Doval’s China Visit Realpolitik, Subtlety should be watchword

Syed Ata Hasnain


Any mention of China in Indian strategic circles these days gets ears to prick up. With most countries of the world, excluding Pakistan, we seem to have a comfort level in functioning, negotiating or simply engaging. With China, one can never put a finger to the pulse and claim that we are at a particular stage of our relationship.

The exchange of visits of President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased the threshold of the relationship each time and placed it on a more even keel of enthusiasm, only to see it slip back shortly thereafter. In the backdrop of this overall environment and relationship, a flurry of meetings between Indian political leaders and functionaries with their Chinese counterparts is currently on.

NSA Ajit Doval follows Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to Beijing in quick succession although the two visits are not linked. Doval’s official agenda is to attend the postponed 19th round of talks between the Designated Special Representatives under the process started in 2003 for the resolution of the border dispute. The 18th round was held in March 2015 and the current one was supposed to be held in early January 2016. It was postponed following the Pathankot terrorist attack.  This visit and set of talks are being conducted under the shadow of some significant events, which may not dictate the course or outcome but definitely have a bearing on the atmospherics which are so necessary for such parleys.

India’s erudite and graceful Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj did not mince words during her just concluded meeting with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, at the Russia India China (RIC) summit at Moscow. The issue was China’s second effort in assisting Pakistan at the UNSC on the sticky issue of sponsored terrorism. Last year, China blocked India’s move at the UN for sanctions against Pakistan after Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who masterminded the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, was released from jail.

Now, it has used a flimsy technical point to prevent Maulana Azhar Masood being designated an international terrorist.  The issue of Pakistan sponsored terrorism is a touchy one with India. Despite being one of the oldest sufferers of terrorism it has never been able to diplomatically nail Pakistan, the perpetrator of proxy war. China’s taking up cudgels on behalf of Pakistan has much to do with other link events, not the least being the cozying up between India and the US in the form of the emerging Strategic Partnership.

Doval will no doubt be discussing the border issue which is now at the stage when a framework is being worked out to include the various parameters which will go into the technical aspects of working out a border formula acceptable to both countries. But the attention in the foreign offices will be more on the other issues as both sides are hardly likely to be coming up with any major breakthroughs on the border dispute; perhaps even the atmospherics may not be right for any positive developments in that field because that would be counter to China’s current concerns. The one positive is the reduced activity on the Line of Actual Control with incursions becoming far and few but it takes a few days to reverse this.

Let us face it squarely. Doval, will be discussing among other things, the emerging India-US Strategic Relationship which is causing concern to the Chinese. Yet, China is hardly the country to speak openly and frankly. It is a master at strategic communication and conveys its perception through selected words and actions. In words it decided recently to speak through the medium of an article in the state run Global Times, poking fun at India’s strategic dilemma of remaining equidistant between important world powers. In fact it described India as wishing to remain as the ‘most beautiful woman’ who wishes to be wooed by all powers.

In areas of its strategic interest, China carefully uses drawn back hard power for strategic communication, as seen in its dealings with various powers involved in the dispute over the islands of the South China Sea. A heating up of the border on the China-India front can always be expected. However, going beyond the threshold may well drive India more firmly into the US camp, something which China may not wish to see. It is carefully observing the dilemma that India is facing in making its choices.

Doval will probably explain to what length India is willing to reverse its long established policy of not allowing its territory being used for bases by another power. The Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), yet to be signed and in fact postponed for final decision by two months, threatens to completely reverse a long standing dictum of Indian foreign policy.

Manohar Parrikar, before this may have explained India’s intended response to the US PACOM Commander Admiral Harris’ invitation to India to join the US and others in maritime patrolling, an action a couple of notches higher than joint exercises. Doval is not known to be defensive by nature and will obviously raise issues of India’s concern too. Chief among them is the current hot subject of Masood Azhar. Some quid pro quo could be possible but usually China rarely steps back on its support to Pakistan’s strategic interests. It has major interests in cultivating Pakistan for many reasons including the intended success of the New Silk Route, of which the strategic China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a major arm.

The CPEC is the next sticky issue. The $46 bn investment by China for greater connectivity to the Indian Ocean and West Asia passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, an area to which India lays claim. China’s strategic interests in the infrastructure of CPEC is far greater than its concerns about India’s objections which are unlikely to cut ice. Yet India must not desist from raising the issue to counter some of China’s allegations.

China is increasingly touchy about security issues. The downturn in its economy without the benefits of development adequately reaching the hinterland or western China continues to rankle. Then is the US intent to ‘Rebalance’, focus on the Indo-Pacific and establish the ‘Pivot of Asia’ which brings both leading world powers closer to potential conflict of interests. China is therefore sensitive to US efforts to maintain asymmetry in the maritime zone and establish control of the seas through strategic partnerships with ASEAN countries, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Although India’s maritime capability is just sufficient to defend its island territories and its other strategic interests in the area between the Straits of Malacca and the Persian Gulf, it joining the combined naval might of the US partners will put it directly in the path of confrontation with China. Veiled warnings on this have been conveyed over long by China but India has continued to keep ambivalence as its chosen policy. Sooner than later a choice will have to be made and it will be contingent upon China’s overall stance in the mutual relationship.

Doval is obviously going to be busy working the intricacies of the border protocols and finding the way ahead. His perceptions on the border issue conveyed during a lecture last year were apparently not too well taken by the Chinese.

However, given the international strategic environment he too would want to listen to the Chinese perception of things which usually turns out to be crisp and curt. With the Minister of External Affairs having adequately conveyed India’s concern on Azhar Masood, a reiteration by the NSA may reinforce India’s core concern about nation’s security which definitely has terror as one of the main components.

There is no need to be squeamish about it as this is a realpolitik requirement. Time and inclination permitting, areas such as Afghanistan would probably be discussed. China’s almost surgical ignorance of the Afghan issue does not convey its real intent.

Whatever the NSA conveys, the one thing India must learn from China is the fine art of strategic communication. A few words spoken to leave others guessing and a few gestures to convey broad intent is the system that China follows and it meets its strategic needs more than adequately.



Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) is the former Corps Commander of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, and is currently associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group, two major strategic think tanks of Delhi



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