Wang Yi in India: Whither India’s muscular foreign policy?

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in India for a two-day visit from 24 to 25 March—the first by a high-ranking Chinese official since the outbreak of the conflict between India and China along the LAC in the summer of 2020. The MEA has made no mention of the visit on its social media and Indian newspapers appear to have received confirmation of the visit from Chinese diplomatic sources.

Clearly, the optics are not good but why did New Delhi go forward with the visit in the first place if it wishes to keep it under wraps or low-key?

It is reported that Wang Yi will meet with NSA Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and that the agenda really is to invite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit China for the in-person BRICS summit to be held in China later this year. Alongside, the idea is also to hold a meeting of the Russia-India-China trilateral on the sidelines.

But given who Wang is meeting, it is likely that the border situation will come up in discussions. The situation as it stands remains one of progress at a snail’s pace. After the sharp words of the 13th round of India-China Corps Commander level talks, New Delhi appeared to return to business as usual at the two subsequent rounds putting out milk-and-honey statements jointly with the Chinese. If there is an explanation for the government’s prolonged talks with the Chinese at the military level and the willingness of its top echelons to engage with the Chinese both in person and in the virtual mode, it appears to be that talking is better than fighting. If so, the practice of issuing statements alternatively combative and anodyne, the latter sometimes singly and at other times, jointly, escapes logic.

And now Wang Yi is actually in India with the express purpose of getting the Prime Minister to visit China. In other words, the Chinese regime is inviting the Prime Minister of India to visit at a time when its soldiers are sitting on Indian territory captured in 2020 in violation of bilateral agreements and international law. Good sense and self-respect demand that the Prime Minister not go. And it is very likely that he will not.

Wang’s visit certainly requires planning in advance but the Chinese waited until the eve of the visit on 22 March to deliberately offend India afresh by his remarks at the foreign ministers’ conference during the 48th Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting held in Islamabad., “On Kashmir”, he declared “we have heard again today the calls of many of our Islamic friends. And China shares the same hope”.

Also during the visit, Wang called Pakistan his “second home”, and met with the top Pakistani leadership, including Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff on 23 March, where he was recorded stating that China-Pakistan ties were “based on convergence of views and mutual respect”. Earlier, in January, Pakistan took possession of a Chinese-built Type 054 frigate and this month, of six J-10CE fighter jets. Later this month, Pakistan is expected to induct 50 new JF-17 fighters jointly developed with China.

All of this is par for the course as far as Chinese behaviour is concerned. Nevertheless, India has so far been patient with the Chinese issuing only the occasional rebuke but largely reacting with political and military deals of its own with the Americans. The problem with this approach is that it lowers India to the position of Pakistan where it is the Americans and the Chinese that are the big boys in the room using their proxies India and Pakistan respectively, to fight their battles for them.

New Delhi continues to under-utilise the opportunity to revise and reset its China policy that the Chinese transgressions in eastern Ladakh provided nearly two years ago. Instead of reacting directly and punitively, politically and militarily, the Indian government has kept its sharpest responses limited to the economic front. Even now, instead of calling off or postponing Wang’s visit as a sign of displeasure, New Delhi has restricted itself to a statement by the MEA spokesperson. While the statement points out that China “should note that India refrains from public judgement of [its] internal issues”, surely the time is past for only oblique threats?

It has been clear for some time that China will not refrain from commenting on Kashmir. Beijing has raked up the subject frequently—its criticism of India’s dilution of Art. 370 and its issuing of stapled visas for those from Kashmir fall within recent memory. New Delhi’s inability then to comment regularly and explicitly on a range of issues—Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong—where China is in violation of international law and norms stands out. If New Delhi is afraid of a fallout on the LAC, then this is hardly the muscular foreign policy Indians were promised.

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Wang Yi in India: Whither India’s muscular foreign policy?Moneycontrol, 25 March 2022.


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