India-China Talks: Who’s Calling The Shots — Jaishankar Or Doval?

Earlier, NSA Ajit Doval anchored China policy. Jaishankar’s recent visit to Beijing redefined the dynamics.

Published13 Aug 2019, 02:36 PM IST
Opinion
5 min read

Besides dealing with the fallout of India’s decision to make some constitutional changes in Jammu & Kashmir, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s meetings with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing were cordial and purposeful.

On Kashmir, both sides said what they had to say. Wang Yi expressed China’s concerns over the situation and its fallout on India-Pakistan relations.

He repeated the Chinese position, that the change in Article 370 could change the status quo and cause regional tensions, and as such, they affected China’s sovereign rights and interests.

Jaishankar reassured Wang that the constitutional changes were domestic and did not alter issues relating to sovereignty, neither would they affect the Indo-Pak Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, nor for that matter, the Line of Actual Control (LaC) between India and China.

Sino-Indian Relations Amid Turbulence: “Differences Shouldn’t Become Disputes”

That said, they got down to business—to do the ground work for the forthcoming second informal summit between Modi and Xi to be held in October this year, and trying to provide shape to Sino-Indian relations in a period of great turbulence.

The agenda for the 2nd informal summit is huge—besides the “legacy” issues relating to the Sino-Indian border and India’s NSG membership, are those related to trade, and India’s approach towards the Belt an Road Initiative (BRI). Added to this are the potential fallout of the Kashmir, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan developments.

In his remarks to Wang, S Jaishankar recalled a phrase he had, as Foreign Secretary, picked up from the meeting between  Prime Minister Modi and President Xi at Astana on the sidelines of the SCO summit in 2017.

This was that, that though the two countries had differences, it was important “that differences should not become disputes”.

In this era of turbulence, both sides are keen not to rock the Sino-Indian boat. India needs to focus on J&K, and China on Hong Kong. Things going south in both areas is a very live possibility, and let’s not kid ourselves, the Chinese are capable of making things difficult for us via Pakistan.

This Time, Jaishankar Took The Lead, Not NSA Doval

The Indian view was encapsulated in another phrase that echoes Jaishankar’s term as Ambassador in Beijing: both sides should show “mutual sensitivity to each other’s core concerns.” The Chinese have for long signalled their “core concerns”—Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and the political system of the country. Jaishankar is turning this around to tell Beijing that others, too, have red lines.

An important angle in Jaishankar’s visit to Beijing was that it was he who is leading the charge, rather than his colleague, National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval who hithertofore anchored China policy.

The visit gives us a new picture of the dynamics of the foreign and security policy of the Modi 2.0 government.

This is a government which has seen the induction of two new and key actors—Union Home Minister Amit Shah and EAM Jaishankar, as well as the promotion of NSA Doval. All these individuals have the ear of the PM and are hence powerful, but they are also having to readjust the equations of Modi 1.0, where neither the Home Minister nor the EAM had an inside track.

Further, their boss has now, in political terms, not just gathered greater political authority in his hands, but has also, the experience he did not have in his first term.

Ajit Doval’s Time As Special Representative on Sino-Indian affairs

It is a fact that Doval is currently preoccupied with developments in Jammu & Kashmir where he has been camping for the past week.

But in recent decades, it was the NSA, who also doubled as the Special Representative on the Sino-Indian issues, who had the overall charge of the China policy, which is naturally run by the PM himself.

Doval handled the key aspects of the Sino-Indian relations prior to this. It was he who met with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jichei in Beijing in July 2017, at the sidelines of a BRICS event, even as the Doklam confrontation was going on.

Whether or not it was because of this meeting, a month later the two sides disengaged. And that September, when Modi met his counterpart Xi at the sidelines of a BRICS Summit, the two sides could declare that henceforth they would take a “forward-looking approach” and ensure that incidents like Doklam did not recur.

We have no direct confirmation, but more likely than not, by this time, both leaders  realised that their ties were becoming hostage to minor incidents and issues, and required higher-level strategic attention and better high-level communication.

Three months later, in December 2017, Doval and Yang met for their 20th round of Special Representatives talks in New Delhi.

These talks were held 20 months after their previous round, the 19th, that had been held in Beijing.  Yang did meet his ministerial counterpart, Sushma Swaraj during the visit, but the real business was conducted with Doval.

What Matters Is The Equation Jaishankar & Doval Share With Their Boss

Doval met Yang again on the sidelines of an SCO meeting in Shanghai in mid-April 2018 when the finer details of the Wuhan summit, held at the end of that month, were ironed out. It was just after this that Wang was promoted to the position of State Councillor, and became SR for the talks with India.

As of now, Jaishankar and Wang represent one level of the Sino-Indian discourse, and Doval and Yang represent the other.

What needs to be noted is that though Wang has been promoted as a State Councillor and designated SR, his predecessor Yang was promoted as a member of the powerful Communist Party of China Politburo in the 2017 Party Congress.

In fact, when it comes to foreign policy, Wang is not a member of the apex Chinese Foreign Affairs Commission which is headed by Xi Jinping. Its other members are Premier Li Keqiang and Vice President Wang Qishan. Yang Jichei is both member and the member secretary of the Commission, which is where the real power to make Chinese foreign policy resides.

In India, Jaishankar is a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security and Doval is not. But in the Modi government that means little by itself, and Doval is, after all, the SR for China and much more else. However, what really matters is their respective equation with their boss.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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