China's 'ambitious proposals' fail to add momentum to ties

Luo Zhaohui chose a rather inconspicuous event to make the most significant of the public remarks he made since taking over as China's ambassador to India in October 2016. He was in Mumbai University to attend an event to mark the restoration of Mao Zedong’s 1942 calligraphy to condole demise of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis at Shijiazhuang in northern China. He spoke about Chairman Mao and his calligraphy and paid tributes to Dr Kotnis, who had, in 1938, volunteered to travel from India to the battlefields of China to provide medical care to soldiers wounded in the second Sino-Japanese war.

Then, just before concluding his speech, Luo put forward a set of “ambitious proposals” to add new momentum to China-India relations – a bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, a Free Trade Agreement and an early harvest deal on boundary.

Beijing's “ambitious proposals” for New Delhi came after India's complex relations with China were further strained over the past few months. China not only blocked India's entry to Nuclear Suppliers Group and resisted its bid at the United Nations to bring Pakistan-based terrorist leader Masood Azhar under international sanctions. India is also upset with the proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The corridor — a key component of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative — is proposed to link Kashgar in Xinjiang in north-western China and a deep sea port at Gwadar in Balochistan in south-western Pakistan. New Delhi has repeatedly conveyed to China its reservations about the CPEC, which passes through areas India claims to be its own and accuses Pakistan of illegally occupying.

Beijing was riled by the April 2016 conclave of Chinese dissidents in India. The meet at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh was attended by pro-democracy activists and leaders of Uighur, Tibetan and other ethnic and religious minorities of China. It was addressed by Dalai Lama, the icon of Tibetans’ resistance against Chinese rule in Tibet. New Delhi’s clamour on the South China Sea dispute and India’s growing defence ties and strategic convergence with United States, Japan and Australia in Asia-Pacific has also raised hackles in Beijing.

India and China elevated the bilateral relations to a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity” in 2008. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2015 agreed to build a closer developmental partnership. Yet Beijing’s proposal for commencing negotiations on Treaty of Friendship did not excite New Delhi, at least not immediately. The proposal came with no actual gesture of friendship on the ground.

Just weeks after Beijing’s envoy to New Delhi made public the new set of proposals, China blocked a fresh move by US, UK and France to bring Masood Azhar under United Nations’ sanctions. New Delhi shared with Beijing the evidences it has to prove the role of Azhar and his Jaish-e-Mohammed in masterminding and perpetrating terror strikes in India, including the January 2016 attack on the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot in Punjab.

Modi himself had conveyed to Xi why it was important for India to bring the terror leader based in Pakistan under UN sanctions. Yet Beijing chose to stick to its policy of shielding terrorists living in Pakistan, ostensibly just for the sake of its “all-weather friendship” with Islamabad. China also did not pay heed to India’s objections and continued to work with Pakistan on the CPEC.

Bilateral trade
Luo’s proposal for a Free Trade Agreement came at a time when India’s ever widening trade deficit with China reached a record $46.56 billion. New Delhi has since long been prodding Beijing to give India a greater market in China — particularly in sectors like Information Technology, IT-enabled services, pharmaceutical and agricultural products.

China in September 2014 pledged to make $20 billion investment in India by 2019, particularly in infrastructure projects and industrial parks. But without substantial progress on the ground towards balancing the bilateral commerce, India is unlikely to enter into a bilateral trade deal with China. Even if New Delhi commences negotiation with Beijing for such an agreement in future, it is likely to insist that the deal should cover not merely trade in goods, but also trade in services.

The proposal for an “early harvest” deal on the boundary is perhaps the most significant among the ones mooted by China’s ambassador to India. This signalled China’s renewed interest in settling the boundary dispute with India in a piecemeal manner — beginning with the less disputed middle sector (stretches of the boundary in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) and then going for settlements in more contentious western and eastern sectors.

India and China had in fact made substantial progress in resolving the dispute in the middle sector of the boundary and even exchanged maps in 2001. The process, however, did not advance much in the past one-and-a-half decade. New Delhi now will have to assess if a piecemeal solution would be in its favour or it should insist on and wait for a comprehensive deal to resolve the dispute in its entirety.

India’s response to the latest proposal from China will also depend on its domestic political situation, which will determine the scope and ability of the Modi government to sell the deal on middle sector at home. China has so far cold-shouldered India’s repeated calls for demarcating the Line of Actual Control and narrowing the differences on the de-facto border – a move which would have averted inadvertent incursions by the border guards of the two countries, pending the settlement of the dispute.

Several weeks after Chinese Ambassador mooted the “ambitious proposals”, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was in Beijing recently to launch the first India-China stra­tegic dialogue with the communist country’s Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui.

Beijing, however, was in no mood to address New Delhi's concerns and showed no sign of budging from its positions, be it on India's plea for admission into the NSG or on bringing Masood sanctions. The first strategic dialogue thus failed to ease the wrinkles in India-China ties, let alone creating a situation where both sides could start negotiating a Treaty of Friendship.
DH News Service

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