government that Narendra Modi established, for he not only made it a virtue to cut all links with those who had made policy during the UPA regime, but also with those who had done so under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As a result, the new government treated President Xi’s visit more as a bilateral mending of fences, not unmixed with elements of theatre, than the culmination of a long and patiently sought rapprochement.
Whatever President Xi Jinping may have wanted to achieve during his visit was, however, sabotaged when Chinese troops surrounded an Indian outpost at Chumar, in eastern Ladakh, only days before he arrived in India. With no clear idea of the reasons behind his visit, most Indian analysts and media pundits jumped to the conclusion that he had deliberately arranged for this to happen during his visit in order to remind Modi of just who had the whip hand in Ladakh.
They could not have been more wrong. According to an Indian diplomat who was present in Ahmedabad when Modi bluntly asked Xi Jinping what had happened, the Chinese president replied, “I don’t know”, but promised to find out when he returned to Beijing. For any head of state, let alone that of China, to have to admit ignorance to his counterpart when on a state visit must have been embarrassing, if not humiliating. Again no one asked why Xi should have exposed himself to it by timing the intrusion for the day before he reached India. That he wasn’t simply saying the only thing he could have said when confronted by Modi became apparent when, on September 21, barely a day after he returned to Beijing, Xi issued a stern reprimand to the PLA to follow the dictates of the party’s military commission.
But in the next seven months, as Modi visited Japan, the US, South Korea, Australia, signed the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific document with Barack Obama and ignored Beijing’s privately voiced protests, it became apparent to China’s strategists that he had either not understood its overtures, or had decided to reverse the foreign policy of the UPA and its preceding three governments and edge into a closer embrace with the US. As a result its attitude towards India also began to change.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger, Can China and India Dominate the West?
This is the second of a series of articles by the author on India’s foreign policy. The first one can be read here.