An “unproductive dialogue” until it is based on some strategy

March 04, 2017 05:26 AM

WRITER: MK Bhadrakumar*
The India-China Strategic Dialogue held in Beijing last week was not productive. But Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said in his statement not less than four times that his talks with Chinese officials were “useful”. Nuances are what make diplomacy an absorbing pastime. 

The Chinese side assessed positively that the two sides “pledged to enhance cooperation… agreed to cement coordination on international and regional affairs and properly deal with differences and sensitive issues”. Foreign minister Wang Yi said the two sides should “advance strategic contact and reinforce mutual trust to contribute to regional and global prosperity and stability”. Significantly, state councillor Yang Jiechi received the Foreign Secretary.

We are in an interregnum where the government’s approach toward China has reached a cul-de-sac. This happened largely because of Azhar and the CPEC. Both issues make demands on China’s crucial relationship with Pakistan and it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to accommodate us. We need to change tack. This needs some explaining.

The Foreign Secretary gave a more detailed media briefing. He sounded cautiously optimistic about a “more stable, substantive, forward-looking India-China relationship which would inject a greater amount of predictability into the international system”. He somewhat played down the differences over the issue of India’s membership of the NSG and the UN sanctions on Masood Azhar. On the other hand, he highlighted a separate session on Afghanistan and forcefully voiced our unhappiness over trade deficit.

The talks in Beijing might help India strategise a new approach to relations with China. The talks served a useful purpose if they provide stimulus to review our China policies. Time will tell. We are in an interregnum where the government’s approach toward China has reached a cul-de-sac. This happened largely because of Azhar and the CPEC. Both issues make demands on China’s crucial relationship with Pakistan and it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to accommodate us. We need to change tack. This needs some explaining.

Indian diplomats would know that the “blacklisting” of Azhar by the UN will bring India no tangible gains. Nonetheless, we made Azhar’s blacklisting a litmus test of China’s credentials in the fight against global terrorism. This approach was incomprehensible.

The Foreign Secretary flagged after the talks that Azhar issue is now “really being pursued by other countries, not India alone” and that those other countries are “pressing this application” to include the fugitive Pakistani criminal on the UN’s blacklist. Indian newspapers reported recently that these “other countries” are three veto-holding permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain and France.

If this is really so, it makes wonderful news. We have a window of opportunity here to remove Azhar from the litany of irritants in the bilateral India-China discourse. We should now simply lead from the rear the forthcoming charge of the three P-5 powers on Azhar. This sounds funny, but then, this is also the theatre of the absurd. If Azhar has de facto graduated as a figure in the pantheon of global terrorists, being an issue affecting international security, the onus is henceforth on the big powers — in particular, US President Donald Trump, the scourge of terrorists the world over — to circumscribe Azhar’s activities.

The big powers recently removed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, “Butcher of Kabul”, from the UN’s watch list. The US took the initiative to add Gulbuddin to the UN list 15 years ago, and now in its wisdom sought to set him free so that he returns to mainstream politics in his country and, some say, contests the next Afghan presidential election. Azhar, perhaps, can take Hekmatyar’s slot.

Indeed, India’s war on terrorism has a surreal touch. This war cannot be fought at the UN or by tilting at China. It is to be fought long and hard on the ground. We managed to get Pakistani terrorists embargoed previously too, did it help?    

However, the CPEC is an altogether different matter. China will not have second thoughts on it. Around $12 billion has been reportedly disbursed. It is not only the flagship of One-Belt One-Road, an initiative that carries the imprimatur of President Xi, but is also a key template of China’s global strategies. It absorbs China’s surplus industrial capacities, while also strengthening China’s political bonding with Pakistan and provides a gateway to the world market.

China hopes that India would cooperate with the OBOR. While in Beijing, the Foreign Secretary disclosed that China had invited PM Modi to participate in the OBOR summit in May. The invitation is under consideration. But the Foreign Secretary added tauntingly that Beijing must explain how Modi could possibly attend the summit so long as China “violated” India’s sovereignty over POK and Gilgit-Baltistan.

How real is this business of India’s “territorial sovereignty”? A good way of knowing will be by consulting Japanese PM Shinzo Abe. Japan and Russia, World War II “enemies” (like India and Pakistan), have still not concluded a peace treaty, because they cannot find a solution to the dispute over Kuril Islands, which Russia seized in the last phase of the war and is controlling. Abe calculated that Russia’s keenness to attract Japanese investments and technology for the development of backward regions of Siberia and Russian Far East could be the carrot he should dangle in front of Moscow.

If Abe had an Indian mindset, he’d have vented his frustration by teaming up with the Obama administration’s containment strategy against Russia. He would have made Kuril an issue of “territorial sovereignty”. Instead, Abe reasoned out that although political rule is territorial, territoriality does not necessarily entail the practices of total mutual exclusion. Abe is open to considering the issue in the regional setting in the context of the volatility of the world economy and the emergence of political currents outside the framework of territorial states. Meanwhile, Abe also understands that Russia may not ever hand back the Kuriles. Therefore, as a far-sighted statesman, he believes he owes it to his people not to fall into the “territorial trap” but be realistic.

Thus, Abe announced in Tokyo on February 1 that Japan and Russia will carry out joint economic activities at the four Kuril Islands. “Through this activity, we will be able to strengthen mutual understanding and trust, and it will be a great advantage in our path toward signing a peace treaty,” he explained. Chanakya would have commended Abe on his empirical knowledge.

The emerging spatial form over the Kuril makes a timely case study for our Chanakyas in South Block, as it may help cut the Gordian knot of the CPEC so that Modi participates in the OBOR summit and opens a productive chapter in the Sino-Indian partnership.

*The writer is a former diplomat

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