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Wang Yi’s India Visit Not Impromptu, Signals a Churn Triggered by NATO-Russia Conflict

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Wang Yi’s India Visit Not Impromptu, Signals a Churn Triggered by NATO-Russia Conflict
It is possible the Chinese side may have reasoned that if Wang Yi visited only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal, it might be construed as China seeking to further consolidate its position in India’s neighbourhood at India’s expense, writes Kanwal Sibal. (Photo: Twitter/@DrSJaishankar)



Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s unexpected visit to India on March 24/25 does raise speculation about the purpose of the visit and what outcome the two sides could reasonably expect from it.

The initiative for the visit seems to have come from the Chinese side. If the 15th round of military talks had made a headway, his visit would have made obvious sense as it would have presaged more positive developments in disengagement leading to de-escalation, but these talks did not produce any noteworthy result.

It is possible that the Chinese side may have reasoned that if Wang Yi visited only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal, it might be construed as China seeking to further consolidate its position in India’s neighbourhood at India’s expense, but if he included India in the itinerary it would soften that message. On the contrary, it might indicate to our neighbours that China was also willing to engage India and pursue a more inclusive policy in the subcontinent.

The reason why the Chinese did not want the visit to be announced in advance could well be to avoid creating an impression that they were trying to balance their ties in the subcontinent and dilute Pakistan’s centrality in Wang Yi’s subcontinental visit. The other consideration behind the move to visit India could be related to the positive reading by China of position of neutrality India has taken on the Ukraine crisis despite overt pressure from the US to condemn Russia.

An argument often given is that the hardened Chinese position on the border is on account of the perception that India was moving into the American camp and that a US-India nexus to contain China was being shaped, of which the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad were strategic manifestations. Because on Ukraine India was not toeing the American line may have persuaded the Chinese to explore Indian thinking directly in the face of clear attempts to establish a revived western hegemony that would limit India’s ambitions for strategic autonomy and aspirations for a multipolar world. In this context, the Russia-India-China (RIC) dialogue and the BRICS grouping may become more meaningful for India. This would be all the more important as China is the 2022 chair of the RIC dialogue as well as the BRICS, and holding these summits would bolster China’s leadership in the power play with Washington.

SHARP RESPONSE ON KASHMIR

Wang Yi’s visit to the region began with Pakistan where he addressed the OIC summit as a Special Guest. This showed that the Islamic countries are not moved by the international hue and cry over the persecution of the Uighur Muslims by China, which is not surprising given that the Palestinian issue itself, once central to their concerns, has receded into the background and key Islamic countries have normalised ties with Israel. Trade ties with China, its growing international stature, the financial clout it wields and the investments it is making in many Islamic countries are weighing more with the Islamic countries than issues of Islamic solidarity. Before arriving in India Wang Yi has visited Afghanistan and will visit Nepal thereafter.

As he has done on some of his visits to Europe when he has raised European hackles even as the purpose of the visits was to earn goodwill and promote understanding, Wang Yi made a faux pas in Islamabad with his comment on the Kashmir issue, expectedly raised by Imran Khan. His comment that “on the Kashmir issue, we have once again heard the call of many Islamic friends, China has the same aspiration”, was a deliberate provocation on his part. The language he used suggested that the Kashmir issue was agitating several Islamic countries and not Pakistan alone, and that their concerns were shared by China.

Referring to Kashmir in this manner went beyond the issues of sovereignty or self-determination and also included implicitly the violation of human rights and persecution as well. Our strong reaction to the effect that China had no locus standi to comment on Jammu and Kashmir and that Wang Yi’s reference to India was uncalled for and reminding China that India refrains from public judgment of their internal issues shows that, notwithstanding Wang Yi’s imminent visit, India is now prepared to respond sharply to China’s vexatious statements.

THREE MUTUALS GOVERNING INDIA-CHINA TIES

It would seem that the significance of the visit lies not in its immediate results but in the fact of the visit itself and what it may mean in terms of future developments. We were right to accept the visit in line with our policy to keep the doors of negotiations with China open. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has met Wang Yi three times already face to face, in addition to conversations on the telephone. These conversations have provided to the negotiators on both sides the guidelines for disengagement and de-escalation on the border. These still are ritually referred to in the joint statements issued after the military level talks, even though the Chinese side is not following them.

It can also be reasonably surmised that the intention behind Wang Yi’s initiative would be to signal a readiness to take some additional steps in the disengagement and de-escalation process, but at China’s pace with a view to continuing to test our resilience. This would be so especially in view of the geo-political changes that are in progress as a result of the new Cold War that has erupted in Europe and the risks of it becoming an actual Russia-Nato conflict if missteps are not avoided.

The public statements on both sides on the visit do not suggest any breakthrough. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar reiterated the gamut of our concerns about China’s conduct on the border, recalling the need for expediting further disengagement in order to begin discussions on de-escalation, and reiterating the imperative need for peace and tranquility on the border for stable and cooperative ties. He was emphatic in saying that the frictions and tensions that arise from China’s deployments since April 2020 cannot be reconciled with a normal relationship between two neighbours. Stating that Wang Yi who spoke about China’s desire for a return to normalcy and the larger significance of our ties was reminded that restoration of normalcy will require a restoration of peace and tranquility. According to Jaishankar, the relationship cannot be normal if the situation along the border is abnormal.

While speaking of India’s stand on contemporary matters (read Ukraine) Jaishankar alluded indirectly to China in referring to India’s principled approach to international relations based on respect for international law, UN Charter and sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and its view that disputes should be resolved without use or threat of use of force and no attempts to unilaterally change the status quo should be made. Emulating the Chinese who draft their positions on the basis of mutuals, Jaishankar spoke of three mutuals governing India-China ties: mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests. The problem lies in how these principles are interpreted and translated into concrete actions on the ground.

IMPACT OF NATO-RUSSIA CONFLICT

Some broader issues were addressed such as Ukraine on which both sides, which have been on the same side on some of the voting in the UN, agreed that diplomacy and dialogue must be the priority. Outstanding issues such as the reform of the UN Security Council were raised on which China’s position is adversarial to India. Trade and investment issues were also discussed, with India pressing for fairer market access.

Wang Yi’s summing up of the talks was in the usual clichés Chinese employ, formulations that sound good but are ritualistic and give little clue to real policy. China and India should adhere to a long-term perspective, a win-win mindset, and a cooperative attitude, he said, which skirts the real issues on the ground. A long-term perspective depends on the sincerity to resolve immediate and short-term problems. If, as the Chinese supposedly say, to walk a mile you have to take a first step, then China has to undo its current aggression in Ladakh to forge a way ahead. To say “China and India should stick to the path they have chosen, correctly grasp the development direction of bilateral relations, take a long-term view, and work together to promote peace and stability in the region” is platitudinous.

His three ideas do not concretely address issues at hand. He wants the two sides to adhere to the strategic judgment of the leaders of the two countries that “China and India do not pose a threat to each other, but provide opportunities for each other’s development” — a formulation that India agreed to subscribe to in the past without giving proper thought to the implications. Wang Yi wants to place differences on the border issue in the proper position of bilateral relations, and adhere to the correct development direction of bilateral relations. This is an unchanged line from the past, which means that border differences should not stand in the way of improving ties in other areas, primarily economic. His formula of “win-win” is repeated by the Chinese leadership in relation with the US and Europe too.

India “playing a more important role in international affairs” is a formula for opposing India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. That China does not pursue a “unipolar Asia” is a response to Jaishankar’s oft-mentioned need for a multipolar Asia. Respecting “India’s traditional role in the region” is contradicted by actual policies in boosting Pakistan strategically and strategic inroads into Sri Lanka and Maldives in particular. The proposal for a “China-India+” cooperation in South Asia is to legitimise China’s presence and objectives in the subcontinent, with eventual membership of SAARC, as some neighbouring countries like Nepal have advocated in the past.

Cooperation in multilateral processes is possible, as suggested by Wang Yi, within the BRICS, G20 and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Wang Yi met NSA Ajit Doval who seems to have rightly stressed the need for complete disengagement on the LAC to allow ties to take their natural course, with the present situation not being in mutual interest. The principle of equal and mutual security was emphasised. Wang Yi presented to him also his three-point vision — view ties with a long-term vision, win-win mentality and jointly safeguarding peace and stability in the region and the world.

Doval has been invited to visit China in his capacity as Special Representative (SR) which he is believed to have accepted provided the immediate issues were resolved peacefully. The SRs have met 22 times already without any progress on resolving the border differences, China has, in fact, violated all previous border agreements with its aggression in Ladakh. The purpose in extending this invitation seems to be to give an impression of unlocking the present impasse and claim success in creating an optic of reducing tensions with India and prepare the ground for PM Modi’s participation in the RIC and BRICS summits in advance of the next Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party in November 2022 where Xi expects to obtain a third term as President.

It makes sense to have denied a call on Prime Minister Modi by Wang Yi if it was, as is reported, really sought by the Chinese side. Without de-escalation, accepting such a call would have meant India reconciling with the current situation on the border and accepting the need to engage China from a position of weakness despite standing up to it firmly at the border. This would have caused a lot of political confusion in the country about the resilience of our policy toward China. It is quite clear Wang Yi was not carrying any letter from President Xi which may have created the basis for a request for such a call.

All in all, Wang Yi’s visit, which was obviously not impromptu, contains subtle political signals of a churn in geopolitics provoked by the Nato-Russia conflict over Ukraine that portends a revival of western hegemony, at least in the short term, with which non-western countries, and China and India in particular as the largest Asian countries, have to grapple with.

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