China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s April 21 visit to Delhi is ostensibly about launching a first ever “high-level” people-to-people exchange mechanism between India and China.
Read between the lines, and Wang’s visit to Delhi, Mumbai and Aurangabad is about much more. This is his first since his promotion in March, with the added portfolio of State Councillor, a result of which he has also taken charge of negotiating the border talks with India as China’s Special Representative. It is also the first visit by China’s Foreign Minister since the April “informal summit” in Wuhan between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Wang comes to Delhi with an important message: an under-pressure China, facing heat from the now more than 100-day-old trade war with the United States, coupled with increasing backlash to Chinese companies across the West and a slowing economy at home, is looking to mend fences and repair relations.
That was the clear message from Wang in an article he penned on the eve of his arrival in Delhi. “The world in 2018 was full of
uncertainty, a defining feature of the international landscape,” he wrote. “The shift in balance of power accelerated, unilateralism and protectionism further developed, and the international system came under serious strain. Major-country competition intensified.”
Wang noted that the Wuhan summit “left a deep imprint on China-India relations”, and Beijing had similarly boosted relations with other neighbouring countries. He noted that China’s relations with Japan “were back on the right track”, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hosted in Beijing in October, as also a relatively recently stable situation in the South China Sea.
Essentially, China is concerned about being isolated in the current climate, faced with an economic backlash from the west and strategic concerns from its neighbours who are wary of Beijing’s muscle-flexing. Hence this course-correction. The larger aim is to create a favourable external environment for China to deal with its current domestic challenges.
The Chinese Foreign Minister suggested this would continue to be reflected in Beijing’s diplomacy in 2019, which will see three major events in Beijing that underline Beijing’s priorities at home and abroad — the second Belt and Road Forum in the summer followed by the second China International Import Expo, both aimed at presenting Beijing as a responsible advocate of globalisation and trade, as well as a grand celebration in October to mark the 70th anniversary of PRC, which Beijing doesn’t want to see disrupted in any way.
Wang said China’s other goals would be to “actively safeguard peace and stability in our region” as well as “take an active part in shaping global governance”. The latter goal, as well, could yield some commonality with India’s own concerns on the Western backlash against globalisation.
What does this tactical course-correction mean for India? In the short-term, certainly, the post-Wuhan rapprochement suits both
countries, and could yield for India opportunities, particularly on the trade front. India should seize them. Both sides have also moved to bolster communication and CBMs across the border, which has remained relatively calm since the Doklam stand-off last year. One of the points of agreement borne out of Wuhan was that in a world in flux, the recently strained India-China relationship could become a factor of stability.
This course-correction from China, is however, likely to be tactical at best as it rides out the current storm of challenges, internal and external. It doesn’t necessarily imply Beijing will slow down its longer-term ambitions of deepening both its economic and military heft, both in India’s backyard and around the globe. While seizing the opportunities that the current rapprochement may yield, India should remain clear-eyed about the longer-term challenges that remain.
(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India, and was previously China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu. Views are personal.)
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