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Chinese 'checkers' frustrate India

File photo. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

New Delhi, Delhi, India Mar 17, 2019, 07.06 PM (IST) Shastri Ramachandaran

This is the way the cookie crumbles. A high-stakes international thriller, expected to climax in China backing the UN move to list Masood Azhar as a terrorist, ended in a whimper with India compelled to call its diplomatic defeat a “disappointment”. This should not have happened. 

What could have been a high point of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five years -- in the aftermath of the Pulwama suicide bombing followed by India's air strikes deep inside Pakistan – turned out to be a setback for India on the foreign front. 

It is just as well that South Block maintained a visage of equanimity and, without naming China, made the point that “India is disappointed by this outcome”. Foreign policy observers are, however, divided on whether such a response to the outcome was appropriate and adequate. Vivek Katju, a former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs struck, said that “India should have named China” (as the offending veto wielder among the UN Security Council's Permanent Five). Such a school of thought also includes those who feel that China should be named, shamed and “made to pay”, including with boycott of Chinese goods. 

In contrast, Gautam Bambawale, a former High Commissioner to Pakistan who succeeded Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale as Ambassador to China, struck a pragmatic note saying that “We must continue to work with China to convince them to remove the hold” on the proposal for listing Azhar as a terrorist. Bambawale opted for understatement while summing up the denouement, “We're disappointed that China has once again for the fourth time blocked listing of Masood Azhar at UNSC under 1267 sanctions. 

It is quite obvious that China is doing this as they have said they do not have enough information about Masood Azhar. We from India have already given more and more information. Rest of the world is convinced. So many countries, including France, the UK and the USA have backed the resolution. It is only one country, China, which is still objecting to it”. Yet he hinted that Beijing must be prepared for consequences, when he said that China must have factored in that there is a diplomatic cost of taking this step. If China opposes terrorism, it must allow this listing to go ahead”. 

While Katju can be said to have spoken straight from the heart in expressing outrage against China, Bambawale wants New Delhi to make a cool appraisal and adopt a calculating approach towards China. He has seen and experienced China for 30 years, and knows that times have changed. India-China relations can no longer slide back to acrimony and finger-pointing and, accordingly, Indian diplomacy has changed its language. 

When China thwarted India's efforts to get Azhar blacklisted in 2016, India had expressed “surprise” and “concern”. Naming China, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said: “We had expected China would have been more understanding of the danger posed to all by terrorism and would join India and others in fighting the common challenge of terrorism”. In 2017, when China again blocked a similar proposal, India did not name China, but referred to a “single country” as it has done now. 

Sino-Indian relations were tense in 2017 and hit a low point with the Doklam stand-off. It was an uphill task to retrieve the situation and revive steps for strengthening ties, which India managed to do by adhering to the principle that differences would not be allowed to become disputes. Gradually, the strains disappeared. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping met four times in 2018 and the Wuhan Summit became a turning point.

Gokhale managed to do a splendid job of reviving ties. He turned the relationship around not only with China, but also Nepal, which had been driven to adopt an anti-Indian stand and lean towards Beijing.

The tonal similarity in MEA's statement and that of Bambawale suggest that the latter and the Foreign Secretary are on the same wavelength; and remain one in striving to strengthen and deepen China-India relations. Both favour pursuing new and non-confrontational ways to not just staying engaged with China but building on the gains made so far without letting differences and deficiencies become obstacles.

At a time when the GoI is faced with the issue of how to deal with China – which is of critical importance after Pulwama, the air strikes and China's hold on blacklisting Azhar – Bambawale has come up with a map for moving forward beyond Wuhan.

Both India and China, as he observes, have to “navigate incredibly difficult waters” to get along. India’s best way forward, including on the Azhar issue, is a transactional approach to dealing with China; which will permit the listing if India can do something in return for China; and, strike a bargain.

His set of suggestions, which has attracted attention among observers of Sino-Indian ties is called the 'Pune Plan of Action on India-China Relations'. It is a path-breaking plan, which includes: continued, intense high-level political interaction; enhanced and expanded military exchanges; boosting Chinese tourism to India; promoting sale of Indian films and yoga, both of which are popular in China; drawing more Chinese students to Indian universities; creating a financial model for Chinese firms to modernise Indian railway stations; persuading China to join the International Solar Alliance; and, expanding engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Such a transactional approach, based solely on pursuit of mutual interests with tangible outcomes, may succeed in securing China's support for India's interests in world bodies. It would also be more rewarding than giving in to outrage, indignation and knee-jerk reactions like boycott of Chinese goods. Above all, such a course would signify that the leadership and relationship of the two countries have attained a sustainable level of strategic maturity.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

Shastri Ramachandaran

The author, Editorial Consultant for WION, is a political and foreign affairs commentator.

Story highlights

Sino-Indian relations were tense in 2017 and hit a low point with the Doklam stand-off. It was an uphill task to retrieve the situation and revive steps for strengthening ties, which India managed to do by adhering to the principle that differences would not be allowed to become disputes.