Time for ‘spinning wheel’ diplomacy between China & India

On Gandhi Jayanti, Modi should do what the Mahatma did


October 2, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Time for ‘spinning wheel’ diplomacy between China & India

PM Modi and Xi Jinping at Mahabalipuram (PTI Photo)

India’s foreign policy-orientation towards its neighbours and the big powers should be based on ‘spin diplomacy’, as was engaged by the leaders of the two of the largest countries in the world in 2014. These two leaders can prevent or trigger the major war.

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India is surely not aiming to become a regional, let alone global superpower. After the end of the Cold War of 20th century and  ‘unipolar’ hegemony of US since then, the world has witnessed China’s emergence as a global economic power. It is an open secret that most of the countries would not like to see China’s economic power being translated into a military and strategic global superpower, even if China  fits well in the traditional definition of superpower, having mighty military prowess, a potent economy and  an enviable but cruel veto power in UN Security Council. India lacks all of these attributes.

Instead, even though fully aware of the challenges of democracy,  India has demonstrated an impressive ability to galvanise its youth to spring up the global information and communication technology ecosystem. India is called by many a knowledge superpower. Experts confirm that India’s knowledge power is not just limited to ICT. Indian communities  gain strength from traditional knowledge and nature-based solutions. It is still largely an agricultural country. It not only harbours perennial poverty but also widespread inequality.

Yet India remains a globally respected country, not only because of its knowledge power but also its reputation of being militarily and economically a non-aggressive country. Above all it is well-known to have drawn its strength from the principles followed by the Father of Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and his 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 a Mahatma like Gandhi to distil the teaching of  non-violence from a Bhagwat Gita that calls for a 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 neighbour that is now widely conceived as an intriguing, untrustworthy and routinely aggressive. What India needs  is deployment of  the bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping right since Modi became the PM in 2014 and never let it slip even in the most difficult circumstances. Disagreements should never be allowed to become disputes and then descend further into dog fights.

Indeed there is always a temptation to get entangled in the historic mess. Trained modern diplomatic hawks do not like the settlements even if they are in the national interest. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had famously said that one can choose his friends but not his neighbours. But surely, one can choose to be friendly with the neighbours.

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

Since Indian independence in 1947, the two countries have been living cautiously, with occasional disagreements. However, to be fair , both the countries have also been giving up on several long standing thorny issues. For example, while providing shelter to Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama,  India also recognised 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 global terrorist. China agreed relent on Azhar who is  now declared  as International Terrorist  by UN Security Council . For NSG issue China is still using its archaic veto power and strange arguments to block India’s entry when all other SC members agree to India’s entry. India has opposed President Xi’s initiative on Belt and Road Initiative and shown its concerns on Chinese dealings in South China Sea. China has been extremely wary of India’s new found proximity with the United States in the backdrop of a trade war between China and the US. India is extremely displeased with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor while China is unhappy with the quadrilateral cooperation between US, Japan, India  and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region. India and China are both worried about the infrastructure each is building for troop movements on respective sides of the border.

However  more glaring, innovative and at the same time quite  threatening to superpowers of the world, were the two informal meetings between Modi and Xi in Wuhan in April 2018 and in Mammallapuram in October 2019. The first took place after more than two months of stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops in Doklam plateau, high in the Sikkim Himalayas. The second one took place two months before new coronavirus began spreading all over the world. Innovative because informal summits like these without any agenda or aides are rare in the 21st century diplomacy. Threatening,  because such a friendship between the most popular leaders of two largest countries and major economies of the world created ripples on the global political chess board. The heads of state had their eye-balls rolling.

What these two leaders agreed upon in those two informal meetings was perhaps even more surprising for other super powers. As per the statement by 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 have 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 unveiled a grand plan to celebrate 70th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relation by organising 70 events. Even the list was made ready in short time.

What is difficult to understand for many diplomats, however, is the absence of any agreement on ‘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, appear to be naïve.

Just about six months after informal meeting in Mahabalipuram in India, another border conflict started between the two giants, this time in the western Himalayas in the newly-formed union territory of  Ladakh. It can be described as ‘a border conflict during borderless COVID19’. Till days before the conflict began, both countries were actually helping each other in COVID19 related treatments.

However, in the case of Eastern Ladakh clashes that led to first casualties on India-China border in five decades, it is difficult to understand why informal communication, just like informal meetings, was not activated instantaneously.

Here, may be the two nations need to learn from Mahatma Gandhi. Just before and during the World War II, Mahatma Gandhi wrote two letters to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. He knew that Hitler believed only in 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 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 a 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.

However, on October 2, 2020, on the 151st birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, is it naïve to expect that the two leaders, Modi and XI, without giving up territorial sovereignty , can talk one-to-one over telephone and discuss and respect each other’s sensitivities and seek a peaceful solution? Is it naïve to think that as Prime Minister of the country that carried Buddhist scriptures across the Himalayas to China to teach Buddhism there, should be the first to call 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 yarn in Sabarmati Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi  that symbolises peace and non-violence? Is it naïve to think that spinning wheel should be the emblem of the India’s foreign policy and territorial integrity?

(Rajendra Shende, an IIT Bombay alumni,  is former director of UNEP and currently chairman of Terre Policy Centre and advisor to Media India Group. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Media India Group.)



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