Over the past week or so South Asia has featured very prominently in China’s diplomacy. This is particularly so concerning its relations with Pakistan, India and Nepal. There was a visit to Beijing by Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, immediately followed by a trip to India and Nepal by President Xi Jinping of China. For Beijing, there was an apparent cementing of bonds with Pakistan, some release of tensions with India, and an opening up of new vistas of cooperation with Nepal. There was the steady but inexorable drive of President Xi Jinping towards the realization of his cherished Zhang-guo Mung or ‘China Dream’. It implied the resurrection of China from centuries of inertia and its repositioning of itself to one of great strength as a contemporary superpower. The past few days saw all Xi’s endeavours directed towards the achievement of that goal.
This set of activities focussed on South Asia for Xi began with his hosting of Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan in Beijing. The already close bilateral ties were witnessing a fruition in the past few years through China’s most important global scheme under the now-famous ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), a key tool for the realization of the ‘China Dream’. But what was now giving it a fillip was the resurgence of the issue of Jammu and Kashmir following India’s decision to revoke that State’s special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, and the ‘lockdown’ of the State in the wake of virulent public protests. For some years now China was moving to a position of near-neutrality between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. It now seems that for a variety of reasons China has decided to come down starkly in favour of Pakistan.
The Chinese position is that the revocation of Article 370 also alters the status of Ladakh which China claims to be disputed territory. It therefore means that China becomes a partner of Pakistan in its opposition to the alteration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Consequently, China was an ardent advocate of the return of the Security Council focus on the Kashmir issue after decades of silence. The recent Council activity in this regard brought to the fore the hitherto largely dormant position of the United Nations Member States, that Kashmir, while being a ‘bilateral issue’ between India and Pakistan, also had several UN resolutions adopted on it that were still relevant. So, on the eve of Xi’s visit to India for an ‘informal summit’ with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Imran Flew to Beijing and, besides the warm reception, was also was given the important reassurance that “China is paying close attention to the situation in Kashmir and the issue should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN Charter”.
New Delhi was perturbed as the sharp reactions indicated. However, the exigencies of political imperatives forced it to keep its cool. Indeed, Modi pulled out all the stops to make Xi welcome in the historic town of Mamallapuram in Tamilnadu for the second ‘informal summit’ the first having taken place in Wuhan in China in April last year. The resplendence of Xi’s reception was evidence in the extravaganza that accompanied it. The cultural skits at 34 or so spots along xi’s route, the arrests of a number of Tibetan dissenters and potential presenters, the pageantry and protocol, all indicated that Modi was out to please the visitor. Modi spoke of the current ‘Chennai Connect’ (in line with the Indian predilection for alliteration, note the ‘Howdy Modi’ fanfare in Texas!), hoping that it would ‘lead to the start of a new era of cooperation…”. Xi’s response was cautious and correct. He described their talks as ‘candid’, ‘heart-to -heart’, ‘in-depth’ and ‘good’. A careful parsing of the expressions would display a studied avoidance of exuberance.
There was a ninety-minute one on one meeting between the two leaders. Also, a conference of the two delegations. But the differences were too fundamental to be overcome in course of the 24 hours, the duration of the visit. The press release at the end of the talks mentioned 16 ‘important outcomes’, not necessarily agreements. The borders, Kashmir, trade, remained issues that continued to hang fire. However, there was a definite attempt to mollify India’s concern at the huge trade deficit. It was decided to establish a high-level mechanism with the objective of achieving enhanced trade and commercial relations. Another significant aspect was the commitment of both sides to a ‘rules-based multilateral trading system’, which was a muted criticism of the policies of President Donald Trump of the United States. They also agreed to “advancing a rule- based and inclusive world order, including through reforms that reflect the new realities of the 21st century”, language doubtlessly carefully crafted by the Sherpas (senior bureaucrats) of the Summiteers which tried to reflect a common position through a ‘motherhood statement’ that no one would contend! It seemed that the biggest ‘take-away’ from the summit was that China and India would cooperate when mutual self-interest dictated it , but the relationship would not be one with any marked emotive content.
This emotive content was far more salient and noticeable when Xi followed up the Indian trip with a 2-day visit to Nepal, a natural buffer country between the two States, for whose affections both China and India have been battling for decades. In this contest, the one with deeper pockets, China, unsurprisingly, now appears to be winning. While India actually accounts for two-thirds of Nepal’s trade, and remains the sole supplier of fuel, China has been funding huge projects such as roads and hydropower projects. In course of Xi’s visit, the first to this country by a Chinese President in over twenty years, as many as 20 deals were signed. These included a rail link to Tibet and a tunnel that would enhance Sino-Nepalese connectivity, and reduce India’s dominance over trade-routes. Xi also announced a 3.5 billion yuan in aid over the next three years for upliftment of the living standards of the Nepalese people. Nepal thus became firmly incorporated in the BRI. The Nepalese, including President Bidya Devi Bhandari and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, with his penchant for favouring a distance from New Delhi, were delighted with the visit’s outcome.
For an unexplained reason, Xi also chose Nepal to make a puzzlingly strong statement, clearly by no means meant for the hosts, but obviously as a stern warning aimed at unnamed and unfriendly nations and peoples. He said: ‘Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones…and any external forces backing and attempts at dividing China will be deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming’. Alas ,the gentler language of diplomacy appears to be under severe stress from superpower leadership of our contemporary times.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh