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President Xi Jinping’s India visit extremely critical; why there is danger of relations sliding into a downward spiral

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By Srikanth Kondapalli

Media reports suggested to brisk preparations at Mamallapuram closer to Chennai for hosting China's President Xi Jinping on October 11. Security screening of the place, cargo flight arrival, sprucing of the venues and arrival of "volunteers" from China were all reported. However, neither China nor India has refused so far to announce the visit!

For many, this appears to be queer, if explicable. They would argue how the head of the second-largest economy on Earth and a representative of a P5 member in the United Nations Security Council does not confirm the visit to a "simultaneously rising" Asian country.

The reasons for such a state of bilateral relations can be traced to the ominous trends in the recent past between India and China. Firstly, when leaders announced the dates of their visit, it has become a problematic issue. Premier Li Keqiang, for instance, announced beforehand that his first visit abroad will be that for India after he took over the reins in March 2013, following the 18th Communist Party congress the previous year. However, Depsang Plain’s intrusion by China's troops in April that year threatened to derail his visit to New Delhi in May 2013. The visit eventually was conducted but not before the Chinese troops withdrew from the Ladakh sector.

Also, Doklam incident from June-August 2017 on Bhutan-China borders threatened to cancel the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the Xiamen meeting of the BRICS in early September 2017. This border incident was also eventually resolved before the PM could visit China. In the current round, the English proverb once bitten twice shy becomes more appropriate to be cited given the acrimony on both sides.

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Second, revocation of Article 370 by the Indian Parliament has led to China and Pakistan escalating tensions for India in the region as well as internationally at the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly. While the decibels from the Chinese side has been unprecedented, India, however, has been low-key, if firm, in its protests against Beijing's stance.

While India targeted its guns on Islamabad on the Kashmir issue both at the Security Council as well as the General Assembly deliberations, it has been careful not to escalate relations with China. For instance, while China had insisted on the UN Charter, UNSC resolutions on Kashmir and not to change the status quo, New Delhi merely stated that it is only reorganizing the situation in areas under its control with no implications for China's territories.

New Delhi could have entered into a slanging match with Beijing, as the latter would so frequently enter when its "core interests" are affected on Tibet, Taiwan, South China Sea or even Hong Kong recently. India could have reminded China that it was not a party to the UNSC resolutions in 1948 as it was not a member of the UN. Or it could have reminded China that the UN-led forces have halted a defiant China in the Korean War in 1951. Instead, India let these pass to open a more amicable interaction at Mamallapuram.

New Delhi, nevertheless, reminded Beijing that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor construction and deployment of thousands of security guards in the area has been the culprit in changing the status quo and not the current reorganization in Kashmir.

Third, while China organized an aggressive and highly contested missile and other weapons show in an unprecedented manner at Beijing at its 70th founding day, sending signals of military resolve for its neighbours and the United States, New Delhi was tight-lipped on this issue.

However, when the Indian armed forces organized an integrated joint operation Him Vijay in Arunachal Pradesh, China protested, albeit at a low level this time.

Fourth, India for the first time elevated its interactions of the Quadrilateral Security Initiative that came into being in the revised format in 2017 with the United States, Japan and Australia by attending the foreign ministerial meeting at New York recently. This is a clear signal from New Delhi that it is not happy with the situation in the maritime domains where China has been aggressively making dangerous forays.

Fifth, in the backdrop of so much of shadow boxing in the bilateral relations, it is clear that despite the number of meetings at various levels in improving "strategic communication", mutual trust levels are at a low level among the leaderships vis-à-vis each other.

Unless and until a clear signal of resolve is made at the expected second "informal summit" meeting between President Xi and PM Modi at Mamallapuram, there is a danger that bilateral relations could slide into the path of a downward spiral, if not explicit conflict.

The second informal meeting as such is significant given these ominous signals at bilateral, regional and global levels. Stabilizing relations is important as both are seized with a number of issues-domestic as well as regional.

(The author is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU. Views expressed are personal.)