Amongst the major takeaways following the ‘informal’ meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping was a desire to better manage affairs along the disputed Sino-Indian border. But this has come about after a rather bad year of bilateral ties specially as the ‘Doklam crisis’ brought the armies of both countries close to another Himalayan conflict. To achieve this reset in ties, Indian diplomats have had to work hard to not just get Beijing to see the merit of India’s stand on not joining the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ but the merits of current Indo-US ties. But whether the Chinese are convinced with India’s arguments, only time will tell.
Beijing did however extract a price even before the ‘informal summit,’ most notably by getting the Indian government to distance itself from events to mark the Dalai Lama’s 60 years of exile in India. Until now, it was stated in hushed tones that the Dalai Lama was India’s trump card over the Chinese. But if that has now changed then what are the concessions we could expect from Beijing? Perhaps the trade barriers against Indian exports to China could be lowered leading to a less unequal trade imbalance. And a few cosmetic gestures like China’s advice to Pakistan to send Hafiz Saeed off to another country. But it is highly improbable that China will entirely recalibrate its ties with Pakistan. China has invested in Pakistan too heavily to abandon it, just like its commitment to North Korea even though few countries had ties with the hermit kingdom. With Pakistan, even before the CPEC investments made headlines in India, a China-Pak nuke nexus and an ‘all weather military partnership’ has led India to remain alert to the threat of a two front war. This threat would remain for the foreseeable future until perhaps India distances itself from the US, specially in the Indo-Pacific region. In either case, it’ll be prudent not to expect much from either side.
This is the second time Mr Modi has made an effort to reset ties with Beijing. The first initiative was in 2014, following the ‘swing diplomacy’ initiative on the banks of the Sabarmati, in Gujarat. But that effort fell apart as the news of Mr Modi’s bonhomie with President Xi was overshadowed by the presence of hundreds of Chinese troops in Chumar in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. And then in 2015, China came out openly in support of Pakistan, first by opposing India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and then by repeatedly blocking India’s attempt to put Pakistan based Masood Azhar on the UN list of terrorists. But 2017 saw tensions rise high with the 73 day Doklam stand-off that became the defining event of Sino-Indian ties. India refused to blink despite pressure on Delhi from many sides echoed specially by the Chinese media. A face saving withdrawal was made by both sides, though China has since then established new “sentry posts, trenches and helipads” in that area. The bigger threat however would come from China’s increasing interest in the northern parts of Jammu & Kashmir. It has for some years been making investments in a major road link — the Karakoram Highway — across Gilgit Baltistan. It has now begun work on building 4 dams on the Indus in that region, all eventually to produce over 60,000 MW of power, mostly for China’s use. Pakistan has on its part already announced its desire to make Gilgit Baltistan a province, which it had desisted from doing for seven decades. It is intended to further dilute India’s claims on that part of J&K. Just like how the Chinese built a road through Aksai Chin in the 1950s that took the Nehru government by surprise. It eventually led to a series of events and finally the 1962 border conflict. Till date, China remains an occupant of a large part of J&K. So let us beware of China.
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