The eastern Ladakh border standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries erupted on May 5, 2020, following a violent clash in the Pangong lake area. Photograph:( Zee News Network )
The BRI summit will remain important punctuation in this uneasy relationship between the two Asian giants.
The Indian politico-diplomatic policy contour, in relation to two major events slated for end April in the Chinese calendar, is indicative of a carefully nuanced posture that Delhi is adopting towards Beijing, even as the world’s largest democracy is in the middle of a major national election.
The Modi led NDA government is in caretaker mode and a new Prime Minister will assume office after May 23 but some import-laden Indian policies that are unfolding this week warrant scrutiny.
On April 23 (Tuesday), two Indian naval ships – the INS Kolkata, a guided-missile destroyer and INS Shakti the fleet tanker will be part of the International Fleet Review (IFR) that China is conducting off Qingdao as part of the 70th-anniversary celebrations of the PLA Navy. Chinese President Xi Jinping will review the 50 naval ships assembled from 13 nations (excluding the host) on Tuesday. Major foreign navies represented at the PLA(N) IFR include Russia, Japan and India and some ASEAN nations. It may be recalled that India had conducted an IFR in February 2016 that saw 100 ships from 50 navies anchored off Visakhapatnam and the assemblage included two PLA(N) frigates.
International fleet reviews are a demonstration of a nation’s politico-diplomatic and military credibility as also acceptability and China is engaged in a similar pursuit against the backdrop of regional anxiety and unease over the kind of military assertiveness that Beijing has demonstrated in recent years in relation to its territorial claims in the East Asia-western Pacific continuum.
But in contrast to this friendly overture apropos the Qingdao IFR, Delhi has decided that India will not be part of the second OBOR (one belt-one road) summit being held in Beijing later in the week (April 26). This summit meeting has been billed as the biggest diplomatic event for China in 2019 and is acknowledged as a hugely ambitious personal project of President Xi Jinping that has complex strategic implications linked to the ‘rise of China’.
Delhi had stayed away from the inaugural summit in 2017 due to the manner in which India’s sovereignty claims over POK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) were ignored among other concerns. Yet given the manner in which the post-Doklam tension was sought to be assuaged at the informal Xi-Modi summit Wuhan, it was expected that India would review its non-participation at the second OBOR (aka Belt and Road Initiative) summit.
However, in what was seen as a major disappointment for Beijing, earlier in March, the Indian ambassador to China Vikram Misri explained the rationale for the Indian refusal to be part of the 2019 summit. Misri noted: "Above all, connectivity initiatives must be pursued in a manner that respects the sovereignty, equality and territorial integrity of nations".
He further added: "No country can participate in an initiative that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. To be honest, we have made no secret of our views and our position on the BRI is clear and consistent and one that we have conveyed to the authorities concerned.”
It is understood that most of the global community would be present at the second BRI summit, including nations with whom China currently has an uneasy or tense relationship including the USA and Japan and India’s determined ‘absence’ would be visible.
The inference that could be made is that by adopting two very different policy options in relation to the PLA (Navy) IFR on April 23 and the BRI summit on April 26, Delhi is signalling both malleability and resolve in what may be described as an ‘issue-based’ and carefully calibrated approach in its overall China policy.
In yet another development, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has set up a new division designated the Indo-Pacific and it is understood that this division will integrate policies pertaining to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and deliberations related to the Quad. The latter refers to maritime/naval consultations between the USA, Japan, India and Australia.
The Indo-Pacific is both a geographic entity that links the two oceans – the Indian and the Pacific; and a nascent strategic construct mooted by the USA in some detail in October 2017. The Indian formulation in relation to the Indo-Pacific was outlined by PM Modi at the Shangri-La dialogue in mid-2018 which dwelt on the centrality of ASEAN in this maritime framework. China has its own reservations about this yoking of the two oceans and the strategic sub-text advanced by the USA and the Indian decision to formally create a new division dedicated to the Indo-Pacific will not go unnoticed.
Managing the bilateral with China will be a major challenge for the next Indian government and the policy contours of end April, as manifest in the IFR and the BRI summit, will remain important punctuation in this uneasy relationship between the two Asian giants.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)