This month is likely to see a number of visits by Indian Ministers and officials to Beijing. Last month, the Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman acknowledged that she would be visiting China, probably sometime late this month. Also expected in Beijing is Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj who will attend the meet of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Ministers on April 24.
Also expected in Beijing is the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who is expected to attend a meeting of the National Security Advisers of the SCO countries. At this juncture, it would be premature to give a bilateral spin to the visit, though there is every possibility that he will, indeed, meet his counterpart, the recently promoted State Councilor, Wang Yi who also doubles as Foreign Minister. Wang is also likely to be appointed as Doval’s counterpart as the Special Representative for relations between India and China. Last year in December and earlier at the height of the Doklam crisis, Doval had interacted with the then State Councilor and SR, Yang Jiechi.
For the present we must assume that while Sitharaman’s visit is part of the normal high-level intercourse between the two countries, the visits of Swaraj and Doval are linked to the SCO summit in Qingdao in June which will be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But there have been persistent reports that we may see an earlier Modi visit to China and in that event, it is possible that Doval would use the opportunity to do some preliminary spade-work.
In all this, it is important to assess as to the longer-term perspectives of Beijing and New Delhi and whether what is happening is really a reset of sorts, or merely another round of maneuvering between two countries that remain suspicious of each other.
Doklam remains an uncomfortable backdrop of this because while the two sides have disengaged from the site of last year’s face-off, they remain in the in strength in the proximity.
Earlier in February, New Delhi had signaled a shift of sorts when in a letter leaked a day before he was to go to Beijing, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, P K Sinha advising state leaders and officials to stay away from the functions of the Dalai Lama. A major annual seminar on China organized by the MOD-run Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses was cancelled because of its China connect. Observers felt that the Modi government was signaling a shift away from its “muscular” policy towards China which featured the use of the Tibet card. However later that month, it was revealed that BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav and the Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma would indeed visit Dharamsala to participate in the celebrations marking the 60th year of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India.
Later in March, the Ministry of Defence took a group of journalists from Delhi to a highly publicized visit to the easternmost area of Walong and they reported that India had significantly increased patrolling in the mountain areas of the Dibang, Dau-Delai and Lohit Valleys.
The question to ask is whether New Delhi’s moves are tactical aimed at correcting the needlessly loud stand it had taken, especially on China’s blockade on India’s membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group and the proscription of Masood Azhar by a UN committee.
Another reason could be India’s assessment that it did not have the heft to take on China across the board in the South Asia and Indian Ocean Region and it needed to recalibrate its posture, in the light of the consolidation of power in the hands of Xi Jinping.
There have been worries, too, that prolonged confrontation with China and a possible move in Doklam, bypassing the point near the Doka La pass that the Indians had blockaded could see the Chinese on the Jampheri ridge to the detriment of Indian security. Given the ground realities, India would not be able to do anything about it, short of triggering a war. This would not be a particularly helpful prospect in view of the coming general elections in India. A perception that Modi had “lost” the Doklam advantage could be devastating for his re-election efforts.
All this is happening even as the US and China are girding up for what could be a debilitating trade war. But even the trade war could well be a side-show for a longer contest between the two sides, given the new US National Security Strategy which is aimed not at striking some deal with China, but a complete overhaul of US policy. And just around the corner is the likely American decision to walk out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the nuclear deal with Iran. All these events will have consequences and there will be collateral casualties and so it is important for us to understand the need to stay out of the way.
Greater Kashmir April 9, 2018