China's Wuhan syndrome
China’s enthusiasm for a Wuhan repeat implicitly states its BRI ambitions, especially after India’s reservation against the multilateral summit
Common Indians are usually too busy with their own work to note the outcome or potential fallout of the "informal" Sino-Indian (bilateral) April 2018 Wuhan meet. What mattered, to majority Indians, was that it was a high profile meeting between Beijing and New Delhi leaders. Both were at ease in/with each other's company, and body language spoke rather than technical jargon or diplomatic niceties. It appeared unconventional but effective. Out-of-the-box.
Understandably, the Chinese foreign minister Wang now wants Wuhan encore: "China is ready for Wuhan-style summit meet with India". That's interesting as well as intriguing. Interesting because China is not known to evince suo motu interest for repeat summit unless something major is at stake in the near future, or without deriving tangible benefits from past meeting; intriguing because one doesn't know (hence one wishes to know) to what extent Chinese tangibly benefitted post-Wuhan informal summit 2018.
The subject, therefore, assumes importance and curiosity because Chinese foreign minister's enthusiasm for repeat "informal" Wuhan bilateral came at a time when India had earlier rejected the "formal" multilateral BRI summit, the signature foreign policy objective of Chinese President Xi, held April 25-27, 2019 at Beijing. Understandably, therefore, from China's perspective, India, being the sole exception as a major Asian nation, skipping the BRF move couldn't be anything but a signature diplomatic rebuff of pride, so assiduously cultivated by Communist Party of China and its czars. Especially, as it does, coming from a country whose economy is less than 30 per cent of that of Beijing.
Nevertheless, China's declaration was on expected line. It was Beijing's attempt to adroitly play its card to outwit and preempt India before the comity; to show Beijing's "pre-eminence", "undermine India's importance" and expose the "lack of initiative" of New Delhi by appealing to India from public forum "to shed its opposition to US$ 60 billion CPEC" and suggesting that it in no way "undermined" the basic position on "Kashmir dispute". In other words, it's Chinese way of persuading and pressuring India to shed and reverse her own long-standing J&K policy (which no Government, irrespective of the political party, can afford to undo), rather than shedding Chinese enterprise which the world seems to be lapping up.
And so, in the 21st century (2019), China would help nullify India's foreign policy-cum-internal matter! What bizarre suggestion from Wang? Can India counter-suggest China to shed or reverse Tibet policy built over seven decades? Of nullifying 1950 "conquest of Lhasa"? China has repeatedly made her position clear: "Sanctity of Chinese territory is non-negotiable". Yet, China wants India to do something which just cannot be done!
The subtle attempt to undermine India (just before April 2019 BRF) was robust: "So far 37 heads of state and governments confirmed participation in BRF", included in which are Nepal and Pakistan. India was bracketed with Kathmandu and Islamabad with words: - 'Why not India'? After all, they are in "the same geography". (It was like putting China and Mongolia in the same basket). Nevertheless, China was smart to gauge that once India had decided not to "officially" participate in BRF at a time of Parliament election, it's futile to invite and get a "no for an answer". Hence the best option for Beijing? Wait. Bid time, and make a diplomatic move at later date, by not sending an official invite to Indian leadership for any of BRF programmes.
Chinese foreign minister Wang, however, wisely took note of India's unpredictable election scenario as the incumbent government (unlike 2014) faces multi-front electoral challenges across the country. Thus spoke Wang: "It is natural for us" (India and China) "to have differences. This is only natural". However, Wang's expansion of sentences to explain things were complex, bordering on "passing the buck" on India. "I remember PM Modi mentioning many times that we cannot escalate our differences into disputes. The Indian side wants to put our difference at a proper level in order not to interfere in the development of our relations". This was indeed unethical hitting below the belt. In one stroke Wang wanted the world to believe that it's the Indian establishment which was scared of things, going out of hand as "the Indian side wants to put our difference at a proper level in order not to interfere in the development of our relations". In other words, China stopped short of interfering into the differences, only at the behest of India, thereby showing as to who is the powerful boss and how weak-kneed India is.
The most enduring of Chinese characteristics, "obstinacy", once again emerged from Wang words on CPEC: "the BRI including the CPEC is only an economic initiative and it doesn't target any third country and has nothing to do with sovereign and territorial disputes left from history". How insensitive and preposterous suggestion to India could be? China knows very well that the history of the world is the history of demography over geography. That's the bottom line of concept of sovereign states, beginning 1648. It simply cannot be otherwise.
CPEC may be economics for China, but it's territorial sovereignty for India. Does economics go through geography or not? If so, how can economics claim its advancement without geography? Further, does geography constitute the first, foremost and fundamental premise of a sovereign nation or not? If yes, then how can sovereign India surrender its claimed geography for the sake of the development of the economics of acclaimed hostility of unholy alliance of transgressing neighbours?
The parting words of Wang stood out: "We are trying to achieve common prosperity through cooperation under the BRI. Those issues left over from history must be separated from our efforts…". BRI may be a "common prosperity" venture of Chinese origin, but it brazenly violates the individual sovereignty of smaller nations. For instance, if a joint project is built, and passes through a non-Chinese sovereign state, and yet its strategic planning-to-mission objective-to-future expansion and redevelopment key lie with big brother Beijing, will it not constitute trampling of the sovereignty of smaller and weaker partner-state?
In this context, China appeared unusually keen for Kunming-Kolkata bullet train. Assuming it to be a reality in future, the question will remain. Who will operate? In what mode and manner? The investor and technology providing China or the weaker India? Can a foreigner operate Indian transport system deep inside Indian hinterland? Thus, the main problem of China lies in its uncertain future. China's future cannot be secured except through technology-development and ceaseless and uninterrupted outflow of finished goods to world consumer-market in which India stands out, if not as a producer, at least as an ultimate lucrative consumer market. Hence, the Chinese desperation for its own economics at the expense of neighbour's territory, geography, sovereignty.
(Abhijit Bhattacharyya is an alumnus of National Defence College and the author of 'China in India'. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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