The truth is in the tea
Analysts are pressed to divine meaning in the synchrony of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India with troop manoeuvres on the border
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India was almost a back-to-back event following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful four-day visit to Japan from August 30. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, clearly spared no effort to make Modi’s visit a success. He received Modi in Kyoto and spent a day with him, showing him the sights there. This is quite unusual, given prevailing international protocol norms and Japan’s own traditional reserve. The following day both leaders met in Tokyo in an official setting and several major joint co-operation and assistance initiatives were announced.
The most notable of these was Abe’s announcement of a $35 billion investment in India within the next five years. There also seemed a convergence on security perceptions and the Indian PM made a pointed reference to the expansionist tendencies of some nations: “Encroaching on a country, entering into sea somewhere, entering a country and occupying territory—this expansionism cannot do good to humanity in the 21st century. The path of development is essential and I feel Asia has to lead the world in 21st century, and India and Japan will have to together add to the glory of the path of development.” It was quite clear he was alluding to China, with whom India has a long-pending territorial dispute, as does Japan.
Modi and Shinzo Abe quite significantly also agreed to look into upgrading to a ‘two-plus-two’ format for security dialogue by teaming their foreign and defence ministers. They also directed officials to commence working-level talks on defence equipment and technology cooperation.
The visit of President Xi was originally supposed to begin on September 22, but it was brought ahead as his Pakistan leg had to be scrubbed since the capital of China’s principal ally in the region was under siege by the government’s more militant opponents. This made it the first time a Chinese head of state or government visited India without a balancing visit to Pakistan. Chinese media tried to put a spin on this by suggesting that by not equating India and Pakistan together, the Chinese leader was signalling a change in Chinese attitudes. Few in India were taken in by this.
The Chinese also made much of the fact that President Xi was beginning his official trip with a visit to Modi’s hometown of Ahmedabad instead of the usual and formal first stop at New Delhi. But the Indian media made it known that even President Barack Obama visited Mumbai before he came to New Delhi, and, besides, Modi himself went to Kyoto before Tokyo.
But many more were taken in by the expectation that China would announce a much bigger investment package to trump the Japanese. A couple of days prior to the visit, the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai, Liu Youfa, told the Indian media that Chinese firms were eyeing over $50 billion worth of investments in modernising the Indian railways and running high-speed trains. President Xi, he said, would bring with him $100 billion of investment commitments over five years, nearly three times as much as the $35 billion secured by Modi in Japan.
Like Abe did with him, Modi pulled out all protocol stops to greet Xi and his glamorous wife, singer Peng Liyuan, and even accompanied them on a visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, where Mahatma Gandhi lived. Modi also gifted Xi a Nehru style waistcoat that he wore for the rest of the day, much to the delight of the media, who saw in it a sign of the warmth between the two leaders. But this didn’t last very long.
On that very day, as Modi was getting ready for a banquet in honour of Xi, the Prime Minister was informed that Chinese soldiers had taken up threatening positions on the disputed Sino-Indian border at a remote village called Chumar in Ladakh. After dinner Modi took Xi aside and made it known that this was unacceptable and that the PLA must pull back. By the time the two met in New Delhi the following day, India had moved an infantry battalion to the area to reinforce its garrison. The PLA matched this with an additional deployment of its own. President Xi informed Modi that he had ordered his troops to pull back to defuse the tension. But that has not happened till now.
Obviously there were consequences. The investment proposal announced by Xi turned out to be a much more modest $20 billion and the expectations that he would trump Abe remained just that. Clearly a chill had descended.
The two sides issued separate communiqués and, as if to underscore the evaporated bonhomie, Modi made a pointed reference to the unhappy border situation and urged an early resolution. On his part Xi urged, “When China and India will speak with one voice, the whole world will notice.” He also said, “China and India are important neighbours for each other. The China-India border issue is an issue left over from history and the two sides are fully capable of acting promptly to manage incidents on the border.” He concluded that China has the determination to work with India to settle the boundary question at an early date.
Indian observers are still perplexed by this turn of events. Many here believe that it was deliberate with Xi choreographing it, while others believe that it was a deliberate faux pas by elements within the PLA to weaken Xi. Two PLA appointments by Xi after his return to Beijing lend credence to talk of dissonance within the PLA. PLA generals Li Yuan and Zhang Youxia, both believed to be close to Xi, were promoted and made Vice Chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission and the PLA’s discipline commission, respectively. But on September 21, did President Xi, addressing his military commanders at a conference in Beijing and ordering the PLA to follow the instructions of the President, also ask for improving the PLA’s readiness to fight and win a limited regional war? Observers are still reading the tea leaves.