Xi & South Asia: what’s new? what’s not? «

Xi & South Asia: what’s new? what’s not?

October 9 to 14, 2020: Chinese President Xi Jinping, decidedly one of the most powerful top two persons in the world with an assured lifelong Presidency in his country, had his diary this way: two days with Pak PM Imran Khan in China, two days with Indian PM in Mammalapuram (India), and two days with Nepali PM Oli in Kathmandu.
And in the process, he reiterated Sino-Pak bromance (‘iron friends’), kept India guessing on possibilities ‘in the realm of near future’ and cemented his goal of making Nepal a gateway for China and a showcase of Chinese ‘belt and road project’. Superb diplomacy by the man who speaks just one language runs China with a single-minded authoritarian doggedness, considers the USA as his only rival, and is determined to leave an authoritarian stamp all across the world and enter every household of the world with Chinese goods which are cheap but good for a limited tenure.
It is almost a post-modern state capitalist imperialism of sorts he aims for whereby Chinese goods must dominate the world market, China out-competes all-in pricing, cheap labor, and technological novelty or replication, and Chinese military power ensures its strategic advantage in all its disputes with some 23 nations in Asia.
Beijing sandwiched Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping’s informal summit between Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s yet another tour of China and Xi’s first visit to Nepal. China, at present, has Pakistan practically in its stride and is trying to win over Nepal with huge investments in infrastructure – something that the Himalayan nation lacks. India might not like it but doesn’t have many options, particularly at a time when economic slowdown has tied the hands of the Modi government.
During Imran Khan’s visit, China made two U-turns. First, it dropped the reference to the UN Security Council resolution with regard to Kashmir as it announced Xi Jinping’s schedule for an informal meeting with Narendra Modi. It had been harping on the UNSC resolutions since the Modi government’s decision to scrap the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August through a recast of Article 370. Strangely again, Xi Jinping had a meeting with Imran Khan and in the joint statement came back the UNSC reference over Kashmir. India voiced a strong protest but it could not have gone to the extent of deferring the informal summit now.
PM Imran Khan wrapped up his successful visit to China during which he held important meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and other top leadership and discussed bilateral strategic and economic cooperation. He also met with prominent Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen and offered them incentives for investment in projects under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a demonstrative project under BRI.
Pakistan and China agreed to enhance cooperation in the United Nations, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and other multilateral mechanisms to uphold regional peace and stability. Both sides agreed to advance the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), started during Nawaz Sharief’s time, by ensuring high quality. They agreed to build the CPEC into an exemplary and demonstrative project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The two countries signed many cooperation documents including those in infrastructure building, law enforcement, security, culture, education, and media, he added.
Beyond the optics of bonhomie – which was an extension of the Wuhan Summit of 2018 — between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, the Chinese leader played tough and sought to have his way. How much he succeeds will depend on the future course of India-China relations.
Keywords that were told after the two days long informal summit between Chinese President and Indian PM are the following: a new beginning for cooperation (Modi), manager their differences prudently (Modi), right decision to have such summits (Xi), deeper strategic communication and more effective practical cooperation ahead (Xi), work together in facing radicalization and terrorism (Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale), both to enhance trade volume and identify areas of investments (Gokhale), and new mechanism coming to discuss trade, investment and services ahead (Gokhale).
All in good spirit, though without any concrete firm decision. A lot of optics and rhetoric without great substance, though in the current scenario between India and China, such steps also are useful. On completion of Xi Jinping’s India visit, the state-owned Xinhua quoted the Chinese president as saying, “Dragon and the elephant dance is the only correct choice for China and India” while advocating to deal with the differences “in a correct way”. The report did not explain the “differences” or the “correct way”. Both now depends on the definition given by Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping’s Nepal visit was the most forceful attempt by China to date to wean the Himalayan nation to Chinese fold. This was the first visit by a Chinese president in 23 years. The last visit was when Nepal was still experimenting with parliamentary democracy and heavily depended on India for everything. India still remains the largest trade partner of Nepal and is its gateway to the world but under Xi Jinping, China is trying to dislodge India from its over-arching position. During Xi Jinping’s visit, China promised to invest about $500 million or nearly 56 billion Nepali Rupees in infrastructure and development projects over the next two years.
Nepal and China on Sunday inked 18 agreements and two letters of understanding of exchange, including a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the feasibility study of China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway project and another with the China International Development Cooperation Agency on tunnels construction cooperation. The other agreements focused on strengthening bilateral cooperation in the field of mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, railroad connectivity, and investment. Xi also promised the construction of the Rasuwagadhi-Chhare-Kathmandu tunnel and up-gradation of Araniko highway.
China also pushed for Nepal’s greater cooperation in Belt and Road Initiative. A trans-Himalayan corridor is in the offing. This will connect Lhasa — the Tibetan capital — with Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. From Kathmandu, the trans-Himalayan corridor of road and rail network would reach, as per plan, Lumbini – the birthplace of Gautam Budhha – on the India-Nepal border.
One of the arguments here is that by traversing Nepal and reaching up to the Indian border, China wants to put pressure on India to join its BRI project. Without Indian support, the massive Chinese One Belt One Road project would not achieve its objective of having a common transport route of global trade.
From Nepal, Xi Jinping served a warning to pro-Dalai Lama Tibetan activists. The Dalai Lama is the symbol of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule since the early 1950s. He stays in India – at Dharmashala, from where a Tibetan government-in-exile functions. In Nepal, Xi Jinping said any attempt to split China will be “crushed”. This was more a message to Nepal and India than the Tibetans sneaking through the China-Nepal border in Tibet.
Seen as a complete package, the three diplomatic engagements of Xi Jinping had a hidden message for India: China is the new global boss and India should reassess its adversarial or friendly relation with its northern neighbor.
Any major break-through with China for India is well neigh impossible. So, start small. Make the 70th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between India and China in 2020 a major occasion for track 2 and cultural relations. Make small military confidence-building measures on the borders. Try reducing the $54 billion trade deficit between China and India to be reduced. Allow Chinese investors to come to India (many are interested and facing bureaucratic hurdles). Ensure their ease of business. Promote each other’s culture, heritage, art, philosophy, cuisine, and cinema. Try increasing Indian exports to China. Explore if Chinese support can be taken in building high-end public infrastructure in India. Let trouble spots like Kashmir or South China Sea etc be out of discussions for the moment. Build consensus on common challenges before the world. Present a strong face of Asia in the global context.
Let the hype and hoopla of the form not over-shadow the substance of the relationship between India and China in uncertain times. More so, China is six times the Indian economy and a few times stronger in the conventional military (both being Nuclear powers), and there is a power asymmetry that cannot be wished away.

The author is a columnist and television commentator and is working currently as the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Kolkata based Adamas University, being earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities, and a Ford Foundation Research Scholar.