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Why Wang Yi came to India

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Chinese foreign minister and State Counselor Wang Yi was on a diplomatic visit in South Asia from March 21 to 27. His visit is significant for many reasons including, but not limited to, the Russia-Ukraine crisis. As the trip advanced, it became clearer that Wang was not only trying to drum up support for the Chinese position on the ongoing crisis, but that Beijing saw it as an opening to push forward its diplomatic agenda, which has been stalemated since the Galwan Valley days.

Wang would talk in warm tones to his Pakistani audience was expected, but that he would subscribe to the resolution of Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, which included remarks on India’s domestic policies and issues, right before coming to New Delhi, defies all reasons.

That his discussions with national security adviser Ajit Doval and external affairs minister S Jaishankar came to a naught and his request for an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was declined, were some of the signs as to how his impromptu escapade to New Delhi ended. His visit to New Delhi was being speculated, but the Chinese foreign ministry kept the details shrouded. However, the bigger question is as to why did China feel the need to send Wang to India, given the relations between the two countries in the recent history?

Part of the answer lies in India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. India has been asking both the sides to keep the diplomatic channels open and resist the violent path to resolve the issue. India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Tirumurti has abstained from voting on the resolutions in the Security Council on the Ukraine crisis, coming from the either side, keeping its diplomatic options open while walking on the tight rope.

It can be speculated that China sees India’s autonomous diplomacy as a favourable opening stance to its position, especially since the Chinese has been increasingly facing the music on the account of their support to Russia. Gaining India’s support would have been significant.

However, Indian position is far more nuanced than what is meeting the eye.

To begin with, it is true that Indo-Russia relationship is based on the strategic cooperation which goes back many decades. Russia is India’s largest arms partner, covering over 60% of its ammunition inventory. It is an important consideration for India, especially keeping in view the less than cordial environment on Indian borders.

The Indo-Soviet bonhomie of the Cold War days is also frequently cited to be the high-water mark of the relationship, but the lesser-known fact is that Indira Gandhi did not agree to sign the Peace and Friendship Treaty for nearly two years and it came into being against the backdrop of Pakistani aggression and refugee crisis in 1970-71. In order to hedge and balance its own interest in the fast-evolving geo-strategic conditions then in South Asia, non-aligned India signed the treaty with the Soviet Union.

But the treaty is not the only reason. There are serious geo-strategic concerns and calculations, which informs the Indian stance. Historically, Russia as a major Eurasian country has always had a bearing on the Indian foreign policy since the colonial era.

Central Asia and Afghanistan were seen as the buffer between the Russian Empire and British India. In order to protect its Indian territory British Raj always tried to keep Russian expansion towards the south in check. The Anglo-Afghan Wars of 19th century were essentially fought with this purpose in mind.

Also, the north-western region has been a sensitive zone because in its history majority of attacks on India happened from the North West where the famous “passes” in the Himalayan ranges would allow the attacking armies to come through. As a major territorial empire in the north, Russia has held strategic significance for India. In the modern times as well, its influence on Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan has been an important consideration in the Indian foreign policy calculations as these countries are important strategic partners. In order to maintain peaceful relations in the neighborhood and keeping the harmony in the larger Asian context, Russia has its niche in Indian geostrategy.

Another reason for the cautious Indian stance on Russia is, of course, the Dragon and its South Asian ally. Since the Crimea war of 2014, as the western pressure of President Putin is increasing, Russia has been walking into the Chinese orbit. For India, Russian decision making influenced by any third country is a possibility rife with all sorts of pitfalls.

Indo-Chinese relations have been sub-par for some time and having its strategic partner getting close to China is undesirable for us. What India would seek from Russia is support for its own position in case if Galwan Valley like situation repeats. Assertive and revisionist China has been a cause of concern for the Asian region. The South China Sea disputes, East China Sea dispute and the Galwan Valley as well as Doklam dispute has piqued the world. Given these circumstances countries like India have their own concerns with regard to the geo-political issues.

In this context, when President Joe Biden calls Indian stance on Ukraine “shaky” and the number of world leaders come to India in the guise of “bilateral relations”, it cuts a rather curious picture as to why these dignitaries, including Wang, are making their way to New Delhi.

With regard to Wang’s visit, it can be derived that Indian reticence to criticise Russia outrightly on the Ukraine issue is seen as an important toe-hold to persuade India to join China in supporting President Putin.

Second, China is hosting this year’s BRICS summit and whether India decides to join or does not join, will leave a huge impression on the leadership of President Xi especially keeping in mind the impending once in a decade leadership change in China which President Xi, in all probability, seeks to reverse.

It will also send a message to the world about the rising power of China.

In the context of the ripples created by Quad grouping in the recent years, this BRICS summit will, in all prospects, seek to reestablish itself as a potent global force.

For a country like India, which promotes multipolar world order and aims to look after its own interests as a matter of its ideological orientation, being part of BRICS and QUAD reiterate to its own ideology, or ‘The Indian Way’.

However, it is clear that in the Russia-Ukraine crisis the old cold war fault lines have been rekindled and asking countries to join one group or other is an old modus operandi of the bygone era. Indian position is in many ways informative about what a neutral country with friends on both sides would do.

Given these undercurrents, State Counselor Wang Yi’s visit to India, was anything but plain and simple.

With his remarks in the OIC meeting on India and Kashmir, along with the OIC resolution on India, it is rather unclear as to what the State Counselor expected from the Indian leadership. India’s consistent position on reducing the armed forces on the Indo-China Border and status-quo ante in the sites of confrontation between the two armies, has not been heeded even after 15 rounds of talks between Military officials of India and China.

The Chinese insistence on India keeping “the long view” in mind and returning to business as usual does not cut ice with Indian establishment. And Indian insistence on China settling the border issue has not been sufficiently appreciated by the Chinese government.

At the end of the day, Russia-Ukraine crisis goes on and the shifting sand dunes of international relations take a new turn, with different faces rising on the horizons of New Delhi, bearing messages of different sides. However, India will pick its own side is evident and clear.

Amritpal Kaur is doctoral scholar, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The views expressed are personal

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