Handshake Across the Himalayas


Claude Arpi assesses President Xi Jinping’s visit to India

When Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Ahmedabad on September 17, all started well. He and Peng Liyuan, his wife and renowned former Opera singer, had a taste of Modiland; they seemed to enjoy the dynamism and culture of Gujarat as well as its delicacies on the banks of a clean Sabarmati River. Both India and China wanted to show the world that the two most populated countries of the planet can work harmoniously together.

The Modi government had done its homework by sending National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, to Beijing. Designated ‘Special Envoy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’, Doval briefly met the Chinese president who told him, “Our cooperation not only helps each other’s development but also benefits Asia and the world at large.” After meeting President Xi, Doval told the Indian media that bilateral relations were poised for an ‘orbital jump’. That sounded good.

The day he arrived, President Xi wrote an op-ed in The Hindu: “As the two engines of the Asian economy, we need to become cooperation partners spearheading growth. I believe that the combination of China’s energy plus India’s wisdom will release massive potential.” The bar seemed to have been placed very high.

In Ahmedabad, everything went as scripted, though nobody noticed an extraordinary event which occurred a few days before the president’s arrival: Wei Wei, the Chinese Ambassador to India, was suddenly transferred (or sacked?) and replaced by Le Yucheng from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To change the ambassador a few days before his Head of State arrives for such a crucial visit, must be a first in diplomatic annals. What was behind this abrupt move? We may never know, but Wei Wei’s sudden ‘departure’ is rather strange.

The Border Issue

The second issue which did not go according to the planned programme was the sudden deterioration of the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Southern Ladakh.

It is known that there are differences in ‘perception’ about where the LAC lies, particularly in this area; but as Xi arrived in Ahmedabad, 1,000 Chinese troops belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force crossed the LAC and stood a few metres away from the Indian soldiers. The situation had never been so tense for years.

Why this show of force at a time when Xi Jinping, who is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), was trying to instil trust in bilateral relations? Was there a better way to sabotage the presidential visit? But in his op-ed, President Xi asserted: “Progress has been made in the negotiations on the boundary question, and the two sides have worked together to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border area.”

The border issue is indeed not a new one; it is ‘left-over from history’, as Chinese leaders say. It is true that there is a historical background. In April 1960, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai spent a week in Delhi to discuss with Prime Minister Nehru ‘certain differences relating to the border areas which have arisen.’ The Joint Communiqué issued on April 26, 1960 says: “The two prime ministers had several long, frank and friendly talks between themselves.”

It was decided that Chinese and Indian officials would ‘meet and examine, check and study all historical documents, records, accounts, maps and other material relevant to the boundary question, on which each side relied in support of its stand, and draw up a report for submission to the two governments.’ Five rounds of extensive discussions took place during the following months, with no progress.

In 1960, during the press conference organised as Zhou was leaving for Beijing, the Chinese premier stated: “Pending (a solution), both sides should maintain the present state of the boundary and not change it by unilateral action, let alone by force.” He added that the Sino-Indian friendship cannot be jeopardised because of ‘the temporary lack of a settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary question.’ For the past 54 years, nothing seems to have changed, though as Xi arrived, the situation suddenly took a turn for the worse.

What Went Wrong?

Last year, at the time of the Depsang incident, I thought that Chinese intrusions could be due to the unfortunate initiatives of some local PLA commanders; I was then told: “It can’t be. The PLA’s generals are a disciplined lot and Chairman Xi is fully in command.”

This time, JNU professor Srikanth Kondapalli told Business Standard: “This could be a message given by the Chinese troops to its President Xi Jinping that no fruitful discussion on the boundary issue be held with the Indian leadership during his official trip.” Were some very senior PLA generals unhappy about the thaw between India and China? Or perhaps disturbed about Xi’s fight against corruption? And does it mean that Xi Jinping, the CMC chairman, does not have full control over his generals?

An indication that everything may not be rosy for Xi is the recent visit to Tibet of General Fan Changlong, the CMC’s senior vice-chairman. On August 17, Xinhua reported that General Fan, who had come ‘to inspect the forces stationed on the snow-covered plateau,’ ordered officers and troops ‘to thoroughly study and implement President Xi’s series of important speeches about the situation in the Party’ (read corruption cases against former security tsar Zhou Yongkang and other ‘tigers’). Interestingly, Chinese media reports did not mention which units he visited, how long he stayed in Tibet or where he went. Xinhua reported that General Fan just told the army to firmly obey the command of President Xi Jinping and the Party’s Central Committee. Are the generals not always obeying Chairman Xi?

This could be an indication that something is not well in the Middle Kingdom. When Prime Minister Modi suggested: “A clarification of LAC would greatly contribute to our efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity; I requested President Xi to resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC.” Xi answered about finding an agreement on the border, but nothing about the LAC. It is telling. The next day, Xinhua just said that both sides ‘agreed to properly manage and control border disputes between the two nations, maintain peace and security in border regions, and find a solution at an early date.’ ‘Exchange of maps’ of the contentious LAC was also not mentioned in the Joint Statement. This does not augur well for the future.

The Business Angle

Before Xi landed in India, the rumour going around was about a $100 billion Chinese investment. Later, this became what Business Standard (BS) called ‘The curious case of China’s $100 billion investment’. It reported, “Apparently, ahead of the visit, Chinese embassy officials briefed Indian scholars that investment promised would be $100 billion. How this figure came down to $20 billion is a mystery, these scholars confessed.”

Where had the $80 billion gone? One of the 16 MoUs signed during the visit, ‘Five year Trade and Economic Development Plan’, mentions $20 billion. It lays down a medium term roadmap for promoting balanced and sustainable development of economic and trade relations between China and India, on the principle of equality and mutual benefit. Two of the objectives are:

(i) Reduction of bilateral trade imbalance;

(ii) Strengthening of investment cooperation to realise $20 billion investment from China in 5 years.

Business Standard pointed out: “Interestingly, although the three-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping was touted as a business trip, a joint business forum under Confederation of Indian Industry, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and ASSOCHAM was not organised. Not a single event of Xi’s interaction with the Indian industry took place.”

China, nevertheless, promised to set up two industrial parks, one in Gujarat and one in Maharashtra, which would be manufacturing and export hubs. China also pledged to help develop India’s rail network by increasing the speed on the existing railway line from Chennai to Mysore via Bangalore, and providing training for 100 Indian Railway officials. India is also considering cooperating with China on a high-speed rail project.

But in the Joint Statement, there was no mention of the New Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road, so dear to President Xi.

The Cultural Aspect

As the tension on the border began subsiding on the last day of the visit, Xi Jinping addressed a select gathering at the Indian Council of World Affairs. He referred to many prominent Chinese and Indian personalities to illustrate China’s peaceful philosophy.

He quoted Rabindranath Tagore: “Grow like a summer flower, magnificently; die like an autumn leaf, quietly and beautifully!” The Chinese president affirmed that he had read several poetry collections of Tagore.

China, he said, wanted to boost cultural exchanges with South Asia. For this purpose, Beijing is ready to provide 10,000 scholarships to the region and training to 5,000 as Chinese language teachers. Xi defined the cooperative agenda of the region as ‘a huge treasure to be exploited’ and reiterated Beijing’s unchanged attitude towards its peaceful development path; he even quoted an ancient Chinese saying: “Do unto others as you would be done by.”

This may sound strange to the soldiers posted on the heights of Chumur, but it perhaps means that President Xi Jinping has some homework to do once back home.

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Claude Arpi

Claude Arpi is a French-born author who regularly writes on the geopolitics of the region, environment and Indo-French relations. You can visit his blog: http://claudearpi.blogspot.com

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