A visible thawing in the India-China relationship signals changing attitudes
Though it will be premature to expect that Beijing’s changed attitude is anything more than tactical, it is pertinent that the PLA recognises the pending border issue as the biggest problem in bilateral ties
There has been a visible thawing in the India-China relationship in the past few months if the increased number of high-level visits exchanged are any pointer. Among the high-level visitors India has received are Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe, who led a 20-member military delegation on a stand-alone visit. Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Zhao Keji, also leading a 20-member delegation, arrived in Delhi on October 22. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to arrive in Delhi shortly, followed by the possible visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping in December. Beijing has traditionally cited the exchange of high-level visits as indicative of good, or improving, ties.
The visits, at the least, signal a pause in the steady deterioration of bilateral ties witnessed over the past three years. Bilateral tension rose because of the altered geopolitics of the region. Ever since his appointment to China’s three top posts and China’s rise, Chinese president Xi Jinping adopted a more aggressive approach in foreign policy, which has included advancing China’s territorial ambitions. This has been most visible in the South China Sea, the belligerence against Taiwan, and on the borders with India.
At the Eighteenth Party Congress in November 2012, Xi Jinping promised to achieve the “China Dream” by 2021 — the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party — and which included the “rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation”, code for recovering its territories claimed to have been lost through the imposition of “unequal treaties” by foreign powers. Beginning his second term, at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping set out a bold timetable for China’s goals. He reiterated the “China Dream”, adding that with the implementation of its ‘Made in China 2025’ programme, China would be in the front ranks of the world’s advanced technology powers. He also forecast that by 2050, China would be “a power with global pioneering influence”, in other words rivalling or surpassing the US. The target date for completion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), coincidentally is 2050 — the hundredth year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He also proposed the China model of governance as an alternative to democracies.
Undoubtedly a number of factors contributed to the change in China’s policy, but important among those that prompted China to recalibrate its policy towards India, at least in the tactical short term, are a couple of events centered in the bilateral relationship. These clearly signalled that India is unwilling to yield any ground on issues of sovereignty or territory. India’s firm opposition to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor as a violation of its sovereignty and its unwavering stance on the BRI, despite sustained Chinese pressure, were unhappily viewed in Beijing. Another vivid reassertion of Indian policy was the 73-day face-off at Doklam where, despite a vitriolic state-sponsored Chinese propaganda offensive warning of dire consequences, India did not blink. Finally, both countries agreed to disengage. Since April this year China, and Chinese president Xi Jinping, have also come under pressure from US president Trump. Especially adversely impacted is China’s technology sector and, possibly, its growth.
Interesting in this backdrop is the article published in the state-run People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily on October 15, authored by Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, Deputy Director of the Center on China-US Defense Relations at the War Studies College of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences and Wang Yu of the Joint Service Academy of the Chinese PLA National Defense University. An article taking a positive view of India-China relations has been noticed in the Chinese military media after a considerable time. This article says the two countries and their militaries “should adhere to a positive, open and inclusive attitude, stick to the basic judgments of being each other’s development opportunities but not threats, and promptly negotiate on major issues of mutual concern”. Importantly, the article suggests that the PLA is beginning to recognise that “the biggest problem is the pending border issue between the two countries”. It called for “the joint efforts of the two countries and their militaries” in “insisting on controlling differences through dialogue and properly handling border issues”. Quite unusually, it proposed a range of confidence-building measures calculated to “resolutely put an end to similar incidents as Donglang event” and said the two militaries can serve as a positive factor for stable bilateral ties.
Though it will be premature to expect that Beijing’s changed attitude is anything more than tactical, it is pertinent that the PLA recognises the pending border issue as the biggest problem in bilateral ties.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Government of India and is presently president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
The views expressed are personal