New Delhi, March 31 (newsin.asia): On Sunday, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi completed his six-day tour of South Asia — his first following the pandemic period of over two years. The tour was largely aimed at stocktaking and kickstarting progress in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in this region. This, of course, placed India aside as New Delhi has not yet joined BRI. This, however, was not the only challenge before Wang Yi’s India visit that finally saw him return home almost empty-handed belying initial hopes of his visit marking a breakthrough in their prolonged border negotiations and possibly inviting prime minister Narendra Modi to the coming summit that China plans to host later this year.
To begin with the last leg of his South Asia tour, his visit to Kathmandu clearly reinforced the fact that Nepal has clearly come to be China’s most agreeable friend in this region. This visit saw Wang Yi’s hand over China-funded Pokhara Regional Airport to Nepal and oversee signing of a slew of other agreements. These included China pledging to undertake feasibility study and finance Nepal’s power grid interconnections with new alignments of the Ratamate-Rasuwagadhi-Kerung transmission lines, sending in a medical team for BP Koirala Memorial Cancer Hospital, supply 4 million doses of Sinovac vaccines, make 98 per cent of Nepal’s exports duty-free including standardising safety and health conditions of Nepal’s haulage exports and increasing its annual financial assistance to Nepal.
Both sides agreed to now fully operationalise the Tatopani/Zhangmu and Rasuwagadi/Kerung border trade posts that had become dormant given pandemic restrictions. The two sides also agreed to expedite their high-level visits and other BRI projects; both these were again impacted by last two years of the pandemic. Demonstrating their political bonhomie, in addition to meeting his counterpart Narayan Khadka, Wang Yi also called upon all the top leaders including Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and President Bidya Devi Bhandari as also former prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal and KP Sharma Oli and others providing a ring of celebration to his parleys.
Among few sensitive issues, Wang Yi’s visit was preceded by Nepal’s parliamentary ratification of a US-funded grand of $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact Agreement that Beijing sees as American strategy to engage China’s immediate periphery. Wang Yi used this visit to once again reiterate this concern of Beijing with Nepal’s leaders. None of the other sensitive issues like their border disputes were mentioned or noticed during this visit.
Likewise, this South Asia tour had begun with Wang Yi’s visit to China’s time-tested and closest ally in the region, Pakistan. In spite of prolonged global campaign about China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang autonomous region, Wang Yi was invited to be the chief guest at the 48th session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) hosted by Pakistan. Wang also joined Pakistan’s National Day military parade besides calling upon prime minister Imran Khan and presenting to his counter part Shah Mahmud Qureshi a ‘four-point’ strategy to strengthen ‘iron-clad friendship’ making a glowing kickstart of this tour.
It is only his unannounced visits to Kabul and New Delhi that presented noticeable challenges to Wang Yi — China’s most charming and seasoned diplomat of recent years. Whether intended or not these certainly saw some consternation between him and his interlocutors. Especially, his meeting with Taliban leaders — some of them still being under UN sanctions — became subject of scrutiny amongst Western capitals. Likewise, his India visit was also scrutinised given Western concerns about India’s position on Ukraine being closer to that of China that has become a bone of contention between India and its Western friends. But, if anything, the outcome of Wang Yi’s India visit was to bring relief to Western capitals.
To begin with, given that OIC has had history of anti-India resolutions, Wang Yi’s mention of ‘Kashmir’ in his address invited rather direct and strong criticism from India’s Ministry of External Affairs. This was also to make India view Wang’s presences at Pakistan’s National Day military parade taking note of Pakistan showcasing China’s J-10C fighters and ZDK-03 early warning aircraft, MBT-2000 main battle tanks as also HJ-8 anti-tank and FM-90 air defence missiles and so on.
This may have briefly brought some comfort to the embattled prime minister Imran Khan facing serious no-confidence motion in Pakistan National Assembly yet, this backdrop had certainly complicated the atmospherics for his visit to India where 15 Core Commanders and 8 inter-ministerial Working Group on Consultation and Coordination and three minister level meetings have failed to make much progress beyond there initial military disengagements in north and south of Pangong Tso and Gogra sector.
In this backdrop again, Wang Yi’s stopover in Kabul was also to be read in New Delhi with certain consternation. With the exception of Pakistan foreign minister visiting Kabul last October, Wang Yi’s visit to Kabul made him the first foreign leader to be hosted by pariah Taliban regime that international community — including China and Pakistan — has refused to recognise.
And now, after Islamabad and Tehran, this week will see Beijing hosting the Third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Afghan where India has never been invited. Moreover, China and Pakistan had not attended a similar Regional Dialogue of National Security Advisors convened by New Delhi. So his Kabul visit was to only bring forth another area of mutual contentions.
But Wang Yi’s India visit was not to be any unmitigated disaster either. To the least this visit allowed both sides to carefully assess their mutual equations and may potentially open doors for high-level exchanges to explore a breakthrough that has so far eluded their border negotiations.
While the Chinese side wants both to be guided by a long-term view, focus on win-win strategy and not allow bilateral ties become hostage to border tensions, India suggests bilateral ties to be guided by principles of mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests saying that bilateral ties can not be ‘business as usual’ until peace and tranquility returns at the Line of Actual Control (LoAC).
Also, there is a limited bandwidth where both China and India have held very similar positions on Ukraine crisis and both have had rather close ties with Russia. Both these marked another positive backdrop that allowed Wang Yi to showcase their convergence in pushing for immediate cessation of hostilities and initiation of dialogue on Ukraine crisis. However, on the eve of this visit itself, on a resolution by Russia proposing humanitarian relief for Ukraine in UN Security Council, China had voted in favour while India abstained underlying their differences in this matter.
However, it is their continuing stalemate on border negotiations that have come to be most central to the future of India-China relations with implications for China’s equation with rest of South Asia. This reality for sure was not missed by both sides as they once again just reiterated their respective positions. The failure of dozens of their interactions in last two years in starting military disengagement therefore clearly alludes to the growing redundancy of existing methods and mechanisms that have sustained peace in India-China relations. This clearly calls for are starting a new chapter of their confidence building measures to reestablish their time-tested ‘peace and tranquility’ on their LoAC. The fact that both China and India remains each other’s largest and most powerful neighbours their respective engagements with South Asia surely calls for reviving their novel Informal Summit to explore a breakthrough in their border negotiations.
(The Author is professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and president of Association of Asia Scholars (asiascholars.in) A shorter version of this article was published in Asia Times.)