By Shastri Ramachandaran*
If New Delhi’s intention is to keep Beijing and Washington guessing as to who it favours, then the mixed signals during recent high-level exchanges with both are right on point. Neither Washington nor Beijing can, at a given stage or on a specific issue, say with any certainty which way New Delhi may swing.
The matter of mixed signals is best illustrated by developments surrounding the second visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to New Delhi; the three-high-level official exchanges between India and China – two in Beijing and one in Moscow; and, the wholly avoidable flip-flop in first granting and then revoking the visa to Dolkun Isa, whom Beijing says is a terrorist leader.
Earlier in April, India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was in China on a five-day visit. Parrikar’s visit was not only a high-level one, but the first by a defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was received at a high level and had meetings with his Chinese counterpart General Chang Wanquan of the People’s Liberation Army and top defence officials.
The talks were frank and forthright. Parrikar expressed unhappiness over China’s stand in the UN Security Council on the issue of Masood Azhar, who is wanted for the recent terrorist attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot.
Chinese officials made known their displeasure over India’s position on the South China Sea dispute. These indicate that the meetings were held in a friendly atmosphere, where issues on which the two countries disagree could be raised freely; and without affecting the substantive business on the agenda.
The agenda included a visit by Parrikar to China’s newly-established Western Theater Command, discussions on the India-China Border Defence Cooperation Agreement signed during Antony’s visit in 2013, and the scheduled annual meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. A major positive was India and China moving closer to setting up a military hotline as part of the ongoing efforts to improve border security.
Close on the heels of Parrikar, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval arrived in Beijing on April 20 for the 19th Special Representatives’ Meeting on the China-India Boundary Question with State Councillor Yang Jiechi. The significance of the visit cannot be overstated. By all accounts, Doval’s visit also went off very well.
The significance of these routine meetings lay in the fact that these were taking place against the backdrop of contentious issues, with the potential to cause friction in bilateral relations, which had come to the fore recently.
Another Sino-Indian interaction, around the same time, was in Moscow on April 18, where the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China had gathered for their 14th meeting. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a bilateral meeting where issues of topical concern were discussed in a cordial and friendly atmosphere.
In short, there were no sparks, no jarring notes and no unpleasant surprises sprung by either side in any of the three high-level exchanges between India and China.
Before Parrikar headed to China, India received US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on April 10. His three-day visit, the second after Modi became prime minister, was to wrap up what is generally known as the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA). In principle, India and the U.S. are reported to have resolved and agreed upon all the issues involved.
The LSA is widely viewed as being actuated by the urge to “contain China” and as a necessary first step by India and the US toward a military alliance. The LSA, which involves sharing military bases for logistics, refuelling and repair, is akin to the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) that the US has with some of its NATO allies.
However, India sprang a surprise and pulled back from the brink of signing the agreement, echoing earlier moves. In 2006, India accepted then U.S. president George Bush’s proposal for such an agreement but put off its signing indefinitely. Now, it seems the Modi government has also postponed the matter indefinitely.
This signifies that India is unprepared to cast its lot with the US in any military alliance to “contain China.” This also means that India-US relations have yet to acquire the level of strategic trust required for the LSA. More importantly, shelving the LSA reaffirms the bipartisan consensus in India on issues that affect sovereignty, national security and an independent foreign policy.
Such flip-flops vis-à-vis the U.S. and China are becoming more frequent. India issuing and then cancelling the visa to Isa is another case in point.
But it is hard to tell if this lack of predictability is to India’s advantage or otherwise in taking forward the relationships with both powers, or if it would be better off with a clearer path.
*This article was originally published in China’s Global Times on April 27, 2016 with the headline New Delhi’s diplomatic flip-flops send mixed messages to Beijing and Washington. It is being re-published by arrangement with the writer. He is, among others, an Indian journalist and commentator, and is senior consultant and editor of China-India Dialogue in China International Publishing Group (CIPG).