Eye on China: Mamallapuram Inside Track – Afghan Talks – CPEC & FATF – 4th Plenum – Pence’s Speech

Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective. This week we cover new details from the Xi-Modi talks; US VP Mike Pence’s big China speech; EU awards Uighur activist; Beijing prepares for 4th plenum of 19th CPC Congress; China’s engagement in the Af-Pak region and much more…

I. What Happened in Mamallapuram?

What exactly happened between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi during the Chennai Summit? Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Minister of State for Civil Aviation and Commerce, shed some light during a public event. Here’s what he said, as reported by Dinaker Peri in The Hindu:

  • Modi made a detailed presentation with data and graphs to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the trade deficit. “The visiting dignitary spoke of taking sincere action, and to reduce trade deficit, specific products and sectors were identified — sugar, rice, pharma and so on.”

  • Xi accepted Modi’s suggestion for channelling Chinese investments in identified Indian priority sectors, and explore possibilities of manufacturing partnerships in some of them.

  • On RCEP, Puri says that Modi told Xi the deal must include services otherwise it would “be a very asymmetrical way (for India) to enter RCEP.” Interestingly, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav also spoke about RCEP this week, suggesting that India isn’t ready to get on board owing to its concerns regarding China. “It may take time, there have been deadlines. One deadline was October. I am sure it will take more time,” he said.

  • Puri, meanwhile, also said that Xi “did not raise 370 or Kashmir” but did speak about Imran Khan’s Beijing visit. During that visit, Xi apparently told Khan that ”China couldn’t be a mediator.” (My thoughts: Take this with a bag of salt. Repeated Chinese statements have made it clear that it wants to play a “constructive role” between India and Pakistan. Case in point are these remarks by Sun Weidong)

What’s also interesting is that Puri said the Chinese had “quite a few” grievances, but the report only talks about Beijing’s view that India was “being being less than equitable when it comes to 5G and Huawei.” Therefore, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and a Chinese Vice Premier will lead the conversation in this regard, he added. (My thoughts: This seems to imply that Huawei is going to be cleared to participate in 5G in India, doesn’t it?)

Jaishankar himself also spoke about the summit this week, sounding rather optimistic about the bilateral relationship. He acknowledged that there were complicated issues in the relationship, emphasising the importance of talking to each other freely. Interestingly, he views the scales weighing in favour of sort of a modus vivendi between the two countries.

One of the complicated issues is the boundary dispute. There was some focus on it this week, with Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and Director-General of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, SS Deswal, speaking publicly. Singh tweeted that both countries enjoyed “cordial relations” and “perceptional differences” on the boundary had been handled with “great maturity and responsibly.” Unfortunately, the government isn’t talking about how does one move ahead from merely managing the situation. Former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal said this week that “the best step to address the issue would be to have some mechanism where we can identify what are the perceptions on each side, as to where the Line of Actual Control lies.” That was also one of my recommendations in my report ahead of the Mamallapuram meeting.

Deswal, meanwhile, spoke on the eve of ITBP’s 58th Raising Day about the force’s role. Economic Times reports that as per Deswal, since the last five years 25 Border Outposts (BOPs) have been created for the ITBP along the border with China. The report quotes Deswal as saying: 

“In the past four to five years, 25 BOPs have been established and the manpower increased. At every BOP, a company (about 100 soldiers) is deployed. We keep adding BOPs so that our patrolling increases at the border…this year we will survey the border on how many more BOPs we need, where we feel that due to our logistical and administrative support we can go closer to the border…Today with the construction of roads and added infrastructure our accessibility to the border has increased.” There are reportedly 10 more BOPs that the ITBP has proposed. On incursions, Deswal adds: “Incursions happen due to difference in perception. There are some pockets at the border, where both sides lay claim to it. Both of us patrol these areas. In any disputed area, we patrol and so do they…We patrol more than them.” Reports also tell us that the ITBP has trained 200 personnel in Mandarin for better intelligence gathering and effective communication at the border.

On the boundary and potential military frictions between India and China, there’s a new report by the Center for New American Security that’s an interesting read. Here’s a bit from the summary: 

“The trend lines in the India-China military equation are broadly negative. Despite very real improvements in Delhi’s defense capabilities and a significant advantage conveyed by India’s maritime geography, its longstanding superiority over China in the Indian Ocean is at risk of slipping away…The state of play along India’s Himalayan frontier is more mixed. Delhi possesses a clear advantage in localized military strength, but China has made significant infrastructure improvements in Tibet to enhance PLA mobility to surge troops forward, while folding the entire border with India under a single unified theater command—a major organizational restructuring that could yield an operational edge.”

(Quick Take: It’s quite clear that with the Mamallapuran talks, rhetoric by government officials from both sides has been toned down. While I agree with the broader point that both sides should be engaging and doing so more purposefully, let’s be cautious about believing talk about an Asian Century and rising together. Here I agree with Amb. Shyam Saran when he says: “If India believes that China would accept a hierarchical order in which India is kind of a parallel power, no that is not the intention. We should be very clear in our minds what China’s approach is.)

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