Spinning Wheel’ Diplomacy: India & China

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By Rajendra Shende, Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, former Director UNEP

India’s foreign policy orientation towards the neighbors and big powers should be based on ‘spin diplomacy’, as was engaged by the leaders of the two largest countries in the world 6 years back, these two leaders can prevent or trigger the major war.

Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi and China President Xi during an informal visit.

India is surely not aiming to become a regional, leave alone a global superpower. After the end of the cold war of the 20th century and the “unipolar” hegemony of the US at the beginning of the 21st century, the world is witnessing China’s emergence as an economic power. It is an open secret that most of the countries would not like to see that happen, even if China fits well in the traditional definition of superpower, having mighty military prowess, a potent economy, and enviable but cruel veto power in UN Security Council. India has none of these.

Instead, though fully aware of the perils of democracy, India has demonstrated an impressive ability to galvanize its youth to spring-up the information and communication technology. India is called by many as a knowledge superpower. Experts confirm that India’s knowledge power is not just limited to ICT. Indian communities gain strengths from traditional knowledge and nature-based solutions. It is still largely an agricultural country. It not only harbours perennial poverty but also widespread inequality. Its free and politically-motivated media makes India’s real virtues dormant and its knowledge power weak.

Still, India remains a respected country in the world not only because of its knowledge-power but also its reputation of being a militarily and economically non-aggressive country. Above all, it is well-known to have drawn its strength from the Father of Nation -Mahatma Gandhi, and its philosophical teachings derived from Bhagwat Gita, one of the

world’s most influential, widely read scripture to seek the meaning contained in-between its lines. It took Mahatma like Gandhi to distill the teaching of non-violence from the Bhagwat Gita that itself urges the war to end the bigger war against worldly evil. That intriguing teaching of the timeless philosophy was deciphered and offered with finesse by Mahatma Gandhi.

India needs the same finesse today while dealing with our northern neighbor who now widely conceived as intriguing, untrustful, and routinely aggressive. What India needs is the deployment of the recent bonhomie between PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping and never let it slip even in the intriguing circumstances. Disagreements should never be allowed to become disputes and then dog-fights. Indeed there is a temptation to get entangled in the historic mess. Trained modern diplomatic-hawks do not like the settlements even if they are of national interest. Former PM of India, Atal Bihari Bajpayee, is on record that one could change the friends but not neighbors. Surely, One can change the tactics with neighbors to make it appear friendly.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met at least 18 times since 2014 when Modi became PM for the first time. They visited each other’s home towns Ahmedabad and Xi’an in 2014 and 2015. Most of the other meetings they held in the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization ( SCO), G20, and BRICS meetings.

Two countries have been living since 1947, cautiously, with disagreements. However, to be fair, both the countries, at the same time, have been giving up on certain long-standing thorny issues. For example on one of the seminal issues of India giving shelter to the Dalai Lama, it had recognized Tibet as China’s integral part. There was friction over China blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as on Beijing’s refusal to back India’s attempts to get Pakistan based militant Maulana Masood Azhar named a terrorist. China agreed to give up on those issues after a long and annoying wait. India has opposed President Xi’s initiative on Belt and Road Initiative

and shown its concerns on China’s dealings in the South China Sea. China has been extremely wary of India-USA closeness against the backdrop of the trade wars between China and the USA. India is extremely displeased with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor whereas China is not happy with quadrilateral cooperation between the US, Japan, India, and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region. India and China both are worried about the infrastructure they are building for the troop movements on their respective sides.

However more glaring, innovative, and at the same time quite threatening to superpowers of the world, were two informal meetings between Modi and Xi in Wuhan in April 2018 and in Mahabalipuram in October 2019. The first one took place after more than 2 months stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops in Doklam plateau high in the Sikkim-Himalaya. The second one took place 2 months before the new CORONA virus started spreading all over the world. Innovative because informal summits like these without agenda and aids are rare in 21st-century diplomacy. Threatening, because such a friendship between the most popular leaders of the two largest and emerging economies simply sent waves around the world of the political chessboard. The heads of state had their eye-balls rolling.

What these two leaders agreed in those two informal meetings was even earth-shaking to other superpowers. As per the statement by the Ministry of External Affairs of India, after one of the meetings, Modi and Xi agreed that “India and China, as major powers with decisional and strategic autonomy, will pursue peaceful stable and balanced relations and such a relationship will be a positive factor for stability in the current global uncertainty.” They also agreed that the “development of a sound bilateral relationship which has about 40% of the world population will also be conducive for development in the region.” The two countries agreed to respect each other’s sensitivities and to maintain peace on the border.

Modi and Xi also agreed that “it is important to maintain peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India China border region, and to this end, the two leaders decided that they would issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication to build trust and understanding, to implement various confidence-building measures which have already been agreed upon by the two sides, and to strengthen existing institutional mechanisms to prevent and manage situations in the border areas”. Both countries even made grand plans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations by organizing 70 events. Even the list was made ready in a short time.

What is difficult to understand for many diplomats however is the absence of any agreement ‘ hot-line’ mechanisms in case of sensitive situations that would trigger the spark on the borders. Informal one-to-one meetings if used for one-off purposes then they appear naïve.

Just about six months after an informal meeting in Mahabalipuram in India, the border conflict started in the east of Ladakh. It can be described as ‘ the border war amidst borderless COVID19’. Before the conflict, both countries are seen to be helping each other for COVID19 related treatments.

In the case of Eastern Ladakh hot-spots and when Indian and Chinese soldiers died, it is difficult to understand why informal communication, like informal meetings, was not put in operations.

Mahatma Gandhi just before and during World War II wrote two letters to Adolf Hitler.

He knew that Hitler was brute force, and writing a letter to him was naïve. However, as a non-violent resister, Gandhi felt duty-bound to appeal to Hitler because, as a human being, Hitler too had the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood.

He addressed Adolf Hitler as ‘Dear Friend’ and wrote on June 23, 1939, “ It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will, you listen to the appeal

of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?”. That letter certainly appeared to be naïve as Gandhi was no Mahatma then and did not belong to any government. He also knew that his letter would not be delivered by colonial powers,

On 2nd October, on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, is it naïve to expect from two leaders, Modi and XI, without giving up territorial sovereignty to talk one-to-one over the telephone and discuss and respect each other’s sensitivity and then seek a peaceful solution? Is it naïve to think that as a Prime Minister of the country that carried Buddhist scriptures across Himalaya to China to teach Buddhism there, should be the first to call the President of China? Is it naïve to think that Modi should remind Xi of the spinning wheel that both together turned to spin the cotton thread in Sabarmati Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi that symbolizes peace and non-violence? Is it naïve to think that Spinning Wheel should be the emblem of India’s foreign policy and territorial integrity?

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