See what’s behind the Sino-Indian ‘reset’

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

It was on Monday, March 20, 1989, when the governor-designate of West Bengal, the late T.V. Rajeshwar (a former Intelligence Bureau director, 1980-1983), landed at Calcutta (now Kolkata) airport to take charge of his duties. The flight was on time and tarmac-positioned state paraphernalia ready with the official protocol to receive the incoming head of the state. But that was not to be thanks to an “unexpected” and “unforeseen” faux pas — a small gap between the door of the aircraft and the mobile staircase compelled the governor-designate to remain inside the plane for more than 15 minutes. Reportedly, it was an “unavoidable” incident. However, to me it appeared a well-thought-out plan hatched by the Communist-run state government. It raised a big question — whether the Communists had an inherent penchant to resort to their own “special — my way or highway” philosophy, especially when it came to extending courtesy to “unwanted” non-Communist guest in their territory?
“Welcome to Calcutta” ran the silent murmur of the CPI(M), to the bourgeoisie, capitalist Centre-appointed governor to the land of the proletariat. I witnessed the shenanigans of the host, the West Bengal government, from the tarmac. It was gross misbehaviour and an act lacking grace and dignity.
Almost 29 years later, I again saw, through live TV coverage, another incident of similar nature in a foreign Communist land. On Friday, April 27, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at Wuhan airport in China’s Hubei province, at 12.30 am, he was forced to stay put inside his aircraft for more than 10 minutes due to a similar “mismatch” between the Chinese staircase and the Indian aircraft door-case. “Welcome to Communist China, Mr Modi” for the “informal summit”!
What the Chinese did to the Indian PM on his arrival at Wuhan was an act of indignity, lacking in grace. Emulating the Indian Bengali Communists, the Chinese Communists too resorted to “psychological warfare”.
We must always remember the Chinese have always believed in “signals”. Their signages and psychology must be fathomed, always, specially, while dealing with foreigners. It’s their tradition. Whether you like it or not, you have to gulp it down your throat if you are in China to do business.
You must not expect anything else to happen regarding the thought, psyche, culture and tradition of the Chinese hosts.
The next point to be noted was the first meeting between the two leaders. The background wall of the room appeared to contain a painting of the summer palace of Chinese emperors which was brutally burnt down by the Anglo-French invasion of October 18, 1860, during the Second Opium War, on the orders of Lord Ripon. As it so often happened in the past, Indian troops belonging to the Punjab and Madras Regiments too were part of the mindless loot by the destructive brigade under the command of the two Western powers. Through this painting, Mr Xi seems to have been signalling grimly, and silently reminding his guest (Mr Modi) about the history of Chinese tragedies, of which New Delhi’s predecessor powers were part and parcel. “Look, this is what you people did to us in cahoots with the West. Hence, we will neither forget nor forgive you. Trade, territory, terror, technology, tariffs, come what may. Nevertheless, today we will entertain you because we are once again on the backfoot; being haunted and hunted by the US tax hike and trade war and the tough stand adopted by Europe regarding technology and our endeavour to take over their high-profile companies and corporations,” he seemed to be saying.
It must, nevertheless, be appreciated that India, from the very beginning, had no big expectations from the Chinese side. New Delhi had publicly conceded that no immediate result would come out of Wuhan meeting; that this “informal summit” was for exploring possibilities for the future — for course direction or correction. It was an interaction where neither convergence nor divergence could have been on agenda. In fact, prima facie, this was an experimental move. Why? Because, if only convergence is discussed and agreed to, then criticism will soar as to how can divergence be omitted? Conversely, if divergence takes precedence over convergence in public, the quantum of (domestic) public criticism could be worse.
Thus the need for an unconventional bilateral summit, even if “informal”. However, this “informal” diplomacy too has its potential adverse side effects. When nothing is formalised, institutionalised or concretised, things tend to be in a fluid state; a state in which shape, size, length, breadth, colour and formation all remain undefined, un-agreed to, thereby sowing the seeds of free-for-all in future and unilateral denial or dispute according to one’s own convenience! Hence, the need for formal, carefully structured and serious bilateral diplomacy could not be left behind for long.
Even in the best of times Sino-Indian relations are fraught with instant danger — it is like a weather vane that can turn any time, at the slightest pretext or provocation, owing to profound trust deficit, which can’t be wished away. Trust is like a mirror, once broken, it will never be the same again. Still, mirror restoration is possible through replacement. How does one restore broken trust?
One thing, nevertheless, appears to be better than before. Both Mr Modi and Mr Xi appear to have had time for each other. For Mr Xi, it is fine being the lifetime ruler of 1.4 billion heads. But for Mr Modi, it is a five-year cycle. He does not have the luxury of unlimited time for a country of 1.3 billion.
We can therefore say that irrespective of any informal or formal sweet talk and charm offensive, an instant outcome of the Wuhan meeting is highly unlikely.
The difference in attitude of India and China is too stark to be bridged any time soon. Why? Because behind the bilateral is the core issue of “unresolved territory”, which will continue as “divergence” and which may prick the Delhi-Beijing bilateral relationship no end in the near future. China has regularly and repeatedly announced that its territorial claim is its sovereignty, hence it’s non-negotiable. For India too, a violation of “sovereignty” is unacceptable, irrespective of which political party is in power. Hence, both Beijing and New Delhi simply cannot leave divergence alone. It must be addressed, and the sooner the better. Territory resolution alone could prove to be the prelude to tangible and visible results. Divergence begs a political resolution, not an indefinite delay or diplomatic dissolution.