Prime Minister Narendra Modi's proposed visit to China for an informal meeting with President Xi Jinping at Wuhan city later this week is a pleasant outcome of the interaction of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with her Chinese counterpart at Beijing during the Foreign Ministers conference of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO). Both called it ‘a new landmark in the China and India history’ at a joint press conference. The shared emphasis clearly is on bilateral ties at present – in the backdrop of a chill that had set in after the Doklam standoff where India demonstrated a national will to stick to her position on the borders.
Modi has known Xi since the latter’s three-day visit to Ahmadabad in September 2014 and the Chinese President should have reason to believe that India would opt for a friendly relationship with China so long as China did not indulge in any provocative act against us. This is how the visit of Prime Minister Modi now – he is slated to go to a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at Qingdao in June in any case – is an expression of our desire to maintain a grid of understanding with China right at the top. The meeting is likely to have no structured agenda.
President Xi Jinping has over a period emerged as the unchallenged leader of China – as strong as Mao Ze Dong and Deng Xiaoping if not stronger – and has lost no time in declaring that he relied on PLA as his main instrument of power. He must, however, be quietly aware that Prime Minister Modi is also the strongest leader that India has produced so far in terms of decisiveness of policy and will to withstand any hostility beamed at us from across our western or northern borders. China’s top priority at present is to spread its economic hold globally – it is clearly following the economic route to becoming the second super power – and it is no surprise that Xi Jinping has invested all his energy and strategic thinking in the fulfilment of his pet One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
China’s big ticket project – the China Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) – that was to serve the dual purpose of opening into the Arabian Sea and countering India on the maritime front, has not proceeded as smoothly as Xi would have thought. Both India and US have opposed it and the image issue that has caught up with Pakistan on the question of global terror must also have come as a damper for China’s advocacy of this project as a promoter of the universal good economically.
The rapid rise of India under the Modi regime as a power in the Indo- Pacific – going beyond its natural claim of being in a commanding position in the Indian Ocean – has been acknowledged by the world community. Pushing ahead with his ‘Act East’ strategy, Prime Minister Modi has successfully used ASEAN as a pathway to register India’s stakes in the security of the region, allowed the trilateral Malabar exercise of the Navy in the Bay of Bengal – involving the US, Japan and India – to be supplemented by the first-ever bilateral naval drill off the coast of Western Australia carried out by the Indian Navy and Royal Australian Navy last year, and more significantly got India to participate in the first formal official level discussions in Manila under the recently floated regional coalition known as the ‘Quad’ including Japan, India, United States and Australia for the promotion of peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. It was given out that ‘upholding the rules-based order in this region, freedom of navigation and overflight and maritime security’ as well as the challenge of affectively countering terrorism, were the chief objectives of the coalition.
India’s concern on the possibility of a synchronised mischief on the borders by Pakistan and China in furtherance of the military alliance between these two adversaries of India, was real. We would be the only target affected as the world at best would be raising a voice of sympathy and support. India as a part of the US-led coalition for the security of the Indo-Pacific region does have a countervailing impact to an extent but considering the diminishing returns China is having from its partnership with Pakistan and the total Indo-US convergence that now exists against the roguish conduct of the latter, it is wise of India to explore the prospect of China realising the value of a peaceful relationship with India.
India, however, is not leaving anything to chance in so far as the risk of a possible Chinese aggression on our border is concerned. India has taken note of the order of Xi Jinping entrusting PLA with the responsibility of securing the India-China border. The formation of a new Defence Planning Committee (DPC) under the National Security Advisor has come not a day too soon. It is an effective step towards ensuring a coordinated response to any threat to India's national security and defence. The all-important matter of defence planning has been taken out of the sluggish and indecisive ways of bureaucracy and a direct say has been given to the Chiefs of Defence Services in policy formulation. India needs a new national security roadmap considering the wide spectrum of dangers that have arisen from our neighbourhood and beyond. Prime Minister Modi has to be complemented for finding an empowered and efficient looking arrangement and the right person to entrust it with.
The challenges of executing a mountain warfare, carrying out a punitive response to the infiltration of terrorists from across the LOC or IB by Pakistan and upgrading our navy for the defence of the Indian Ocean are India’s prime concerns. The new DPC will no doubt work for united defence in keeping with the ‘triad’ principle, in all theatres of war. It is the message of a new strong India that Prime Minister Modi will take with him to the informal summit with the Chinese President.
(The writer is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau)