The Chinese fault line in foreign policy

This is the season of results and of drawing up report cards. Having completed a year of governance, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s performance is up for review, with its approach on the foreign policy front attracting a great deal of attention. Not surprisingly, political pundits have accorded it an ‘A’. Nevertheless, it still merits a more detailed look.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s record of visiting 18 countries in 57 days has to be appreciated. Yet, it should not be overlooked that even a less ebullient Prime Minister like Dr. Manmohan Singh of the predecessor United Progressive Alliance government managed a hectic schedule during his first year in office. But two major differences, no doubt, exist. The first is that in marked contrast to visits by previous Prime Ministers to foreign countries, each of Mr. Modi’s visits has involved detailed planning to ensure the best teleological impact.

The second is in terms of economic content — new business openings, substantial increases in foreign direct investment (FDI) flows, estimated to be around $28.8 billion, and talk of India as being the next big investment destination. If the raison d’être of high profile prime ministerial visits is Business with a big ‘B’, then Mr. Modi has made a spectacular start.

Mixed results

Both aspects are in keeping with the Prime Minister’s penchant for transformational initiatives, an aspect that was evident during his more than a year-long election campaign. Foreign visits have the added advantage of linking the Prime Minister’s persona with outcomes, and where the Prime Minister’s image becomes the crucial selling point. Mr. Modi’s visit to the United States in 2014 demonstrated what impact a brilliantly calibrated campaign could produce.

However, on many of the substantive issues, the balance sheet tends to be mixed. For instance, the Prime Minister kept his commitment to pursue an “activist neighbourhood policy”. Yet, to claim that his visits have already produced concrete results would be premature. Foreign policy outcomes need a long period of gestation and it would be naive to think that a single visit would alter another country’s policies. This is particularly true of countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal who tend to hedge their bets when it comes to India versus China. Nevertheless, the energy and drive on display has helped push the boundaries, enabling India to demonstrate its determination to be the pre-eminent power in the region.

Coming to strategic aspects, one discerns a certain lack of coherence and consistency. This is specially true of strategic relations with our two biggest neighbours, China and Pakistan. Vis-à-vis Pakistan, the inconsistencies in our attitude have further compounded the dysfunctional nature of Pakistan’s approach to India. Nothing that has been said or done during the past year has reduced tensions between the two countries. If anything, the degree of suspicion has increased.

Dealing with Beijing

The approach towards China has clearly needed to be more subtle and dexterous than has been the case. The bonhomie on display during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014 and Mr. Modi’s visit to China in May 2015 was exceptional. Notwithstanding this, the hype and glamour have tended to obscure the reality that little progress on most aspects of the relationship has taken place. Mr. Modi’s recent visit did yield much in economic terms — agreements and business-related memoranda of understanding worth at least $22 billion. He also unveiled a vision of unlimited opportunities for Chinese business and investment in infrastructure and energy-related projects. The Joint Statement issued after the visit is extremely positive on trade, development and investment issues, and also on taking the necessary measures “to remove impediments to bilateral trade and investment and facilitate greater market access”.

However, dealing with China is like dealing with the unknown. Rather than protocol-driven statements, one needs to look out for signals and nuances which are often better indicators of where the relationship is headed. Hence, references in the Joint Statement issued after Mr. Modi’s discussions with Chinese leaders, to the “historic imperative for India and China to enrich their bilateral relations” and that “India-China bilateral relations are poised to play a defining role in the 21st Century in Asia and Globally”, count for little. In specific terms, the Chinese have given no indication, whatsoever, that they would back India’s claim to a seat in the United Nations Security Council; no assurance of helping India with nuclear Export Control Regimes, and in overcoming the remaining obstacles to nuclear trade issues, and no signs of softening its stance on the vexed boundary question, merely committing itself to maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas, pending a final resolution. As a keen observer, the Prime Minister would certainly have noted the absence of any reaction from the Chinese side during the visit, to both the contents of the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region (unveiled by him and U.S. President Barack Obama during Mr. Obama’s visit to India in January 2015), and to the deepening of India’s relations with Shinzo¯ Abe’s Japan. This is significant and disconcerting, compounded further by the absence of any serious discussion on the situation prevailing in Pakistan and West Asia, and the implications for the region of Mr. Xi’s signature initiative viz., the Maritime Silk Road. Apparently, the Chinese believe that there is not much scope for a meeting of minds on crucial issues.

The Afghan vacuum

Meanwhile, China continues to engage in a series of moves that are highly detrimental to India’s interests. With Pakistan as the fulcrum of China’s approach to South Asia, China is now seeking to exploit the vacuum in Afghanistan, at a time when India’s leverage there has been greatly reduced following Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani taking charge. China has also very recently hosted “secret talks” between Afghan and Taliban leaders in China, which were attended by both Chinese officials and representatives of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). China also continues to stall India’s moves in the United Nations to have Hizbul Mujahideen chief and head of the ‘United Jihad Council’, Syed Salahuddin declared as a “global terrorist”. The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Western China with the Gwadar Port in Pakistan through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), is an even more serious matter, directly impinging on India’s sovereignty and security. Its implications are far graver than the border dispute between India and China.

Enhancing strategic thinking

All this means that the element of strategic distrust between the two countries appears to be increasing. This will need to be tackled by Mr. Modi on a war footing over the next few years. Forging “strategic trust” does find a mention in the Joint Statement, but it is evident that frequent exchanges at the leadership level, regular visits at the level of heads of states/government, or enhanced military ties and joint military exercises and counter terrorist training (all reflected in the Joint Statement) would be hardly enough. Closing the gap that exists in the strategic thinking of the two sides will require a more sophisticated approach.

As Mr. Modi enters his second year in office, he needs to demonstrate that India can become a counterpoise to an aggressive China. This would need going beyond economic matters or viewing economic interdependence as a means to limit the ambit of China’s designs. His “Act East Policy” must involve managing the “rise of China” which, with its aggressive designs and military capabilities, is a cause for deep concern to countries in the region.

In Mr. Modi, India has a leader who is credited with skills to penetrate the opaque. He must use his manifest skills in the coming years to create opportunities for a proper framework for a peaceful, political and strategic relationship across the region without succumbing or overreacting to fears of where China is headed.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 1:59:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-chinese-fault-line-in-foreign-policy/article7256665.ece

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