China’s Response to Modi’s Accession: Is there something amiss?
Posted on June 6th, 2014
By Bandu de Silva
As a long time China watcher for close upon six decades, I was somewhat puzzled when I noticed an almost a blank in news about an early response from China over the success of India’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janatha Party at the recent hustling. That was the absence of an early response compared to what came out from India’s immediate neighbours like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal whose leaders responded warmly, and even some outside the immediate Asian circle like Britain, Australia, Israel and Mauritius whose leaders too were quick to offer greetings to the emerging new leader even before the results were officially declared. Modi victory was a matter for celebration all over the world in acknowledgement of the fact that in the Indian society, hierarchically divided as it is, a former boy selling tea in railway cars to enhance the family income and with no pretenses over social status in a highly caste ridden society could one day rise to the highest position in his land. That sociological aspect was missed in the comments in the Western society where the emphasis was on the functioning of the institutions of democracy. The first response from President Barack Obama’s office emphasised that institutional factor alone and he congratulated India for conducting the massive election. It did not say a word about Modi. President Barack Obama after that initial reservation expressed by his office, expressed the hope that the partnership with US would continue under the new leader. That too was then well guarded a statement.
Against the above background, when I saw no official or any media reference to any early message coming from the Chinese leadership or of any mention of a representation at the ceremonial inauguration of the new Prime Minister appeared in officially or in the media, my curiosity started playing havoc. I had no answer to offer to the question why Modi remained an undiscussed subject in China as he was emerging victorious and even after the results were out. This is in the context of Modi who as Chief Minister of Gujarat had been a welcome visitor to China for four times, and on the last visit received by the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy with almost state guest treat treatment, receiving him in the Great Hall of The People of China, and on respect of whom even after he emerged as the Prime Ministerial candidate in September 2013, the Chinese were seen immediately upping the ante by offering to meet 30 per cent of the total demand for investment in India’s sector until 2017 which was seen by Indian analysts as an endorsement of China’s faith in Modi to walk the talk. One might even wont to say that the Chinese were trying to make capital out of the strained relations between Modi and the US government arising from the withdrawal of his business visa and refusing to issue him a visa to enter US.
Naturally, in the background of such warmth that had already existed I could not find a reason why the Chinese government had not grabbed the initiative to throw an opened-armed welcome to Modi as the epoch-making new leader of India. Two trends of thought entered my mind. One was the Confucian caution which the Chinese display which has made a return to China after the chaotic disturbance of the ancient value system under Chairman Mao -Dze-dong. That is to say, the Chinese government was cautious despite the remonstration of early friendship towards Modi, which after all, had economics at the bottom rather than anything else. The other was if the statement made by Modi during the election round in Arunachal Pradesh, where he went on record referring to China’s expansionist designs and took up a “tough” stance saying that India would be well defended, had had any dampening effect on China’s enthusiasm over Modi. The Arunachal statement had not created an undue hiatus in China to disturb existing good relations with Modi. It was by-passed with a low -key remark by the spokesperson of the Waija-pu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry who was more defensive rather than irritated. What he said was China had no ideas of territorial aggression against her neighbours. What was not spelt out was that China had her own claims for territory which needed to be respected by an India pursuing the British colonial legacy of territorial claims.
I also looked at the way China had responded on occasions of inauguration of heads of state and Heads of Government round the world, including Africa where I came across an impressive list. Even small countries like Sierra Leone and Djibouti were given respectful attention in the selection of level of delegation. In Asia, I found they had sent a female leading the delegation to South Korea, and high-powered delegations to other areas like Latin America. These responses showed that China could not show any reason for vacillation on a response to Modi’s election and that the Chinese leadership, short of rushing to display of warmth could be actually deliberating how they should respond. In this one could not say that Modi’s statement in Arunachal Pradesh was totally lost on the Chinese leadership. It could not have gone without ruffling some feathers in the Chinese establishment and would have received full consideration.
According to my thought, the Chinese decided to respond differently by sending a different signal to Modi. That was in the form of what the Indian media called an “intrusion’ into the territory of India’s ally and strategic partner, Bhutan. This was reported in Times of India on 0755 hours Video on 27 May 2014. The report stated that Chinese troops had established three camps, raised the Chinese flag and carried out patrols in the area but did not say when actually the “intrusions” took place. Despite it receiving no publicity subsequently, it was symbolic, however, as the news came just a few hours after the inauguration of Modi. That sort of signal is the sort of way the Chinese react at times with action in a totally unexpected direction. (I have seen that sort of situation , many times during my stay in China). Perhaps, that way the Chinese might have wanted the new Prime Minister of India to think about what could be expected if he intended to deal firmly over issues over the Himalayan border.
In principle, Bhutan was not Indian territory. It is an independent state and member of SAARC but strategically very important to India as it controls the Tri-junction between India, China (Tibet) and Bhutan. By arrangement with Bhutan, Indian troops are guarding these three passes. Bhutan which is a Lama country is one which has all cultural ties with China and the Chinese call it Southern Tibet. Obviously under Indian influence, Bhutan had closed its near 500 mile border with Tibet and maintained no diplomatic relations with China. For the last two years, however, especially since the meeting of the Bhutanese ruler and the Chinese Prime Minister on the sideline of the Rio’s 20 + Conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil, there has been more contacts between the two countries. The democratisation process permitted by the ruler has also created a voice for more relations and trade with China and free Bhutan from the strangle-hold of India but there has been no reason to bring about a direct Chinese intervention in Bhutan.
So, an “intrusion” at this time, though not a direct confrontation with India could be a form of reminder of the volatility of the border issue in which Modi should proceed with caution if India expects to upset the present balance in the Himalayas for a more assertive policy. Bhutan has then become a pressure point for China to signal India of dangers of following too assertive attitudes in foreign policy rather than offering conciliation. India will have a lesser case to deal with the alleged Chinese intrusion in Bhutan than in Ladak or Arunachal which are claimed Indian territory.
I read the report in the Asian Tribune of 29 May 2014 which was the first reference I came across to say that the Chinese Prime Minister Li telephoned Modi soon after he was sworn in ceremoniously as India’s new Prime Minister and he was the first foreign dignitary to do so. Since then the subject has been discussed in the Indian media (see Times of India reports). China now proposes to send her Foreign Minister to India.
It looks as if the Chinese were following the right Protocol waiting till the ceremonial inauguration of the Prime Minister to congratulate him but China and India were not such distant partners and remote countries to wait for the observance of such Protocol to demonstrate their closeness. The relationship is so close historically and culturally that despite post- independence issues resulting from the British colonial legacy like the border issue, and the war that ensued over it, Sino-Indian relations remain a major foreign policy situation in the Asian map. The best days in Sino-Indian relationship commenced after the Bandung Conference of 1956. The bilateral relationship between the two countries came to be based on Panacha €“Seela which principles were also expanded into a wider international context under Bandung.
When I first started my first diplomatic association with China in mid 1950s the Sino-Indian relationship was so strong that the slogan one heard everywhere was “Indi-Chini Bhai-Bhai”. That fine rapport, however, was not long-lived. It did not even survive the term of the then Indian Ambassador in Beijing, R.K.Nehru, former Civil Servant and close relative of Jawaharlal Nehru, whose wife was one of the stalwarts of the “Bhai-Bhai” campaign. Both Ambassador and wife made a quite retreat to New Delhi after China’s problem over Tibet flared up. How quickly the situation changed could be seen from the way that I myself got caught up in the brewing hate-campaign that I had to spend a day in a Chinese Police cell in a remote station, being “arrested” by people through mistaken identity as an Indian (Indo-jin (details are in the Ceylon Hansard as the issue became part of Parliamentary debate). I also saw on my return from China, the dispute had caught up in Hong Kong so much so that in a leading shop of diplomatic supplies the female Chinese sales girls completely ignored me and I had to complain to its British management that this was an unwelcome response to representative of an Embassy which had long commercial dealings with the company.
All these developments apart, the situation in China and India have advanced today that both countries are on the threshold of becoming two major economic powers in the world replacing the unipolar economic domination by US. That itself has called for major alignment of forces between China and India. Both have vast benifits to reap from participation in one another’s huge markets and investment opportunities. Besides, India has called the Year 2014, the Year of Indo-China friendship and a major Indian exhibition is scheduled to take place in China this year.
Reading the Chinese Mind
As a longtime observer of Chinese affairs, I have seen how for the Chinese under Mao-Dze €“dong, yesterday’s bed fellows became erstwhile enemies the following day. The cases with the former Soviet Union, India, Vietnam are cases in point. During the Cultural Revolution, even the Sri Lankan Embassy in Beijing was not spared for Colombo refusing to permit the import of the “Little Red Book.” On the other hand, one saw how relations with US became cordial after a period of tense rejection. Such violent manifestations of prejudices have not been the hallmark of Chinese character after Deng-Xiao-Pin reforms when the old Confucian wisdom of moderation seems to have taken the upper-hand.
In projecting a future course of India foreign policy direction under Modi, the remonstrations made by Modi in Arunachal Pradesh were then not the primary reason for China to be concerned with India’s future responses to territorial and boundary issues, though his words can be taken as symbolic of the determination of India under his future administration. That is part of “toughness” that is typically attributed to Modi. A former Indian IFS officer, Sreenivasn, with a 37 year background in the Indian Foreign Service, (equal to mine in length), speaking in the pre-election scenario, on foreign policy under a future Modi, thought that foreign policy will not change in any significant way. (http://thediplomat.com/2004/indian -foreign-policy article by Sudha Ramachandran dated 6th May 2014). Sreenivasan spoke of “continuity [of foreign policy] rather than change” . His reasoning seems to be based on the idea that a country’s foreign policy does not change with the ruling political party. That is a bureaucratic view and ignores nuances which could creep in. He also saw that foreign policy not being Modi’s forte, he could be seeking advice from former diplomats. A few former Indian professional diplomats like Harideep Puri have joined BJP.
There are other projections. India under the previous governments had been beefing up her defences on the Himalayan borders. As I write, there are reports indicating the establishment of special mountaineering corps in the Himalayan region. These and other self- defence arrangements are not what is worrying China but India’s other manifestations of counter-strategy such as strategic partnership with China’s bordering countries like Vietnam and Mongolia, in the latter case, to monitor Chinese nuclear and missile development activities in the Sinkiang dessert.
India with the new emphasis on improving the economic performance and invitation to foreign investment could also be reaching out globally rather than depending on China primarily for economic partnership. Her interest in oil prospecting in South China Sea on behalf of Vietnam is not only cutting into China’s own interest in the China’s territorial claim over the South China Sea, and more importantly, into her expectation of exploiting the known large oil resources which lie in the islands and the sea bed. That China does not take any challenges lightly can be seen from the fact that she has already established a rig for oil exploration and provided naval protection. That move has already drawn international attention as the area is on the international sea route and could be interfering with shipping. This is then a prospective conflict area between India and China about which less is discussed. India “s strategic planning in the South Asian area includes protection of her economic interest in the South China Sea. With Modi’s emphasis on economics India’s interest in prospecting and exploiting oil for Vietnam in South China Sea is one which cannot lose Modi’s interest. That is going to cut right into the future China policy. How that would turn out finally one cannot say at this stage. These are then problem areas for the future.
China Policy Vs Partnership with US
It is quite clear to any close observer that the messages sent by President Obama spells out that uncertain days are ahead for US-India partnership under a Modi government. This is understandable in the context US treated Modi after the riots in Gujarat where over 1000 people died by withdrawing his business visa charging him of complicity in the riots. That the Supreme Court cleared Modi of the charges did not bother US. Though US has offered to withdraw the ban on the visa and has even invited Modi to US after his election as Prime Minister, there is a lingering fear among the Americans that Modi might hit back. His record of not willing to suffer insult or let the pride of the country suffer, a consciousness accentuated by his Rashtriya Swayam Sewak background, there is a fear that Modi could remain unpredictable. This is not conducive to US-India partnership under which US was expecting a greater role from India under its Strategic Rebalancing Plan toward Asia and Pacific. (SRPAP). The Plan envisaged a role for India as “friendly country” along with Singapore and New Zealand in the LCS (Littoral Combatant Ships or Advance Defence Battleships) Plan. (Please see my article in Ceylon Today of 8th May 2014). The future of this projected plan which is still developing could be in jeopardy if Modi government shows no interest.
But as Sreenivasan pointed out, foreign policy need not change with every succeeding government but in contrast, India’s policy towards US as well as Israel changed under the former BJP government from its earlier hostility towards them practiced by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, except that Premier Jawaharlal Nehru, reeling under the shock of defeat by Chinese troops, was prepared to enter into a strategic relationship with US and sought US air power support to continue the border war with China. As such, in respect of relations with US, Modi is faced with a situation created by his BJP predecessor Atal Bahari Vajpaee. The partnership which has in India’s access to higher nuclear technology for civilian use, itself is a concession that India obtained despite not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That was initiated under the Vajpayee government. Successive Indian governments have continued with this policy of strategic partnership initiated by the former BJP government.
At India’s second Cabinet meeting under Modi, decisions have been taken to work closely with the bureaucracy and also to allow for a greater role for India’s security establishment in foreign policy making. If these are the indications, it is unlikely that the existing level of partnership with US will undergo any drastic changes despite the humiliation suffered by Modi under Bush (Jnr) and Barack Obama administrations. US will, however, learn the lesson that it will not be handling a soft candidate as Prime Minister, and cannot play the role that Ambassador Sisson in seen playing in neighbouring Sri Lanka.
Despite this theoretical position, the way India will adjust relations with China is certainly going to have an impact on future Indo-US relations. This is because India’s present attitudes towards China are determined by the memory of the 1962 war, seeing China in adversarial terms, and what China is doing in neighbouring countries of India like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as hostile to India’s strategic interests. (The String of Pearls round India). In the spirit of economic partnership, which Modi is emphasising, if India moves on shedding the suspicions to work on the economic front, there can be some slowing down of interest on the partnership with US. However, that will depend largely on India’s security establishment’s interests more than that of the political wing.
India’s involvement of Indian firms in oil prospecting in the South China Sea on behalf of Vietnam is bound to clash with China’s declared interest in the South China Sea. Indian security plan includes protection economic interests in South East Asia. India has become a nation with maritime interests going beyond her traditional waters. This makes India’s partnership with Singapore meaningful and partnership with US relevant. The scenario is thus complicated and it is not easy to see if a very clear cut foreign policy could be developed involving all India’s partners.