Photo: AFP/John MacDougall

Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to China this month will take place amid a climate of improved relations between the two countries. It will come in the wake of an important interview to the South China Morning Post last month by India’s ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale.

The ambassador put forward a defense of India’s June 2016 intervention in the Doklam region at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction. The area is disputed between Bhutan and China and is the subject of long-running negotiations between them.

In intervening to block the Chinese from building a small road to a ridge that overlooks the narrow Siliguri Corridor connecting  India’s northeast to the rest of the country, New Delhi had said in a press note dated June 30 that it had acted in coordination with the Royal Government of Bhutan, but that the issue was not just about Bhutanese interests but the fact that the Chinese action “would represent a significant change of status quo with security implications for India.”

In his interview, Bambawale repeatedly said India had acted in reaction to “the change of status quo by the Chinese military.” He sidestepped the uncomfortable reality that India itself has no legal claims on that area. But he repeated that in order to maintain peace and tranquility, “there are certain areas, certain sectors which are very sensitive, where we must not change the status quo.”

But his observation – and this is what makes the upcoming Sitharaman visit important – that the two sides had a deficit of strategic communication at a higher military level is significant. Sitharaman will, no doubt, meet her counterpart, the newly appointed minister of defense, General Wei Fenghe, who has been a long-standing member of the top decision-making body of the military in China, the Central Military Commission.

Bambawale’s remarks indicate that what India is seeking is a modus vivendi over the Doklam issue. Given the way Chinese policy on the border is made, it is seeking to target the decision-making authorities in the People’s Liberation Army, rather than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Not surprisingly, for example, the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement, the last major pact signed by the two sides on building border confidence, was made between PLA Lieutenant-General Sun Jianguo and India’s defense secretary at the time, R K Mathur.

What India is looking for is some understanding on the part of the PLA not to press on with its Doklam project, which in essence seems to involve developing a permanent position on the Jampheri ridge that overlooks the strategic Siliguri Corridor.

The Sitharaman visit could provide a larger opening for a greater thaw in the Sino-Indian relationship that could see confirmation through a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China

The Chinese had built a road in the early 2000s to a point 100 meters or so below the Doka La Pass, where there is a strong Indian military post. They would park their vehicles and walk up and chat with Indian soldiers in Doka La and then  patrol the last 4-5 kilometers to the ridge on foot. The Indian side would like the PLA to revert to this pattern because it does not essentially question the Chinese claim on Doklam, but at the same time does not immediately pose a danger to Indian security.

The Sitharaman visit could provide a larger opening for a greater thaw in the Sino-Indian relationship that could see confirmation through a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China. He is scheduled to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao in June, but there could be an official visit either earlier or linked to the summit where issues that have been clouding the relationship between the two countries could be thrashed out.

Economic ties between the two countries are already doing well. Trade was at a historic high of US$84.4 billion in 2017, despite the Doklam standoff. Chinese foreign direct investment into India is growing by leaps and bounds, though it is still small compared with Chinese investments elsewhere. India welcomes  this because it also helps address the problem of the $52 billion trade deficit that India has with China.

With the return of the diplomatic discourse, the two sides could quietly work out their other issues, such as India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the proscription of Masood Azhar. India has already taken steps to address Beijing’s sensitivities with regard to the Dalai Lama, but it could go further and soften its stand on the Belt and Road Initiative. Perhaps the first move could be to press on with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor that India has already signed up to.

If India had the gumption, it could actually join the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) initiative and demand road access from the Indian side to Pakistan-administered Kashmir or, for that matter, to Pakistan proper, Afghanistan and Iran. Beyond that, there is a larger agenda of cross-border trade, in itself not important, but something that could  signal  a changed relationship.

With a trade war looming between the US and China, Beijing would be interested in ensuring that New Delhi does not throw all its weight behind Washington at this juncture. The Donald Trump administration’s National Security Strategy has designated China as a rival of sorts and embraced the categorization of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean as a single “Indo-Pacific” strategic region. The first meeting of a naval quadrilateral that includes India has also taken place, in 2017, a prospect that would be discomfiting for China.

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Manoj Joshi

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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