Apower personality is in town. No one who is anyone could not know that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made an unexpected stop in Delhi following an equally unexpected visit to Kabul where he was feted by the Taliban leaders. That’s as close to ‘recognition’ as the mullahs can get. And after Delhi, he went on to Nepal. The portends could not have been worse, even if he had not made an unfortunate reference to Kashmir at the recent conference of foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Islamabad. Yet, the visit is fraught with interest, particularly since no one is willing to talk much about it.
Stage-managing the meeting in Delhi
Delhi made it clear that the unannounced meeting was at the instance of Beijing and showed no great enthusiasm for the visit. Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar’s press briefing made it clear that all issues were discussed, including the India-China border dispute, Afghanistan, the issue of Indian medical students, and also Ukraine. The content of earlier discussions with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was not revealed, but given that he has been the Special Envoy for the border talks with China since 2014 (following a face-off in Ladakh during the visit of President Xi Jinping), there’s hardly any doubt that he would have strongly reiterated the policy that no ‘normal relationship’ was possible till the border issue was solved.
The Ukraine question would certainly have been discussed. Wang made no bones about what he wanted. Remarking that China did not seek a ‘unipolar’ world, he also baldly stated, “The world will listen when China and India speak with one voice.” It’s true that both countries have reasons to want an end to the war but for rather different reasons. India’s dependency on Russia for defence is well known and is rather, ironically, becoming even more urgent due to tensions with China. There is also a long history of trust – not altogether unalloyed as Russia reaches out to Pakistan and China — but underpinned by the conviction that an isolated Russia would lean even further towards Beijing. China’s reasons are a little more complicated than that. And they are important, if – and that’s a very big if – both are to align their positions on Russia.
The pressure on China
While the US is certainly piling on the pressure on New Delhi with President Joe Biden calling India’s position on the crisis “shaky”, the language is no comparison to that being used for China. First are the allegations in the media that China knew about the invasion but asked Moscow to postpone it till the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The latter lashed out angrily, calling such allegations “despicable”. Then came reports from the European Union citing unnamed sources, producing “very reliable” information that China was preparing to provide military assistance to Russia.
All of this was muted in official readouts, though US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned, “We are communicating directly, privately to Beijing, that there will, absolutely, be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.” President Biden repeated this more diplomatically at a presser outside the Extraordinary Summit of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), noting (twice) that “he had made no threats” but pointed out the consequences of US companies leaving Russia and that China well appreciated that its economic future lay with the US rather than Russia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg went further in stating clearly that the allied leaders called on China to refrain from supporting Russia’s war effort, which was echoed in the NATO statement later.
Biden’s inducement of trade and investment to China could well pay off. After all, China’s total trade with the US, according to Chinese sources, was $755.6 billion in 2021 — a surge of nearly 29 per cent from previous records. In comparison, the trade between China and Russia was a mere $146.9 billion. And here’s the thing — since sanctions were imposed in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, bilateral trade has expanded by more than 50 per cent and China has become Russia’s biggest export destination. Both planned to increase this to upwards of $200 billion when President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing during the Olympics. And that trade is largely in oil and gas, where Moscow is Beijing’s second-largest supplier after Saudi Arabia. Russia was also the second-largest supplier of coal to a resource-hungry China.
None of this is easy to replace. But here’s another story. US data indicates that as of 5 May 2021, there were 248 Chinese companies listed on US exchanges with a total market capitalisation of $2.1 trillion. That includes eight state-owned enterprises. US companies in China are some 338 even as a huge surplus continues. Europe is China’s largest trade partner. Take a look at the list of sanctions against Russia. It’s the most extensive sanctions ever made. It will hurt all concerned.
The other tripwires
The tripwire, however, is evident in the satirical tweet by Chinese media CGTN — “Can you help me fight your friend so I can fight you later?” It’s not that simple, but it’s the underlying reality. That could explain the continued strong Chinese support for Russia at the United Nations where it backed its opportunistic resolution on Ukraine and its explanation of vote continued to talk of “legitimate security interests” even while harping on its “independent foreign policy”. Meanwhile, within the country, leaked instructions to internet companies from the Cyberspace Administration of China asked them to “turn down the temperature on public sentiment toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict”, resulting in several hundreds of posts being deleted. China doesn’t want the temperature to heat up.
Beijing is on a sticky wicket. It’s not just the sanctions but the huge and united response from Europe and the United States that is an eye-opener for it as well as the massive dominance of information by the West. For instance, the charge being widely discussed in the media that China is supplying weapons to Russia seems unreal. For years, analysis has highlighted the Russian arms exports to China. How the reverse will at all be workable is unclear. Systems like the T-90 and T-72 tanks supplied by Russia have been reengineered by the Chinese, making any ‘transfer’ impractical. All of this and more are two birds to kill with one stone for Washington since it provides China with a clear picture of what could result if it launches its own ‘liberation’ war.
All of this and more could have influenced China to reach out to Delhi at what it considers an opportune time when India is also facing the heat. But as brought out, the heat is not yet boiling enough in Delhi for it to fall into Beijing’s embrace. If that was the intention, it was done very badly. First, it didn’t want the visit announced, possibly due to embarrassing questions in Pakistan. Second, the mention of the ‘K-word’, though omitted entirely in the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s version, does not speak much of an ‘independent’ foreign policy.
Third, it hasn’t so far invited India to the upcoming meet of Afghanistan’s ‘neighbours’. That gives the lie to Wang’s declared ‘respect’ for India’s role in the region. True, he invited NSA Doval to China to ‘take forward’ the border talks, to which Doval seems to have answered that this could take place only after immediate issues are solved. However, when weighing our response, it is as well to admit three basic foundational realities — that exports to China continue to surge despite the bilateral chill, that Beijing will continue to strut its stuff in the neighbourhood and there’s not a lot one can do about it, and finally, that the Ukraine war is already impacting the Indian economy and could be worse for our defence.
Given all this, it makes sense to partner with China in pressing for a reversal of the escalatory moves emanating from NATO. The cherry on top is that it gives Delhi a role other than just abstaining on every occasion. But a warning is necessary here to both, before wading into the waters of mediation. It’s as well to first make sure that Washington wants an end to war, that it is destroying its enemy at virtually no cost to itself. In fact, it may well be the reverse. War is, and always has been, a business enterprise for the US economy. The bottom line, however, is that none of this outweighs the very real threat of a growing Chinese presence across our borders. Delhi’s reaction is right. Get that sorted, and cooperation could follow. The war in Ukraine is not going anywhere.