As PM Modi Skips China Summit, Beijing Stakes Are High

Published: April 25, 2017 11:24 IST
In his summary of the strategy and tactics of people's war, Mao Tse-Tung said, "You fight in your way and we fight in ours. We fight when we can win and move away when we can't."

Srikanth Kondapalli, China scholar and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recalled Mao as he explained Chinese president Xi Jinping's determination to host the country's star initiative, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) economic summit in Beijing in mid-May, despite the fact that only 28 countries worldwide have confirmed attendance so far.

As India and China have embarked on a new battle of wits in recent months - scrapping over India's interest in becoming a full-fledged member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, while Beijing has held back in censuring Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar at the UN - Kondapalli pointed out that Delhi is using the Dalai Lama to hit back at the Chinese by allowing him to visit Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese claim as their own territory.

Certainly, Beijing seems unconcerned about whether the diplomatic quarrel with Delhi will blow over or not. It has since retaliated by giving Chinese names to six places in Arunachal Pradesh, and at the same time promised to move full steam ahead with building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that also cuts through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
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The Dalai Lama visited Arunacal Pradesh from April 4 to 11

The CPEC is a major artery of the One Belt One Road project, which is why Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promised to attend that summit in Beijing in mid-May. As India worries over the gathering alliance between Beijing and Islamabad, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi smiled softly as he recently fended off India's fears that the CPEC would change the contested status of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. 

The CPEC, Wang Yi insisted, was purely an economic venture and invited India to join it.

Of course he wasn't fooling anyone. Beijing has recently upped its expenditure on the economic corridor from $46 billion to $62 billion, from its point of entry in Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan to Gwadar port in Balochistan. As part of the CPEC, the Karakoram highway will be overhauled, the Karachi-Peshawar railway line revamped, plans are afoot to connect Pakistan's railway network to China's Southern Railway at Kashgar, while an 1,100-km motorway between Karachi and Lahore - a city that is cheek-by-jowl with Amritsar - will be built.

As the India-Pakistan relationship deteriorates, the Pakistan-China friendship becomes stronger than ever. Beijing's intention to build a series of power plants as well as other infrastructure through the heart of Pakistan along the new economic corridor will not only irrevocably tie Pakistan into a clientelist relationship with China, it will also allow China to cross the Himalayas and the Indus and gain access to the Indian Ocean - and come much closer to India.

Delhi's concerns notwithstanding, China has for some time now begun to openly play in India's self-proclaimed sphere of influence, South Asia. Besides Nawaz Sharif, Sri Lankan Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe is also attending the OBOR summit - but in the hope to placate Delhi, Ranil is coming to India this week before he sets sail for Beijing.

Other world leaders attending the OBOR summit include Vladimir Putin of Russia, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Myanmar's Aung San Su Kyi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose spat with China continues, is not going. It isn't clear if India will be represented at all, or if Delhi will pointedly display a cold shoulder.
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PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping sit on a traditional swing at the Sabarmati riverfront

But Modi is also being forced to come to terms with the fact that China has been able to breach the Himalayan as well as the Indian Ocean frontiers and is making up nicely with nations Delhi has traditionally believed to be in its sphere of influence.

Like Sri Lanka. Which is why Modi will go to Colombo around May 10 - just before Ranil travels to Beijing. Sri Lanka is deeply indebted to China, at least economically, in the creation of infrastructure both in the Colombo port as well as in southern Hambantota, but Colombo is equally keen that Delhi provides it favourable terms in the building of facilities at the deep sea port in Trincomalee.

Certainly, fresh energy has been injected into a new great game, this time between India and China, in southern Asia.

Interestingly, China's self-image seems closely linked with the spat over the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh in general and the Tawang monastery in particular. This isn't the first time the Tibetan holy leader has travelled to Arunachal. But as China grows militarily strong and economically powerful, even snapping at America's heels for the position of the world's most powerful nation, it has become much more sensitive at real and imagined assaults on its sovereignty.

It is clear that the Chinese reaction - or as some would say, an "over-reaction" - to a Tibetan holy leader's visit to the birthplace of an earlier Dalai Lama was all about Beijing's belief that the current Dalai Lama was playing into Delhi's hands to "insult" China.

The Chinese hit back by naming six Arunachali towns - including Bum La, the pass which the Dalai Lama first crossed in 1959 when he entered India - sending the message that all these places, not only Tawang, actually belong to China.

Many in India jeered at the Chinese response. For the Chinese, however, naming or renaming is serious business. Not only is Tawang called "South Tibet," but the Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea which the Japanese claim are China's Diaoyu Tai islands.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (File photo)

Still, Indian political analysts seem much more worried about CPEC (the economic corridor) cutting an arc through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. One generous version is that China's presence there is a Chinese acknowledgement of the fact that the Line of Control between India and Pakistan is a de facto border. 

But Kondapalli points out that the reverse could also be true. The CPEC's array of infrastructure projects across Pakistan is expected to boost not only Pakistan's economy, but also stiffen its spine against foreign detractors. With the corridors passage through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, China is telling the Pakistani establishment - read, its Army and ISI - that it has its back and will implicitly support its policy to continue to exfiltrate terrorism across the Line of Control into India.

Meanwhile, Delhi is spending time watching the tea-leaves as they uncurl in Washington DC. Will Donald Trump and Xi Jinping make nice with each other or will Trump fulfill his campaign promise by calling the Chinese a "currency manipulator?"

If the US president decides to get cozy with China, Delhi knows it is in a spot of trouble. Besides Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Chinese are also throwing a lot of money into Bangladesh and Nepal. Except for Pakistan, Delhi has been engaging all these other South Asian nations as well.

Kondapalli expanded on Mao's strategy and tactics of people's war. "When you want to fight us, we don't let you and you can't even find us. But when we want to fight you, we make sure that you can't get away and we hit you squarely on the chin and wipe you out. When we are able to wipe you out, we do so with a vengeance; when we can't, we see to it that you don't wipe us out," Mao had said.

Beyond the One Belt One Road summit, as China's leadership prepares for the 19th Party Congress, it seems as if President Xi is transforming Mao's maxims into contemporary foreign policy.

(Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and retains an especial passion for dialogue and debate across South Asia.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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