Beijing pays especially close attention to border issues and bilateral ties, both of which it regards as sensitive. The Chinese realise that settlement of the border issue is central to any improvement in India-China relations, but have kept it unsettled over the decades to pressure India. China has simultaneously sought to weaken India’s stand in the border negotiations by promoting doubts regarding the actual alignment and even legitimacy of the McMahon Line.
The Chinese are meticulous record keepers and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s increasingly powerful Propaganda Department keeps tight control to ensure a narrative approved by the Party. It controls appointments and removals of senior editorial personnel in the state-owned audiovisual and print media nationwide. It additionally approves and closely supervises content by issuing instructions thrice a day detailing which topics should be covered, ignored or downplayed, and the prominence that each should be given. China’s communist regime is adept at harmonising records with the Party’s approved narrative and the predictably selective reporting by China’s official media, including Xinhua, of important bilateral events and discussions is, therefore, important.
In the context of Prime Minister Modi’s visit (May 14-16, 2015) to China, there have been an unusual number of comments and articles by China’s normally reticent officials and media, including on the disputed India-China border. Bilateral relations and border issues are subjects that are usually off-limits for the Chinese media where only authorised officials are permitted to voice “views”. Illuminative were at least fifteen articles noticed in the official Chinese mainstream media in the fortnight surrounding the visit. Though they were a mixed bag of some critical articles and others that were pessimistic regarding the outcome of the visit, a few sought to strike a positive note. China’s assertive self-confidence, with possibly a touch of arrogance, was visible in almost all articles.
On April 18, 2015, China’s authoritative official news agency ‘Xinhua’, reported the arrival in India on a 4-day (April 15-18, 2015) visit of a CCP delegation led by Politburo Member and Party Secretary of Shaanxi, Zhao Zhengyong. Zhao Zhengyong was quoted as saying that India and China were both “implementing the outcomes of Xi Jinping’s visit to India, the momentum in development of China-India relations is good, and that there is positive progress in inter-party exchanges and regional cooperation”. He said “China expects that Indian PM Modi's visit to China will give a new impetus to China-India relations”. Hinting at the inequality in the two economies, Xinhua observed that the “Indian side admired the leadership of the CCP and China’s economic and social achievements, and said that India is willing to learn from China's successful experiences and further deepen China-India pragmatic cooperation. Both sides hope that the Indian PM Modi's visit to China is an opportunity for both the countries and it will take bilateral relations to a new height”.
A week later, the Chinese-language Meijiang Network, an economic news service established in December 2004 and owned by the State Financial Daily Press and Publication Administration, commented on the upcoming visit. It quoted China’s Ambassador to India as remarking that in case ongoing discussions concluded successfully then agreements totalling US$ 10 billion could be signed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit. The article included explicit references to the New Silk Economic Road and, referring to Modi’s itinerary, said his “first stop in China will be Xian, the historical city from where the Silk route begins”. It sought to lure India into supporting the ‘One Road, One Belt’ by hinting at the potential for Chinese investments and pointing to the investments worth US$ 46 billion announced by Xi Jinping while on his recent state visit to Pakistan. It added that as “China-India are the two large developing countries in Asia, so trade and economic cooperation will be the main agenda of Modi's visit to China”.
Wu Tiaoli, an Assistant Researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), described the Modi government’s policy towards China as “reflecting a "double track policy". He said “India wants to expand economic, trade and investment cooperation with China and wants to decrease the balance of trade gap with China and, therefore, the deepening of China-India Trade will create new opportunities”. Trying to put the gloss of economic development on China’s relations with Pakistan, he reasoned that “construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Belt will eliminate the Indian doubts, moreover, it will help India to understand the project”. He added that “China is also promoting the BCIM Economic corridor as part of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route Project, which also requires India's support and participation”. Wu Tiaoli assessed that as the world’s two largest developing nations “China-India relations have gone beyond the bilateral context, and now have global and strategic significance”. He described the bilateral trade volume of almost US$ 70 billion in 2014, as “modest”.
The Deputy Director of the South Asia Research Institute of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, Yang Siling, recalled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s suggestion in New Delhi in September 2014, that India “converge” its ‘Mausam Project’ with the ‘One Road, One Belt’ and the observation of Chinese Ambassador Le Yucheng that this would “make India a natural and significant cooperative partner of China”. He conceded that “in comparison to China’s enthusiastic attitude, India seems to be ambiguous about the initiatives of China's ‘One Belt, One Road” and attributed this to its feeling “limited by the geopolitical competition”.
Four questions relating to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China were raised in Chinese at the regular weekly briefing by China’s Ministry of National Defence (MND) held on April 30, 2015. The fourth and last question sought clarification whether China’s decision to invite India’s Northern Army Commander indicated a change in its position on Kashmir. The MND spokesman’s reply was categoric. Reiterating China’s claim on J&K, the spokesman stated: “China has a consistent and clear stance on the issue of Kashmir. And on the specific arrangements of border defense exchanges, discussions between the two sides are still going on”.
The reply to the second question was also interesting. Asserting that “the China-Indian boundary issue is a problem left over from history”, the spokesperson added “joining hands to maintain peace and tranquility in areas along the China-Indian border is the important consensus reached by both sides. The Chinese defense troops have always been strictly abiding by the agreements reached by the two governments, and we hope the Indian side can meet China half way”.
A Chinese-language Xinhua dispatch of May 7, 2015, which officially announced Modi’s visit to China from May 14-16, went viral on China’s social media. The dispatch listed Modi’s itinerary and said “China has done its homework for the visit of powerful and popular Modi. Ten days before his visit, he opened Chinese Weibo to play the emotional card, and the blog posts are full of ‘friendship’, ‘blessing’ and other words. He is ready to embark on the road to the East. Modi expects a lot from China, and in the economic aspect his main focus is investment and the projects under negotiations, and political dialogue involving the Sino-Indian border dispute”. Saying “It is foreseeable that Modi’s pragmatic China policy will continue -- cooperation on economic and trade and balance in diplomacy” it pointedly asked whether “Modi can have both—the fish and bear's paw?”
Comments of the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) at the regular briefing a day earlier (May 6) were carefully worded. Important was the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s statement that “The bilateral relationship boasts strategic significance and global influence. Over the past years, China and India have kept their relationship developing in a sound and steady manner and figured out a way to get along with each other that focuses on mutual benefit and cooperative development, accommodates each other's concerns and properly handles differences”. The spokesperson added “President Xi Jinping paid a successful state visit to India last September when he mapped out the development of China-India strategic cooperative partnership for the next five to ten years together with Indian leaders”. Stating that both sides are closely coordinating the visit and “It is believed that efforts by the two sides will ensure the success of Prime Minister Modi's visit and showcase the importance attached by the Chinese side to China-India relations and to the visit”, the spokesperson said in conclusion that “We expect and believe that the visit will help enhance mutual understanding and mutual trust between the two countries, step up bilateral cooperation across the board and enable the bilateral relations to make bigger strides at a faster pace and in a more stable manner.”
In the span of a week till May 15, 2015, the state-run ‘Global Times’, a subsidiary owned by the CCP’s official newspaper People’s Daily, published at least six articles on the visit. All underlined the mutual lack of trust and emphasised that China was far ahead of India in economic terms.
Particularly acerbic and critical was the article on May 11, 2015, by Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow with the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Hu Zhiyong is reputedly close to the CCP leadership and articulates their views. Describing Modi as a “pragmatist, rather than a visionary,” he said Modi had “been busy strengthening India's ties with neighboring countries to compete with China, while trying to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities for economic development created by China”. It accused him of “also playing little tricks over border disputes and security issues, hoping to boost his domestic prestige while increasing his leverage in negotiations with China”. Saying that “the ball is in India's court to deepen the bilateral relations” he added that “for China, developing friendly cooperation with surrounding countries has always been the foothold of its diplomacy” and that “close ties with India, China's largest neighbor in South Asia, is of great importance to China's perimeter security and stability”. He added that improvement in Sino-Indian relations are “severely constrained” by the views of a number of Indian elites who “deem the rise of Beijing as a threat to New Delhi's development”.
Asserting that the “two sides have never established real strategic trust” he listed steps that Modi should take, namely (i) “he should no longer visit the disputed border region in pursuit of his own political interests”; (ii) he should “not deliver any remarks that infringe on the consensus on bilateral ties”; and (iii) “the Indian government should completely stop supporting the Dalai Lama, and stop making the Tibetan issue a stumbling block to the Sino-Indian relationship”.
Hu Zhiyong was equally uncompromising on issues of economy and trade, saying that “New Delhi is reluctant to admit the widening trade gap is its own fault, nor is it willing to examine its own economic structure and the quality of its exports to China”, but instead repeatedly accuses or directs its anger at China. Scathing was the observation that “due to the Indian elites' blind arrogance and confidence in their democracy, and the inferiority of its ordinary people, very few Indians are able to treat Sino-Indian relations accurately, objectively and rationally”. He accused some Indian media of “irresponsibly exaggerating the conflicts between the two sides, adding fuel to the hostility among the public”. Hu Zhiyong concluded with the comment that “Modi should seize the chance of his China visit to enhance bilateral cooperation” and “political mutual trust between leaders”.
Ding Gang, a Senior Editor of the CCP’s authoritative mouthpiece People’s Daily, apparently voiced the Party’s views on May 13, 2015, in a column in the Global Times. He wrote that if India and China join hands they could change Asia’s geopolitical and economic landscape, but “there seems always to be a lack of mutual trust between the dragon and the elephant”. He added that “there is more competition than complementarity” between India and China leading directly “to a zero-sum game. In other words, one side moving up on the supply chain will likely squeeze the domain of the other”.
Stating that there are many “unsustainable factors in the trade structure of China and India”, he said if China invests more in India's infrastructure this may prove counter-productive as it could “cause more concerns for India about the flooding of Chinese commodities” and that involvement of Chinese enterprises could entangle them in “India's perplexing land system”. He recommended that China “make well-planned and targeted industrial transfers in accordance with the development and investment ability of its enterprises and set up production bases in India to make use of its cheaper labor force and invest in training selected Indian workers through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He asked India to draw upon China's strength in technology and funding. He urged more access to local markets for Chinese telecommunication enterprises, saying China could do likewise for India's pharmaceutical companies and forecast that the two countries could “ultimately create a common market of 2.6 billion people”.
Global Times on May 13, 2015, published an article by Swaran Singh, an Indian scholar in JNU, Delhi, which said that the PMO’s last-minute decision to cancel BJP President Amit Shah’s meeting with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala on May 2, 2015, “showed the cost that the Modi government was willing to take to please Chinese leaders.” Stating that the RSS has had a negative view on China since 1962, it referred to an article in the RSS’ official paper Organiser, which said that "the well-calibrated symbolism of Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping shows the duo has a better chance in achieving breakthroughs and bringing down negativity over political questions." The author said “the story compares Modi to the Buddha and the poet Tagore in having left a deep impression on China's popular consciousness”. Stating that the “ruling establishment of India does not wish to leave any stone unturned to ensure the positive environment for the Xi-Modi summit, which is expected to usher in a subtle "reset" in China-India relations”, it commented that “their summit should mark an important but first step in their long journey together into building, not just theirs, but Asia's future”.
The article in the Global Times on May 14, 2015, by Liu Zongyi, an assistant research fellow of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China, was interesting. It blended veiled warnings with the potential promise of improved ties. Pertinent were the statements that “realizing regional security, including the stability in Afghanistan and the security in the Indian Ocean, requires concerted efforts from both China and India” and that “at present Washington is the major provider of security in the vast Indian Ocean, so if it exits, India will need the cooperation of other countries”.
It candidly stated that “the boundary disputes are a conundrum in the bilateral relationship. If they can't be solved at an earlier date, the two sides should more closely stick to the code of conduct they reached before.” It recalled the proposal by Xi Jinping made last September that “China and India should work together to establish a closer partnership of development rather than becoming rivals in competition” and said “Modi is considered as a state leader with strategic insights. He may become a Nixon-style statesman because of his pragmatism and capacity to resolve major contradictions between China and India and to tackle the common challenges of development”.
Acknowledging that “there is indeed competition and a lack of mutual strategic trust between the two rapidly emerging Asian powers” it said “over the past year, India, under the Modi administration, has become a star on the world stage.” It cautioned, however, that “Modi's victory in the country's general elections last May has injected enormous confidence into India's economic development” but “had also offered hope to the US, Japan and other nations attempting to take advantage of New Delhi to contain China”. It took note of India’s ambiguous attitude towards China's ‘One Belt, One Road’, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In conclusion, the article observed that “India longs for economic integration in Asia. However, it is reluctant to see China acting as the single leader in the region but expects to share the role”.
A Xinhua editorial of May 14, 2015, was more balanced. It described the “exchange of visits by the leaders from the world's two largest emerging economies” as signaling “warming relations between the two oriental giants”. The report played up the fact that Xi Jinping had travelled outside Beijing to receive Modi and said “Sino-Indian ties could be among the most important bilateral relationships”. It said “if the "Chinese Dragon" and the "Indian Elephant" co-exist harmoniously and realize peaceful, cooperative development, it will bring benefit to not only their combined 2.5 billion people, but also those living beyond their borders.” Emphasising that “China is an infrastructure powerhouse, while India has infrastructure deficits” it said “China can help India upgrade its railway stations and overhaul its high-speed rail networks” thereby giving both economies a big boost. It noted that India has created world-class software and competitive pharmaceutical industries.
Another Global Times editorial on May 15, 2015, captioned ‘Sino-Indian ties can conquer West’s doubts’ focused on the so-called attempts by the West to sow discord between India and China. It said “The dragon-elephant pas de deux has made headlines once again, but suspicions from the Western world soon poured in, saying the surface friendliness cannot cover the fact that Sino-Indian relations have irreconcilable maladies. No matter how much cooperation they can establish, border disputes will offset all progress”. Asserting “it is obvious that the Western elite doesn’t want to see India and China drawing closer to each other”, the editorial said “it will be a long-term test for China and India to get rid of distractions imposed by the West and stick to a path which can benefit the national interest of both countries”. Admitting that “the bilateral relationship is still vulnerable to many sensitive issues”, it said “although no bullets have been fired along the border for decades, tensions still remain”. The editorial conceded that “lack of mutual trust still disturbs both sides” and “media reports raise concerns about each other from time to time”, but stressed that “China and India should think out of the box where delusions of persecution prevail” otherwise cooperation will not be possible when “only distrust and hostility are rife”. It underlined this theme saying that it “is hard for China and India to develop a strategic partnership, but it will be dreadful for both sides to vie with each other” and that mutual fundamental interests demand that “no side should look at the other with contempt or arrogance, and their problems should be addressed between the two with no need to introduce a third party”.
China’s authoritative official news agency Xinhua on May 15, 2015, reported on the meeting between India’s Prime Minister Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Stating that the two met in the Great Hall of the People on May 15 morning, Xinhua quoted Li Keqiang as saying, based on the statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), that “Last year, the Chairman Xi Jinping successfully visited India. Yesterday, Chairman Xi Jinping carried out a fruitful meeting with you at Xian. My first state visit as the Chinese Premier was India. China and India are not rivals and should become an important partner”. Stating that “Both sides need to expand their relation from Asia to the world, and promote strategic mutual trust, economic cooperation .... and promote the common development of China and India” it said “Li Keqiang pointed out that China is willing to join hands with India to build a closer partnership for development”.
Li Keqiang was reported as saying that the leaders of both countries should “make full use of wisdom to deal with sensitive issues such as borders, maintaining momentum in the negotiations to establish cooperation framework mechanism to ensure peace and tranquility in the border area, while focusing on promoting the bilateral strategic cooperation and common development, and promote the formation of a true "Asian Century". To complement their economic advantages and in a veiled reference to the ‘One Road, One Belt’, he said they should be “docking development strategies” and “pushing ahead BCIM Economic Corridor” etc. He pointed out that China is willing to participate in India’s Industrial Corridor. The Xinhua report included no reference to Prime Minister Modi’s comments on the need for China to reconsider its approach on the border and other issues which would otherwise restrict development of bilateral ties.
The focus of China’s official media in the days around Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China was clearly on the promotion of bilateral economic ties. There was a definite effort to push China’s major economic initiative of ‘One Road, One Belt’ together with calls for enhanced access for Chinese companies. While authoritative articles and comments by senior CCP officials in the months leading up to the visit had emphasised China’s unchanged stance on the issue of the border, in the days proximate to the visit the border issue found very brief mention. Where it did, like in the Chinese Defence Ministry briefing, India was urged to meet China at least halfway. Hu Zhiyong’s article in Global Times on May 11, 2015, was rather blunt in listing the steps that India needs to take to improve bilateral ties. All articles underscored the distrust in the relationship. Pertinently, Xinhua and China’s official media blanked out Modi’s remarks urging China to “reconsider its approach” on the border and other outstanding issues, made during meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and in his address to students in Tsinghua University in Beijing.
(The author is former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. The views expressed are personal.)
Published Date: 11th June 2015, Image Source: http://zeenews.india.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)