Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | The China challenge before Sushma Swaraj

As the Indian external affairs minister meets her Chinese counterpart this week, observers will be watching if she can get China to change its stance on JeM leader Masood Azhar

After a modest diplomatic win for India at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) where it was able get member countries to condemn the Pulwama attack, the focus will now shift to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to China later this week for the Russia-India-China meeting where she will meet her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the main event. Observers will be watching if India is able to get China, which has so far blocked its attempts to declare Masood Azhar—head of the UN-designated terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)—as a global terrorist, to change its stance. The meeting will be the first between the two neighbours since the attack on Indian security forces in Pulwama, Kashmir, on 14 February in which 40 paramilitary personnel were killed. JeM has claimed responsibility for the attack. While the UNSC strongly condemned the attack, its statement stopped short of naming Pakistan or Azhar explicitly, largely because China stonewalled such efforts.

The task for Swaraj now will be to build pressure on China not to side with Pakistan on terrorism. That, no doubt, is going to be hard as China is a close ally of Pakistan and has often supported it to prevent India from growing into a force that could counter its influence in the region. Besides, its Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at improving connectivity and facilitating trade with regional countries, requires Pakistan’s cooperation and it would not like to do anything to jeopardize that project. However, Swaraj could nudge the Chinese to view the situation differently: the BRI can be secured only if its route is sanitised of the terror ecosystem. Notwithstanding the difficult nature of the task, this is perhaps the best time for India to pressure China as it has the support of many countries. This was evident in the UNSC where all members, permanent as well as non-permanent, except China, were in India’s corner. Swaraj will have to send out a strong diplomatic message that India is going to gather global support, which could isolate China and weaken its efforts to play an increasingly central role in global policymaking. China is the world’s second largest economy and hopes to play a pivotal role in world politics by countering US influence. However, its stand on crucial issues like global terrorism where it is widely seen to be condoning acts, such as the Pulwama attack, could hurt its credibility as an emerging world leader.

Swaraj could also impress upon China the importance of bilateral ties, which are not only crucial from an economic perspective but also for China’s efforts in gaining greater world influence. China’s trade with India is growing rapidly. Bilateral trade in the fiscal year 2018 rose 36% from FY14 to almost $90 billion. Worryingly, India’s trade deficit has almost doubled from $36 billion to $63 billion over the same period. At the same time, its efforts to gain greater access to the Chinese market have not received much policy support. This, even as numerous Chinese companies such as Huawei and SAIC Motor are lining up to establish a footprint here, especially as the trade war with the US forces them to look for alternative markets. Swaraj could use some of this market opportunity as a lever to pressure China. No doubt, a trade battle would inflict pain on India as well by way of loss of much-needed investments and jobs, but given the anger in India and the desire to see Pakistan pay for harbouring terrorists, it may be worth the cost.

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