ON June 18 the Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui took diplomatic watchers by surprise with an elaborate but a contentious statement suggesting a trilateral summit under Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to settle boundary issues between India and Pakistan. The occasion and the context in which the envoy made the comment left little doubt that it was not an off the cuff remark. He was speaking at a seminar organised by the Chinese Embassy on the subject, ‘Beyond Wuhan: How Far and Fast Can China-India Relations Go’.
India was quick to dismiss the statement as “personal opinion” of the envoy while reiterating that all issues between India and Pakistan are to be settled bilaterally and that there was no scope whatsoever for a third party intervention. Response of New Delhi to the suggestion of the Chinese envoy was restrained and matter of fact. In the past India had strongly rejected similar ideas as tantamount to interference in the internal affairs of the country. Even China sought to distance itself from the speech of its envoy but there were few takers for the avowal.
What is one to make out of the public expression of the Chinese envoy? The question assumes significance in the light of the recent bonhomie witnessed between the two countries at the highest level. First was the extraordinary gesture on the part of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the last week of April to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a two-day informal summit at Wuhan in Hubei Province. The Summit without any scripted agenda had raised high hopes of a new beginning in the relations of the two countries.
It was followed by yet another informal meeting between the Chinese Premier and the Indian Prime Minister on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Qingdao, in the second week of June. At the meeting, the Chinese President accepted the invitation extended by Modi to visit India for an informal meeting, similar to the one in Wuhai, in 2019.
In his remarks, the Chinese envoy made out as if the idea for a trilateral summit had emanated from the Indian side. Albeit he kept it vague as to whether these quarters included the Indian establishment. “Some Indian friends suggested that India, China, and Pakistan may have some kind of trilateral summit on the sidelines of the SCO. So, if China, Russia, and Mongolia can have a trilateral summit, then why not India, China, and Pakistan,” the Chinese Ambassador to India was quoted as saying.
The envoy batted for a joint effort to maintain peace along the border: “We cannot stand another Dokalam incident.” He also praised Modi’s remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue. At the conference, Modi had said that Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together with trust and confidence while being sensitive to each other’s interests.
“Modi made a speech in Shangri-La which sent a positive message to China. In Qingdao, the two leaders agreed to hold a second round of informal summit next year. This is the most significant outcome of the Qingdao meeting,” Zhaohui said and went on to add, “Strategic communications, meetings and heart-to-heart dialogues are important. What’s equally important is to implement the consensus, transmit (the) leaders’ personal friendship down to the people, and take more concrete actions. The Qingdao meeting has shown the right direction.”
Zhaohui said that India and China are neighbours that “cannot be moved away”. “We are most populous and largest developing countries. We shared a historic glory of friendly interactions. We also have pending boundary issues. Our relations, so multifaceted and complicated, call for special care and attention,” he said.
The Chinese Ambassador argued that India and China have to follow five Cs to improve relations—communication, cooperation, contacts, coordination, and control. In a tweet he said, “China-India relations have gone beyond bilateral scope. We have broad converging interests and face common challenges in Asia and beyond. We need to enhance coordination and cooperation in SCO, BRICS and G20, and join hands to tackle global challenges,” he said.
The remarks came almost a year after the troops of India and China were locked in a 73-day standoff in Doklam. In June 2017, the Indian side stopped the construction of a road by the Chinese Army in the disputed area. The face-off ended in the last week of August.
At the meeting ahead of the SCO summit, the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President held detailed discussions on several subjects of mutual interest.
They included measures needed to avoid future Doklams, China blocking India’s move to get Pakistan-based JeM chief Masood Azhar banned by the United Nations, and its opposition to India’s bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership.
Does the unambiguous statement of the Chinese envoy on trilateral Summit under the aegis of SCO indicate attempt by Beijing to push New Delhi endorse its prestigious China’s One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative. In the eight-nation SCO meet, India refused to back China’s Belt and Road initiative for which Beijing had signed agreements with over 80 countries and international organisations.
Since 1988, which marked the first visit of the than Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi since 1962 at that level, there have attempts to redefine the relations between the two nations, giants not just in terms of population but also the size of the economy. After post-9/11 world, another attempt at reset was made by Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit in June 2003. A declaration was issued on “principles for relations and comprehensive cooperation”, where it was asserted that “differences should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations”.
MODI sought to give a new push to ties with Beijing through a lavish welcome to Xi in Gujarat during his September 2014 visit. However, it did not amount to much as it was overshadowed by a Chinese incursion in Chumar, Ladakh.
India has also concerns over the trade deficit. The growing footprint of China in India’s neighbourhood, particularly Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives and Bangladesh is a cause of deep unease for New Delhi.
China on its part is sensitive to what it perceives as New Delhi’s encouragement to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala. In a bid to assuage concerns of China on this front, in March, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a “classified circular advisory advising all ministries/departments of Union government as well as State governments not to accept any invitation or to participate in the proposed commemorative events” organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala in April.
Given the history of differences and distrust between the two countries on a number of subjects particularly post-1962, it is naïve to assume any dramatic change in the equations.