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Sino-Indian Relations Touch A New Low – Analysis

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Modi’s silence on Xi’s being elected party chief for a third term is but  the latest sign of a deteriorating relationship 

India-China relations, never really happy, are at a new low now. There were signs of a rapprochement in the first six years of Modi’s Premiership, but the situation deteriorated sharply after the deadly clashes on the border in 2020. The relationship is so bad now that Modi and Xi did not even make eye contact at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in Samarkand in September this year. 

And Modi has been silent on Xi’s getting an unprecedented third term as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China this month. He avoided sending a congratulatory message even as other non-Western world leaders did. 

Contrast this with the past. In October 2017, Modi congratulated Xi on the latter’s getting a second term as Communist Party General Secretary. Again, in March 2018, Modi congratulated Xi when he got a second term as President of China. Strangely such bonhomie was displayed even as there was tension on the border and Modi was getting slammed by the opposition for turning a blind eye to Chinese territorial encroachments. 

In the middle of 2017, there had been a 72-day military stand-off in Doklam. But still, Modi and Xi had a bilateral meeting during the 9 th., BRICS summit in the Chinese city of Xiamen. In 2018, the Modi government even sent a message to officials to keep the Tibetan rebel leader Dalai Lama at arm’s length in view of China’s sensitivities. In March 2018, Modi sent a congratulatory message to Xi when the latter got a second term as Chinese President. This was followed by the Wuhan summit in April 2018.

And despite China’s explicit disapproval of the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir (the abrogation of Art 370 in August 2019 had affected its claim to parts of Ladakh), Modi and Xi had a pleasant enough summit at Mamallapuram in October 2019.

But the bludgeoning to death of 20 Indian soldiers at Galwan in June 2020, led to rethinking in New Delhi. India banned scores of Chinese Apps and put Chinese investments under the scanner. In September 2022, when Xi and Modi were at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit, they even avoided eye contact, not to speak of a conversation. China is said to have released a map at that time showing Indian territory as not part of India.  

Ignoring India’s Interests

From India’s point of view, the root of the problem is China’s refusal to accommodate Indian concerns on several sensitive matters. China has been consistently supporting Pakistan against India on the issue of terrorism. China keeps placing on “hold” Indian (and also US) proposals to the UN to designate Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)’s top leaders, including Talha Saeed, son of Hafiz Saeed and Shahid Mehmood, Deputy Chief of a LeT front. As a permanent member of the UNSC, China can do this any number of times and China has a veto too. 

China had objected to the listing of JeM founder Masood Azhar. While the JeM was listed at the UNSC in 2001, and Azhar was mentioned as the group’s founder, he wasn’t designated for several years, The Hindureported. Even after the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 and the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, China kept placing a hold on the UNSC terror listing proposals on Azhar claiming that it had “inadequate information” on Masood Azhar’s terror activities. It was only in May 2019, three months after the February 2019 terror attack in Pulwama (Kashmir) in which 44 Indian paramilitary troops were killed, that China finally withdrew its hold, The Hindu noted.  

Commenting on China’s attitude to terrorism, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ruchira Khamboj told UNSC in August: “Double standards and continuing politicization have rendered the credibility of the (UN) sanctions regime at an all-time low.”

India has been trying hard to get into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) but China would always oppose it saying that the NSG had not arrived at a procedure to admit countries that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India has refused to sign the NPT. However, India believes that Beijing is blocking India only to favor Pakistan which does not want India to get membership.

Intrusion into Sphere of Influence

India is piqued by China’s efforts to gain a foothold in its legitimate “sphere of influence” in South Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Bay of Bengal. 

China’s economic projects in South Asia under the multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been worrying India. China’s inroads in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives through the BRI are seen as security threats by India. Visiting Chinese naval vessels to Sri Lanka are also a matter of deep concern.

China’s Concerns

China, on the other hand, has its own concerns about India. Beijing is deeply disturbed by the Indo-US strategic partnership and the defense agreements signed under it, as these are manifestly directed against it. QUAD is another irritant because it is directed at containing China in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. 

As for India’s objections to China’s expanding its footprints in South Asian countries, China is of the view that every country has the right to cultivate any other country and bid for investments and development projects in any country or any part of a country. China has vigorously challenged India’s bid to stop some Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, especially North Sri Lanka, on security grounds. Indian objections abridge the sovereign rights of Sri Lanka, China contends. 

Change or the Better Unlikely 

Any change in India-China relations is unlikely now or in the foreseeable future given the many unresolved issues. True, the outgoing Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, was sanguine about the future of India-China relations. In his farewell statement Sun said: “It is only natural for China and India having some differences. The key is how to handle the differences. We should be aware that the common interests of the two countries are greater than differences.”

Going further, he said: ” We should enhance communication and cooperation. China and India have established a dialogue mechanism in various levels and departments. We should make full use of all the communication channels, deepen mutual understanding in order to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation. We should expand exchanges and cooperation between our political parties, local governments and social organizations. We should deepen economic and financial cooperation and promote people-to-people exchanges.”  

Indeed, despite conflicts, India-China trade has been growing. In 2021, bilateral trade touched US$ 125.6 billion. But it was heavily in favor of China, Chinese exports to India accounting for US$ 97.5 billion of the US$ 125 billion bilateral trade.   

Ambassador Sun’s propositions are sound but they should be matched by China’s actions on the ground. Indians feel that there has to be peace and tranquility in the border first. China’s propensity to nibble Indian territory should stop. Protection given to known Pakistan-based terrorists should cease.  

Indian External Affairs Minister Dr.S.Jaishankar made this clear to Sun when the latter made a farewell call on his. Jaishankar tweeted: “Received Ambassador Sun Weidong of China for a farewell call. Emphasized that the development of India-China relations is guided by the 3 Mutuals. Peace and tranquility in the border areas is essential.” 

The three “mutuals” are: mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests.  

Influence of Chinese Politics 

China’s domestic political developments have a bearing on relations with India and the world. At the Communist Party’s Congress this month, Xi Jinping gained complete control of the party, government and the military, and demanded that party members get into a “fighting spirit and not be deterred by intimidation or cowed by pressure.” 

Indications are that in his third avatar as leader, Xi will be a hard nut to crack.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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