Modi Speaks India's Mind Clearly in China

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi wraps up his visit to China, it is tempting to draw up a scorecard of his achievements or lack of thereof. Yet, this diplomatic parlour game is usually beside the point.

Strategic engagement is as much about keeping an eye on issues in the middle and far distance, as securing benefits in the here and now. This is how India-China relations grew beyond the single-point agenda of the disputed boundary, and achieved the breadth and depth that they currently possess. The sheer range of issues on which Mr. Modi conferred with his Chinese interlocutors is testimony to how far the two countries have come in the last 25 years. The Prime Minister is certainly right in observing that his visit has laid a solid foundation on which the two sides can build. Indeed, much remains to be done.

Let's start with the thorniest of questions: the boundary dispute. Both sides agreed that the issue had to be resolved as early as possible. In an interview with India Today  just days before the visit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called the resolution of the dispute a "historical responsibility" on both governments. Speaking in China, Mr. Modi noted that resolving it was their "shared responsibility to the Future". Following their meeting, both sides agreed on the need for a renewed push towards a settlement. Interestingly, the joint statement mirrors the language used by Premier Li to reiterate the commitment to the ongoing negotiations led by the Special Representatives - especially the need to move on the basis of the agreement so far.

This is significant because the 2005 agreement on political parameters takes into account the bottom-lines for both sides - and offers the best basis for a final settlement. Since 2007, the Chinese had attempted to pull back from the understanding embedded in this agreement. If they are interesting in picking up the thread, New Delhi should press ahead. To be sure, any final settlement will take time and enormous political effort. But Mr. Modi is better placed than any of his recent predecessors to mount a serious effort at settlement.

In the meantime, the maintenance of peace and stability along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is imperative. In the past couple of years, there has been increased tactical jockeying along the LAC by both sides. As India belatedly improves its military logistics near the frontiers, the Chinese have sought to up the ante. This pattern is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It is imperative therefore that the existing mechanisms for maintaining stability are enhanced. The two sides have accordingly agreed to increase exchanges between military commanders along the LAC and establish border personnel meeting points in all sectors of the boundary. However, the proposal for establishing a hotline between the military headquarters in both countries has not yet been operationalized.

Mr. Modi has also made another pitch for resuming talks on clarification of the LAC. "A shadow of uncertainty always hangs over the sensitive areas of the border region. It is because neither side knows where the Line of Actual Control is in these areas," he said. He had brought this up when President Xi visited India. And he has reiterated it in his public statements in China. However, the joint statement makes no mention of it - a silence which indicates that the Chinese have not assented to the idea. This is not surprising given the historical record. Under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Indian government pressed the Chinese for talks on clarification of the LAC. Following the 1962 war, the two sides had never mutually agreed on where the LAC ran. From the mid-1970s, differing perceptions of the LAC had led both sides to patrol up to the line perceived by them, resulting in periodic "incursions" (which continue to date). Although the Chinese reluctantly agreed to talks on clarifying the LAC, the exercise quickly ran into the sand. Both sides presented maps exaggerating their perceptions of where the LAC ran. The Chinese eventually backed off owing to their concern that an agreed-to LAC would turn into a de facto boundary. Instead, they called for political talks on the boundary proper - a suggestion that was taken up by Vajpayee during his visit to China in 2003, leading to the ongoing Special Representatives process.

During his visit, Mr. Modi publicly sought to assuage Chinese concerns by stating that LAC clarification can be done "without prejudice to our position on the boundary question". It seems unlikely that the Chinese will want to resume this process. In any case, it is better to put diplomatic and political energies behind the boundary negotiations, rather than marking time with LAC clarification.

The imbalance of bilateral trade was another issue on which Mr. Modi seems to have spoken emphatically. Both sides are aware of the range of steps that need to be taken to ensure better market access for India companies in China and for greater inflow of Chinese investment into India. While the latter depends as much on India's policies as on China's, the former requires changes principally on the Chinese side. These issues have been discussed in the past, especially during President Xi's visit to India last year. As the Prime Minister laconically put it, "We look forward to early impact on the ground".

Bilateral matters apart, the two sides also focused on a range of international issues. These often tend to be dismissed as "multilateral" and apparently not central to the relationship. To Mr. Modi's credit, he has emphasized the growing importance of the India-China relationship in a global context. Two issues were particularly salient.

Speaking at the Tsinghua University in Beijing, Mr. Modi noted that India and China "have gained a lot from an open rule-based global trading system. Equally, we have most to lose if it breaks down." This was an important, if belated, acknowledgement of a major challenges looming ahead of countries like India: the current attempt by the US and its allies to rewrite the rules of globalization by concluding mega-regional pacts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These pacts are actually aimed at undercutting China's current economic edge. But the standards that they seek to bring on to the global agenda will have serious consequences for India too - not least by potentially making it tough to access some of the most prosperous markets. It is essential that India works with China, and other similarly situated countries to resist this trend. The decision to launch a bilateral consultative mechanism to enhance coordination on global trade talks, especially at the WTO, is an important move.

More significant in the short-run was the issuing of a separate joint statement on climate change. Here the two sides reiterated their commitment to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibility. They insisted that the Paris Conference being convened later this year will have to reach an agreement embodying these principles. The negotiating position of both sides has actually been nuanced from these apparently immovable positions. Yet their emphatic reiteration suggests that the two sides remain open to working together to forestall adverse outcomes. This is also important against the backdrop of the US-China bilateral agreement signed last year, which raised the spectre of a "G-2" solution being imposed on the rest of the world. The joint statement on climate change claims that both countries are already undertaking "ambitious actions domestically" on mitigation and adaptation. This fits with the arguments emanating from the Indian government - most recently by the Chief Economic Advisor. All this could give India additional room for manoeuvre in Paris.

It is interesting to juxtapose this additional joint statement on climate change with the one on Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region issued during President Obama's visit. Admittedly, the issues and the relationships are very different. Yet it shows that Prime Minister Modi is seeking to advance India's key interests in various domains with a variety of partners. As such, his foreign policy is marked more by deeper continuities than change. Going forward, the challenge for Mr. Modi will be to translate these moves into tangible outcomes.

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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