Once is never enough in the carefully crafted, meticulously guarded language of diplomacy. It is repetition which sets the pace. In his formal address at the banquet hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he was convinced that a “China-India strategic and cooperative partnership will make even bigger progress and contribute to an even brighter future for our two countries and to progress and prosperity of this region and the world at large”. And then, in a second mention, he raised a toast to this strategic partnership.
Message from Beijing: we will be serious about this discussion the next time our officials meet. So far, this particular aspect of the India-China dialogue has fluctuated on the assumption that each conversation be deemed successful if both sides manage to agree on a date for the next meeting. Presumably that will change.
So where precisely are the regions for strategic cooperation that will help the world at large? Which parts of this very difficult and acrimonious world are we talking about?
The Himalayas, for starters. Progress begins at home. The boundary has been a central problem between the distant neighbours since 1948, when Maoist Communists seized power in Beijing and claimed Tibet for China. After the low point of the 1962 war, India and China climbed quietly to a high point in 1988 with a unique solution to an intractable problem. They accepted that what could not be resolved was best left unsaid, and there was much to discuss about more productive subjects, like trade and travel. A piquant phrase established the contours of this new relationship: “peace and tranquillity” along the border irrespective of national claims. And so, while the narrative of incursion and excursion continues, no shot is fired in anger. Contrast this with the India-Pak border, where every few weeks shots are fired in rage.
But an unstable boundary does not become stable simply because two nations have agreed it is unstable. This is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed, in his forthright trademark manner, during his talks with President Xi Jinping. His rhetorical analogy was almost Chinese in its nuance: a toothache can immobilise the whole body. There is no significant dispute over half of the Indo-China border, and that section of the line can be settled given minimal will. It is the rest, across Arunachal, Ladakh-Aksai Chin and the part of occupied Kashmir that was gratuitously handed over to China by Pakistan, where the big chill descends. India would like Tibet to gain greater autonomy but has whittled away, over the years, the sovereignty issue.
An important area of partnership lies in the immediate west of India and China. Both are under threat from shadow armies and theocratic militias.
China will have to accept Arunachal as an integral part of India. We cannot predict what the final agreement will be elsewhere, but there is nothing that cannot be settled with a little quid pro quo.
Can there be strategic cooperation elsewhere while such complex debates take their time?
At the moment, eyes and minds are transfixed upon the mountains, coupled with a sustained glance at the Pacific. But an important area of partnership lies in the immediate west of India and China. Both nations are under threat from the shadow armies and theocratic militias that have blossomed dangerously in the war zones of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. Al Qaeda, which is only one of numerous malevolent terror machines, has formally declared war against India. Prime Minister Modi gave one sharp slap across the face of agent provocateurs when he told Al Qaeda to forget its fantasies about turning Indian Muslims into a fifth column of its illegitimate jihad. His assertion, to Fareed Zakaria in an interview to CNN, that Indian Muslims are patriots and will live and die for their nation is powerful affirmation of the PM’s faith and convictions, which will reverberate across the world. But there is far more work ahead.
China is also under siege. Beijing, after underplaying this threat for tactical reasons, is beginning to appreciate that self-appointed “Caliphs” in Af-Pak areas outside the control of Islamabad and Kabul will not rest until they “liberate” Xinjiang. China cannot remain aloof from the world’s most dangerous battle zone.
India and China can find common cause because both are impelled by national security. There is no reason more powerful than this. I do not know if Beijing has given any consideration to such cooperation; or whether it still believes that relations with Pakistan are worth more than this threat to China’s geographical integrity. Some in Beijing will argue that Pakistan can become an ally in this war, but if anyone wants to understand Islamabad’s limitations they can put a phone call through to Washington. The Pakistan establishment is beset by too many contradictions for it to be a reliable friend, even if its intentions are honest.
The Chinese, psychologically, may believe in a wall. But no one can be secure behind a wall in an age of communications technology, and militias that dismiss borders as a farce. If we do not move forward, we will be driven back.