Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s India Visit India-China Ties in Focus

Visitors' Book, By Ashok Sajjanhar

Chinese state media advocates that India-China ties should focus on amplifying their economic agenda, which required urgent attention since ‘India’s exports to China have dropped 16.7 percent year-on-year in the first 7 months of the year, suggesting that Indian enterprises are having a hard time amid simmering tensions between the two countries.’

India-China relations will be under a glare in the coming months. Prime Minister Modi Narendra will travel to Hangzhou, China, for the G-20 Summit on September 4 and 5, where he and his host President Xi Jinping will have an opportunity to discuss bilateral ties, in addition to G20 matters. President Xi is scheduled to travel to India to participate in the BRICS Summit in Goa on October 15 and 16. The two leaders will also participate in the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos, on September 6 and 7.

Modi and Xi have met on several earlier occasions over the last two years. During Narendra Modi’s first international travel to Fortaleza, Brazil, for the BRICS Summit in 2014, he met President Xi for the first time. Their last meeting was in Tashkent on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in June.

However, relations with China are mired in tension and distrust. Hopes which had surfaced after PM Modi’s victory that relations with China will improve have been sorely belied. Modi had embraced China with eagerness after coming to power to make it an active partner in India’s economic development, though China has not accorded appropriate importance to India’s concerns as India had hoped. These relate not only to issues bedevilling bilateral ties, but equally to China’s all out support to its ‘iron friend’ Pakistan. China has been unmindful of Pakistan’s funding and support to terrorism, which could adversely impact China’s own security in the not too distant a future.

South China Sea Dispute and the Centrality of UNCLOS

Some major issues that have afflicted bilateral relations in recent months include China’s blockade of India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership bid at Seoul in June, putting a ‘technical hold’ on designating Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as terrorist by UN Security Council, and extensive support to Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) - a region that juridically belongs to India.

On the Chinese side, the raging debate on the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute filed by the Philippines, which has gone completely against all positions advanced by China, is a matter of serious concern. India had issued a balanced and mature response after the verdict, which, while noting the clear decision, stated: “India supports freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS. Sea lines of communication passing through the South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS.” Centrality of UNCLOS in resolving the dispute was emphasised in the Indian statement.

Wang Yi’s Visit

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to India on August 12, 13 and 14, met PM Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and familiarised himself with arrangements for the BRICS Summit in Goa.

Wang Yi’s principal objective during his India visit, in addition to discussing matters related to G-20 and BRICS, seems to have been to try to co-opt India to its side on the South China Sea issue, particularly when the matter is raised at the G-20 and East Asia Summits by the USA, Japan and some others.

It is in this context that even before Wang Yi set foot on Indian soil, China’s state-run media dangled a carrot in front of India and stated that the door for India’s admission to NSG is ‘not tightly’ closed and that New Delhi should ‘fully comprehend’ Beijing’s concerns over the disputed South China Sea, thus drawing a parallel between the NSG and SCS issues.

Chinese state media pitched in to advocate that India-China ties should focus on amplifying their economic agenda, which required urgent attention since ‘India’s exports to China have dropped 16.7 percent year-on-year in the first 7 months of the year, suggesting that Indian enterprises are having a hard time amid simmering tensions between the two countries.’

It is understood that detailed discussions took place on a range of issues at the lengthy meeting between delegations led by the two foreign ministers. These included, India’s NSG membership, China’s ‘technical hold’ on designating Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar as terrorists on the UN list, Chinese activities under CPEC in PoK and others. No discussions on SCS apparently took place in the open meeting. Considering the Chinese sensitivity on this issue, it is quite likely that this matter was taken up between the two ministers in a private tete-a-tete.

Two decisions were adopted by the foreign ministers that have the potential to stabilise bilateral ties and enhance mutual trust. On the contentious issue of China’s opposition to India’s membership of NSG, both sides agreed to engage in a dedicated dialogue between the Indian joint secretary dealing with disarmament issues and China’s director general of Arms Control and Disarmament.

On other issues causing an impediment in the growth of bilateral relations, another structure was created between the Indian foreign secretary and his Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. This would supplement the already functioning annual Strategic Dialogue at the foreign secretary level and the regular Special Representatives dialogue, which focuses on border talks, but at times, goes beyond that limited circumference. It would appear that issues of China’s ‘technical hold’ on the listing of Masood Azhar and Chinese activities in PoK will be covered by this mechanism.

Speaking after Wang Yi’s visit, the Chinese foreign office stated that India and China had ‘candid’ exchange of views on some ‘specific issues’ and agreed not to let the ‘differences’ affect their overall ties as they vowed to resolve the issues through dialogue and consultation. Use of words such as ‘candid’ and ‘differences’ in the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement would imply that hard and tough talks took place between the two sides.

SAARC Summit

Another significant issue that India will need to contend with in the coming days is the proposal of China’s membership of SAARC, which is likely to come up at the forthcoming SAARC Summit in Pakistan in November. Most SAARC members, except India and Bhutan, are actively supportive of China’s membership. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China and like India, has an unsettled border with it. India should stand firm against the proposal and if need be, veto the suggestion. As a backup Plan B, India should persuade Japan to be ready to join SAARC in future when it might become impossible to keep China out. Japan’s presence will help to restore a semblance of balance if and when China manages to join the organisation.

Both sides however need to continue talking at all levels to sensitise each other about their core concerns and try to find mutually acceptable solutions. Otherwise a new paradigm for managing bilateral relations will have to be constructed, which could fall well short of the inherent potential of the partnership.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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