Diplomatic Enclave: Starting a new chapter
India and China have to take steps to put behind them the strong sentiments aroused during their face-off

The Dokhlam crisis ended a month ago with Indian and Chinese troops disengaging from their confrontation, but the ripples have not died down. The troops moved back from their eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation to several arms-length distance, but there are indications of the Chinese troops planning to stay on in the winter instead of withdrawing to usual posts.

Both India and China have to take steps to put behind them the strong sentiments aroused during their face-off. Chinese Ambassador Luo Zhaohui suggested that China and India should start a new chapter of reconciliation and cooperation. It is the job of any envoy to promote good relations with the country where he is based. But the Chinese Ambassador would not have made such a proposal without government approval. At a Chinese National Day function, Luo said that India and China should turn the old page and start a new chapter with the same pace and direction. 

However, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stance has been quite at variance with the Ambassador. The Chinese army did not hold the customary event on its national day last week. The Chinese army did not invite the Indian side for the border personnel meeting on October 1 nor did they respond to the Indian invitation for Independence Day celebrations on August 15, a practice that has been in place following an agreement in 2005.

The prolonged stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam has disturbed the equilibrium that existed in the region between India, China and Bhutan. The Bhutan government had backed India through the crisis, but several niggling issues in relations with India were aired for the first time in public, particularly in the social media that need to be addressed. Bhutan is due to hold its 25th round of border talks with China this year. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar visited Bhutan earlier this week for the first official visit to the country since the Chinese entered Bhutanese territory at Doklam. Aside from discussions on Bhutan’s next five-year plan, there is the matter of Bhutan’s large holding of demonetised currency and the problems faced by Bhutanese traders with the Indian goods and services tax. Bhutanese and Nepali nationals are allowed to hold Indian currency but have not been able to convert the demonetised notes. The matter is still to be resolved by the RBI. 

Japan had indicated its support to India during the Doklam face-off and the government rolled out the red carpet in a euphoric welcome to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his visit to Ahmedabad.  But New Delhi took care not to irritate Beijing with any reference to the South China Sea dispute in the joint statement issued.  The Japanese side went along with India’s reluctance to mention the South China Sea issue while the statement reiterated Indian concerns over terrorism.

At the same time, Japan has taken careful steps for reconciling its ties with China; Abe was a surprise guest at the Chinese National Day function in Tokyo in a departure from Japanese practice for the last 15 years. There were no high profile visits to the controversial Yasukani Shrine this year to irritate the Chinese and Japan is also taking a close look at Chinese One Belt, One Road projects that could provide opportunities for Japanese investors.

Global politics is currently in a fluid state, especially with the uncertainty of US President Donald Trump’s policies. US-China ties have been swinging in different directions since the beginning of the year, depending on American presidential tweets and actions. From an outspoken attack on Chinese trade policies to soliciting help or haranguing Beijing, Washington-Beijing relations are changing with the issue at hand. Trump is due to visit China in next month, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson visited Beijing as part of his Asian tour to Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, for his second visit in six months to the Chinese capital.

One of the reasons for his visit for preparatory meetings for the presidential visit in November and both sides said that they looked forward to advancing their relationship during the forthcoming visit.  Trump is to make a five-nation tour through East Asia for the 2017 APEC summit in Vietnam, but it is his Beijing visit that would most closely watched in the region.

Despite the earlier mis-steps, Trump needs China to contain North Korea’s belligerence and nuclear ambitions while Beijing would want a more cooperative and non-confrontational relationship with Washington. If the US and China work together in greater cooperation, it would change political dynamics in the region, and Japan would not want to be on the wrong side of American policies. Both India and China would have drawn lessons from their confrontation, their ties are wide ranging and there is need to restore the relationship to a constructive engagement.

Shubha Singh