The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in India ostensibly to inspect the arrangements for the BRICS summit in Goa later this year. His more immediate task is to explore just how determined the Modi govt is to stick to the line it has taken on the South China Sea dispute, where India has joined with the US and Japan in urging Beijing to respect the Hague verdict rejecting China’s expansive nine dash line claims in the Sea. It is solidifying of the regional opinion around these Big Three that Beijing wishes to thwart.
He met today with the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, whose brief was to see if Beijing would cede ground on its veto to India’s entry into the Nuclear suppliers Group. Considering, the PMO runs the MEA, Swaraj was on short reins, but implicit in her task was freedom accorded her to hint to Wang that some kind of deal was possible — Beijing’s support for India’s NSG membership in return for New Delhi being less strident on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, because surely it cannot entirely disown the principle of freedom of navigation and the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) that the International Court of Arbitration upheld.
Wang is here to do just the reverse, extract a promise of support on the SCS while yielding less than nothing on the NSG veto but to talk nevertheless, albeit very vaguely, of a “compromise” in the hope that PM Modi — keen on Chinese investment in Indian infrastructure projects in particular and eager for a BRICS summit success, can be suckered into making concessions.
It is this possibility that ought to worry the Indian people the most. Modi sees the BRICS Goa Meet as a means of balancing his overt tilt to America. But this works to China’s advantage because Beijing will ask for India, at a minimum, remaining “neutral” in the SCS dispute while retaining its veto on NSG, because President Xi Jinping will reasonably surmise that Modi is more in need of Chinese have, than he is in need of India’s on SCS — after all Beijing is dealing directly with Washington to muzzle its backing, for a start, to the Philippines.
Time and again, Modi has sprung a surprise, departed from the agreed upon policy line or game plan, even as Foreign Secretary Jaishankar and his colleagues in MEA in attendance have been nonplussed by the prime minister’s usually wrong moves for the wrong reasons. Sushma may not have committed to anything in the way Wang would have liked her to, but what is crucial are the impressions about the “give” in China’s NSG position that she conveys to Modi. If she mistakes Wang’s ambiguous words — and the Chinese interlocuters since Zhouenlai have been masters of ambiguity, as indicating some movement forward, then Modi may jump to conclusion — and whatever happens in the formal talks — will exercise his uniquely personalized diplomacy in Goa in October to offer what Xi wants in the expectation the Chinese President will reciprocate, when actually he will do nothing of the kind.
Playing the Game on Chinese terms is to be at the losing end. It is best, GOI points out that there is really no connection between the two issues — SCS is a global commons matter of universal concern and affecting global trade, NSG membership is only an Indian concern, and the twain don’t meet. Modi could, however, emphasize how there are many states in the SCS region fearful of China which have approached New Delhi for help and assistance and that with a few of them, such as Vietnam, Indian has direct and substantive energy and other economic interests that need to be protected. It is the scale of naval and military effort India may deploy in SCS that can be calibrated to minimize offence to China while requiring Beijing accommodate India on NSG by abstaining from the vote. This is the only deal that won’t imperil India’s strategic options and interests. Should this be made clear to Wang, and China is found agreeable, Modi will have the plank to grandstand in Goa.