Monday, 30th October 2017

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Rank bump in China ties - Beijing miffed over absence of reciprocity on emissary

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  • Published 24.11.14
Doval, (right) Yang

Nov. 23: China has quietly frozen the work of an expanded bilateral framework of special representatives that deals with strategic co-operation in addition to the question of its disputed border with India.

Beijing’s reason for dragging its feet on getting the mechanism off to a start six months into the BJP-led government’s existence is its reservations about the authority of India’s new special representative, the Prime Minister’s national security adviser Ajit Doval.

China has designated its state councillor, Yang Jiechi, as the special representative on the border question. Yang, who was foreign minister until last year, has been elevated as state councillor: the foreign minister now reports to him in his new position.

Doval is only a principal secretary in rank and is not even a minister of state for protocol purposes, unlike Shivshankar Menon, his predecessor in the Manmohan Singh government.

Beijing has signalled its displeasure to the Narendra Modi government that while it has accorded the utmost importance to solving the border dispute with India by designating someone even higher in rank than its foreign minister as special representative, the NDA dispensation has been unwilling to match such goodwill by nominating at least a minister of state, let alone someone as high in protocol and substance as Yang.

During most of Menon’s tenure as special representative for the border question, Dai Bingguo, his counterpart, was also a state councillor. But China was ready to overlook Dai’s difference in rank with Menon because the latter made up for it with his long and extensive expertise on China, going back to his days as a school student in Lhasa where his father was India’s consul-general for Tibet.

It was when Menon and Dai were special representatives that the two sides resolved to expand their mandate to deal with bilateral strategic co-operation in addition to the festering border dispute.

Unstinting in hospitality towards the Modi establishment, Beijing had rolled out the red carpet for Doval when he visited China in September to make arrangements for President Xi Jinping’s state visit to India which was then in the making.

Xi had personally received Doval, but the latter had made the trip as a special “envoy” of Modi, not merely as national security adviser or as special representative for the border question.

Since then, a wordy body called the “working mechanism for consultation and co-ordination on China-India border affairs” has met in New Delhi, with the director-general of the Chinese foreign ministry’s department of boundary affairs, Ouyang Yujing, and the external affairs ministry’s joint secretary for east Asia, Pradeep Kumar Rawat, leading the respective delegations.

The tragedy of the deadlock since that meeting over Doval is that the UPA government’s special representative and his Chinese counterpart had completed the second stage of finalising the border and were well into the third and final stage of a solution. Rawat and Ouyang continued to make progress when they met in Delhi on October 16 for two days.

Even if officials work out a resolution of the dispute and demarcate the boundary, it will still have to secure political approval at the highest levels.

Modi may have been able to push through such an approval in the flush and euphoria of his electoral triumph amid high expectations from his government. Delays such as the one now setting in will inevitably reduce Modi’s capacity to secure acceptability for any settlement if his political capital diminishes with the passing of time.

Unwittingly perhaps, the Prime Minister allowed himself last fortnight to lend credence to China’s grievance about lack of understanding and intellectual comprehension in New Delhi’s bilateral dealings with Beijing in Doval’s persona.

In his speech to the East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Modi referred to the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, which is a sore point with Beijing. In doing so, he proved himself seriously out of touch with the mood at the summit. Obviously, those who gave him advice were to blame.

“In a world of inter- dependence and globalisation, there is no option but to follow international laws and norms. This also applies to maritime security,” Modi had argued. “For this reason, following international law and norms is important for peace and stability in (the) South China Sea as well…. We also hope that the efforts to conclude a code of conduct on (the) South China Sea by a process of consensus would be successful soon.”

China baiters in Modi’s inner circle had miscalculated that the South China Sea would be an issue in Nay Pyi Taw. As it happened, several Southeast Asian countries that have previously been vocal about the dispute, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, chose not to refer to the issue at all in their address to the summit.

Which made India, which has no critical stake in the dispute, stick out like a sore thumb.

Adding to a mounting trust deficit between Beijing and New Delhi, in marked contrast to the early days of Modi’s leadership of government, India is also ranged against China at this week’s South Asia summit in Kathmandu.

A few days ago, at a preparatory meeting on the summit, India blocked a majority effort by South Asian nations to upgrade China’s status within the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation from observer to dialogue partner. Saarc decisions are taken by consensus.

It is likely that China will not suspend institutional work on border negotiations. But any mandatory high-level stamp of approval on the issue or expanded strategic co-operation under the aegis of the special representatives is off the table for now.