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Posted at: May 17, 2018, 12:01 AM; last updated: May 17, 2018, 12:01 AM (IST)

The road ahead after Wuhan

G Parthasarthy
India must not its guard while pursuing an altered relationship with China
The road ahead after Wuhan
UNEASY FRIENDSHIP?: From harassing India in the neighbourhood, China''s sudden turn towards friendship looks both alluring and suspicious.

G Parthasarthy

FOREIGN visitors to Beijing, visit the historic Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. It  was a new and interesting experience recently, to meet and interact with Communist Party think tanks like the “China Reform Forum” and training establishments like its Central Party School in Beijing, which was founded in 1933. Mao was one of the founder members of the Party School, which was shut down during his Cultural Revolution, before it was revived in 1977. A Politburo Member heads this school to train Party activists. The “China Reform Forum,” is made up of academics and scholars, apart from former generals and envoys — all with close Communist Party affiliations.

The dominant role of the Communist Party is evident everywhere. Within the Party school, Mao receives deference but the focus is largely on the transformation brought about by Deng Xiao Ping. This led to unparalleled economic growth, with increasing Chinese economic, political and military influence across Asia and indeed, globally. One cannot but be impressed by China's rapidly growing technological and industrial base and its construction capabilities, which now make it highly competitive and sought after, for construction of roads, bridges, dams and cities. Moreover, after decades, China has a leader in Xi Jinping, who has eliminated virtually all opposition and challenges to his leadership. The era of collective leadership is over, as Xi exercises firm control over the Party, government and army. Unlike his predecessors, he regularly visits the Party School.

President Xi's personal invitation to Prime Minister Modi to spend two days in his hometown should be seen in the context of the fact that Xi has welcomed no other foreign leader, to his hometown, in this fashion. At the same time, one should bear in mind that the Chinese do not make such gestures without careful thought and consideration. Does XI, therefore, see Mr Modi as a long-term counterpart in India? More importantly, just how does India figure in China’s calculations? The Chinese have consistently sought to undermine India's quest for influence across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood. Beijing now focuses increasingly on undermining India's position in its own backyard, in the sub-continent. It has looked with concern at India’s growing ties with ASEAN and views its ties with Japan and US with suspicion. Beijing has equipped Pakistan's armed forces, strengthened that country’s nuclear and missile arsenal and acquired a naval base in Gwadar. It has also shielded Pakistan from charges of sponsoring terrorism, while opposing Indian ambitions for securing Permanent Membership of the Security Council. 

International pressures are causing China to think afresh on its relations with India, which have been seriously clouded by periodic intrusions of its army. The most serious of these pressures on China come from the Trump Administration, which has threatened to impose import barriers on an estimated $ 500 billion of Chinese exports, unless China takes action to correct the trade imbalance. China is also concerned about the possible outcome of the forthcoming talks between Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Any rapprochement could impair China's dominant influence in the neighbouring Korean Peninsula. China is also evidently realising that its much touted “Belt and Road” is increasingly seen as lacking transparency and being exploitative, not only by the US, Japan and India, but also by European Powers and a number of aid recipients, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

China’s stated desire to build bridges with India has to be seen in the light of these developments. Moreover, Beijing's intrusion in Doklam is seen globally as an embarrassing setback for China. New Delhi has, therefore, opted to explore possibilities for reducing tensions on its eastern and northern borders with China. The existing confidence building measures along the borders can be used to ensure that a faceoff between the opposing sides is ended immediately, by mutual disengagement, instead of leading to prolonged standoffs and confrontations. India should, however, combine these steps with continuing discussions on resolving the border issue through demarcation of the Line of Actual Control and through the provisions of the 2005 Agreement between Prime Ministers containing the provisions for reaching a border settlement. These provisions provide that the border should lie along “well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and that the due interests of “settled populations in the border areas” will be safeguarded. There will necessarily be some exchanges of disputed territories bereft of populations, which is inevitable.

India will have to press China hard to secure market access in areas like pharmaceuticals and agricultural products. The balance of trade can also be addressed by agreements to promote Chinese investments in joint ventures in consumer electronics and other areas where current imports are unnecessary and unsustainable. Moreover, given China's geopolitical ambitions, New Delhi should have no hesitation in reaching out to partners like the US, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, France, Germany and UK to balance growing Chinese power, across the Indo-Pacific Region. China has continuously backed political favourites who are not necessarily well disposed towards India, in South Asia. Like Pakistan, China has been close to Begum Khaleda Zia and her Islamist pro-Pakistani supporters in Bangladesh. It would be interesting to study Chinese moves, during forthcoming elections in Bangladesh. 

We would be well advised to stop bragging about our readiness to fight a “two front war”. While testifying before the Parliamentary Committee on Defence, the Army's Vice Chief noted that 65 per cent of the army arsenal is obsolete, adding: “The force lacks the artillery, missiles and helicopters that will enable it to fight on two fronts”. Even existing deficiencies in the import of ammunition are yet to be met. Only 31 of the sanctioned 45 squadrons of the Air Force are in service. At a time when Chinese defence and economic capabilities required augmentation and upgrading, over two decades ago, Deng Xiao Ping wisely advised his countrymen to: “Hide our capabilities and bide our time.”

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