Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen in front of a PLA guard of honour. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen in front of a PLA guard of honour. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee

It would be an exaggeration to visualize the forthcoming meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa in the weekend as a landmark event.

Clearly, the relationship is passing through a period of stress. But a breakthrough to remove the cause of tensions seems unlikely. Things may even get worse before they get any better.

Beijing made it clear earlier this week that as regards the two issues that exercise the Indian mind, there need not be any expectations of a shift in its stance – Sino-Pakistan relationship and India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

The Indians regard the US$46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as holding the potential to boost Pakistan’s comprehensive national power and bring about a paradigm shift both in the strategic balance vis-à-vis India as well as in China’s strategic footprints in the region.

The NSG membership question becomes essentially a sub-plot here insofar as China has taken a ‘principled position’ that there cannot be any discrimination between India and Pakistan – both being non-NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) countries – as potentially new members in the grouping.

Equally, the crux of the matter is that China is blocking another Indian demand to get UN sanctions imposed on the leader of the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar as terrorist because such a move would go against Pakistan’s core interests.

If not for these two irritants specifically, something else could have cropped up as an irritant – such as, for instance, the fact that CPEC will run through parts of Kashmir that are under Pakistan’s control but India claims as its territory.

In essence, what India resents is, firstly, that China-Pakistan ties are phenomenally transforming as a strategic alliance, which weakens India’s capacity to sort out Pakistan on its own terms, and, secondly, that China’s presence is expanding in the region, which India regards as its backyard.

The probability of China giving into the Indian wish list is virtually nil, given the high importance Beijing attaches to the relations with Pakistan.

The profound backdrop in which the Sino-Pakistan relationship is transforming needs to be noted here – the US pivot to Asia, One Belt One Road, China’s growing profile as global power, Xinjiang’s security, development, etc.

Of course, Pakistan is intrinsically important as a partner too, because of its unique geographic location, its centrality to the Afghan situation, its big domestic market (190 million) and its importance as a leading Islamic country and a major military and nuclear power.

Above all, Pakistan, as Xi once underscored poignantly, also happens to be China’s only real ally in a tough neighborhood.

China, therefore, professes preference for multi-faceted engagement with both Pakistan and India as well as stresses India-Pakistan amity. However, things are not as benign as they might seem.

The fact of the matter is that both India and China are playing the long game.

China ignores the Modi government’s push to ‘clarify’ the Line of Actual Control (LoAC), which from the Indian viewpoint keeps the disputed border in a state of animated suspension.

In reaction to that, Delhi is beefing up military presence on the disputed border. In July, 100 Russian-made T-72 were deployed in the western Ladakh sector of the disputed border.

This is the third regiment placed in Ladakh since 2014. India now plans to expedite construction of 40 ‘strategic roads’ along the border by 2020. It is also negotiating a deal with the United States to purchase M777A2 lightweight howitzers that would be used along the border.

In August, when Delhi approved the deployment of a missile regiment on the eastern border in the disputed Arunachal Pradesh with 100 BrahMos supersonic missiles, a nadir was reached.

China’s PLA daily warned explicitly that Delhi’s decision is “bound to increase the competition and antagonism in the China-India relations and will have a negative impact on the stability of the region.”

A Russian commentary noted in end-August that “military build-ups have increased along the Sino-Indian border in recent weeks.” There have been over 200 troop incursions recorded across the disputed border this year.

Again, India has ‘hit back’ its own way, inserting its Navy into the troubled waters of the South China Sea and contributing to the ‘capacity-building’ of the armed forces of Vietnam.

Indeed, the locus has noticeably shifted to competition away from cooperation in the overall matrix of India-China relationship.

The Modi government apprehends that the One Belt One Road would steadily build up the economies of the countries of the region surrounding India, which in time will augment their capacity to maintain strategic autonomy, while also paving the way for China’s pre-eminence as the region’s main driver of growth.

On the other hand, Modi government’s ‘tilt’ toward the US’ rebalance in Asia and the US’ emergence as India’s number one supplier of arms and military technology – all under the canopy of what the Global Times recently called India’s ‘soaring nationalism’ – plus other negative messages such an ill-conceived move to expel three Xinhua journalists assigned to India have contributed to a hardening of the overall Chinese attitude.

In an unusually blunt criticism, Chinese pundits questioned the basis of the Indian allegation that Pakistan was behind the attack on the military camp in Uri last month. They called Delhi’s subsequent move to fence the border with Pakistan as “irrational” and reflecting “Cold War mentality”.

Fundamentally, Beijing will wait and watch for the realignments unfolding in the regional milieu.

The thaw in Pakistan-Russia relations has only begun. The Middle East is in chaos. The US’s regional strategies under a new president remain to be seen. China uses the interim to consolidate in the South China Sea.

When Xi sits down with Modi in Goa, he would be in a contemplative mood – but, with thoughts trained on the upcoming meeting with the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing next week.

On the other hand, the Hindu nationalists, who are the Modi government’s core constituency, are clamoring for confrontation with Pakistan. Powerful sections of the ruling elite are hoisting the maximalist demand that the entire undivided Kashmir belongs to India.

In immediate terms, they may find it expedient to ratchet up tensions with Pakistan and exploit any resultant Hindu-Muslim polarization to the ruling party’s advantage in electoral politics.

No doubt, for them, Modi government’s strategic dialogue with China is not a priority as of now. They are confident that time works to India’s advantage and it is best to deal with China from a position of strength.

They spurn Chinese overtures for a mutually beneficial economic partnership, pending the resolution of differences and disputes. Some even take to twittering #BoycottChina, asking Indians to shun Chinese products.

The danger inherent in this jingoistic national mood is that it harks back to fantasies that had once fed into India’s bombastic ‘forward policy’ toward China in the late fifties – which, of course, got tragically dissipated in the 1962 conflict.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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