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Foreign Policy under the new Chinese Leaders

The new Chinese leaders have been active in foreign affairs almost immediately after taking over their new offices in March this year. Premier Li Keqiang visited India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany as part of his first outing. President Xi Jinping visited Russia on his first foreign visit, as well as several African countries, including South Africa for the BRICS Summit; more recently, he visited several South and Central American countries before going for an informal summit – the first such – with President Obama in California in the inappropriately-named Rancho Mirage.

There are several aspects in these travels that should be of special interest to India. To anticipate the analysis, what seems to be on Chinese minds is that they need to work on the US and India in order to prevent the “rebalance” in American policy towards the Asia-Pacific from taking firm hold, and to keep countries like India out of such a strategic arrangement in any case.

To begin with the India end – it was much touted in the Chinese media and official comment as the first visit abroad of the new Premier – an indication of the importance they attach to India. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but we in India need to parse this without getting emotional. The real importance is in the context of the US pivot, and the need to keep India out of any kind of alignment with this unfolding strategy. The US archives make frequent reference to the Indian leaders’ weakness for flattery [and the need to play on this], and it would not escape the Chinese that this is indeed an approach worth trying.

Premier Li’s visit itself yielded mixed results. There was the positive side in the reference to the need to fix the trade deficit and to ensure greater transparency on the exploitation of common rivers. Both are genuine causes of concern for India, and these need to be addressed with despatch. Positive too, were the references to the building the BCIM [Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar – alphabetical rather than geographical order] corridor for connectivity, and support for India’s aspirations for a greater role in the UN, including the Security Council. This is not quite the support for India’s permanent membership of the Security Council that we seek, but this is as far as the Chinese will go.

Nonetheless, there was usually a catch in all of this, and the details were spelt out in the Premier’s speech at the ICWA, where he was freer to spell out China’s own thinking. On trade, for instance, there was the catch that Indian products needed to be competitive; on the boundary issue, there is to be another agreement [the so-called Border Defence Cooperation Agreement] before a final settlement, and this is aimed, from the Chinese side, to freeze the current infrastructure in the border areas. The joint statement released while Li was still in India, contains no reference to such an additional agreement, and rightly so. The two agreements of 1993 and 1996 are adequate for the purpose, and this is hinted at in the joint document too. The real requirement is only that they should be acted upon. This is not happening, and China is the violator. However, Li’s speech suggests that we have not heard the last of this proposal.

The joint statement itself also contained two contradictory formulations: on the one hand it enjoined on both countries the need to be sensitive to each other’s core concerns, while on the other, there was the reference to each country being free to pursue its relations with other countries. These are, of course, not necessarily contradictory, but both countries’ leaders were to bring out the contradictions within days – Li in Pakistan, Singh in Japan.

The real aim of the visit was made clear by Li in his speech at the ICWA – the passage setting it out is worth quoting in full.

“No country can choose its neighbors, and a distant relative may not be as helpful as a near neighbour. China and India should not seek cooperation from afar with a ready partner at hand.”

The hint is plain enough: India cannot hope to use America in its face-off with China. The truth is that it is not correct, and we should know this better than most. Pakistan has successfully used America for its purposes in the region – against India. And that is not the only thing wrong with this assertion; as shown below, in the discussion on President’s Xi’s visit to California, China is itself seriously seeking cooperation with the US. Clearly, the intent is that India should not seek the support of the “distant relative”, and should avoid the rebalancing being offered by the US.

During his stay, Premier Li laid emphasis on the need for trust between India and China. This thought was spelt out clearly by Foreign Minister Wang when he said that “the establishment and enhancing of strategic mutual trust is a key to the future trend of China-India relations.” Nobody can quarrel with this, but it does reflect a curious disregard of the ground reality – just a few weeks prior to the visit, there had been a tense stand-off in Depsang in Ladakh, and trust was the last thing that either side showed.

In fact, there is less to fixing the trust issue than many people think. All it takes is for China to share its perception of where the Line of Actual Control [LAC] runs. This is a formal undertaking made in 1996, in the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures along the LAC, and signed by then-President Jiang Zemin and then-Prime Minister Deve Gowda. In the seventeen years since then, there has been no move from the Chinese side to clarify its perception of the LAC. The Depsang incident brought out once again, not for the first time, the importance of an agreed perception of the LAC. Short of this, talk is cheap.

On the contrary, there has been some regression. For years, it has been the Chinese position that the western sector to be discussed with India begins at the Karakoram Pass, a position they adopted in 1960, at the officials’ talks launched after Zhou Enlai’s visit to India in April of that year. Since then, they signed the border agreement with Pakistan, in 1963, thus effectively closing off any meaningful talks on that portion of the border. Latterly, they have also been advancing the position that the common border is only 2000 km long, thus effectively closing out the entire border between J&K and Tibet. It is these substantive issues that are undermining trust. A, nd mere statements, however sincerely delivered, cannot overcome the trust deficit.

Li went on to Pakistan where the substance and tone of his statements gave additional grounds for a second hard look at Chinese approaches to the region. From the Indian perspective, the most negative formulation is the following excerpt from the joint statement issued after the visit:

The two sides agree to continue encouraging relevant countries in the region to resolve their differences through consultations and negotiations in accordance with relevant principles of UN Charter.”

In using this formulation, the Chinese agreed to something they know is unacceptable to India, one of the “relevant countries” at whom this formulation is aimed. Moreover, it is something that both India and Pakistan have effectively dropped from their bilateral discussion since the Lahore Declaration of 1999.

There were also references to Pakistan being a bridge between China on the one part, and South, Central, and West Asia on the other. Maritime cooperation is also reflected in the communiqué, though there is a general formulation to safeguarding the security of the sea-lanes. And there was a bland reference to Afghanistan. All of these are also touched upon in the India-China document - nothing that one could take exception to in this, but these can have implications for India, depending on how they are implemented.

Prime Minister Singh visited Japan a few days later, and it was clear that the quality of the relationship was entirely different from that between India and China. It went beyond the references to democracy and the rule of law, or even the maritime dimension, where India and Japan stated their agreed positions. The closer understanding was reflected in the formulations used on defence cooperation, Afghanistan, terrorism, the international technology control regimes, and even North Korea. The joint statement made it clear that India and Japan were in almost complete agreement on all these issues in a way that neither was with China. A comment from the Chinese press highlights this:

“The financial assistance offered by Japan is nothing compared to the strategic complementarities struck by India and Japan during Singh's Japan visit.”

It was clear that the Chinese were quite rattled by this kind of understanding between the two Asian democracies, and this was reflected in the media projection on the visit. Japan is clearly beyond the pale for China, and therefore the focus was on India: there was advice for India not to be swayed by anti-China considerations in the Global Times, which suggested, in a cartoon accompanying one of the commentaries, that even in combination, India and Japan were no match for China.

This was the backdrop to the visit of President Xi Jinping to the US. This was the first such informal summit between the American and Chinese leaders. As a result, there were no formal speeches or joint communiqués. Instead, there were only some brief remarks to the press. Even these, though, gave some idea of what the Chinese had in mind: Xi hinted at the need to revive the notion of a G2. His remarks throughout the visit had one leitmotif, that the US and China had a special role to play in global affairs and that both countries should try and build a new type of relations, which would avoid the historical pattern of a clash between an established and a rising power.

The message was given sharper focus during the joint press conference of the two leaders on 8 June. It came in answer to a question addressed to President Xi from China Central TV, so we know it was an anticipated question. It asked about whether there had been any discussion on the proposal made by Xi about building a new type of great power relations. An excerpt from the reply given by Xi will illustrate the point being made:

And that is to say the two sides must work together to build a new model of major country relationship based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation for the benefit of the Chinese and American peoples, and people elsewhere in the world.

The international community looks to China and the United States to deliver this. When China and the United States work together, we can be an anchor for world stability and the propeller of world peace. [Emphasis added]

The message is unmistakable: there should be no military confrontation between the US and China, and the two can cooperate to play the role of anchor for stability and peace. The rebalancing is again the heart of the message, though it is dressed in different language.

What emerges from this brief survey of early Chinese foreign policy activity is that the new leaders are making an effort to address their principal security concern – the US pivot and the danger that India [and Japan] will be drawn into this arrangement. They do not harbour much hope from Japan, indeed, seem to be clear that Japan will have to be confronted, especially under the current LDP Government. However, they hope to influence India and the US, which is why they were both the early targets of attention.

President Obama gave a guarded response to the remarks made by President Xi, but it is worth noting that he did not endorse any of the notions put forward. Instead, he concentrated on the nitty-gritty of the relationship, and this could be interpreted to mean that he was equally non-committal in the private conversations. The only point worth noting in this context is that Xi repeatedly said that both leaders agreed on what he was proposing, and his was not contradicted by Obama.

These, then, appear to be the early moves by the new Chinese leaders, and it is important for India to understand them and evaluate them carefully. It would appear that, in substantive terms, there was little that was new in the offers made by Premier Li. Our response has been similarly restrained. The Americans have not shown their hand, but the kind of actions they have been taking provide some indication of where they are going. They have stepped up their military presence in Australia, and are increasing their presence in Guam. They are forging ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, into which they have included Japan, but not China [or India – we need to ponder over this].

Moltke the Elder remarked once that no military plan survives first contact with the enemy. The same is true of international relations. Obama began with his own notion of G2, and of dialogue with Iran, but both these fell away as reality took hold. The same may happen with the new charm offensive of the Chinese leaders. It is important for India to keep a close eye on the emerging contours of their policy, and especially to watch out for the nature of the evolving US-China relationship.

June 2013,

New Delhi.

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