Post Doklam standoff, why Nirmala Sitharaman’s China visit is crucial for India-China relations

Manohar Parrikar was last Defence Minister to visit China was in April 2016, following which there were regular diplomatic and military interactions. But, Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit comes at a time where the relationship between the two nations needs sensitive and careful handling.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to China will be the first Ministerial-level visit by India to China after the 73-day Dokalm standoff. However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s did visit New Delhi, during the Russia-India-China, trilateral dialogue that was held in December last year. Speaking at the Ammo 2018, first International Conference on Military Ammunition, the Defence Minister confirmed that she would be visiting China in late April. The visit by Nirmala Sitharaman will definitely be the highest level talks to have occurred after the border standoff at Doklam. This step by the Defence Minister is being seen an attempt to stabilise India’s relationship with China.
Earlier this month, IE had reported that the Government had sent out a note to “senior leaders” and “government functionaries” at the centre to stay away from events that mark the 60 years of exile of Tibetans and their leader The Dalai Lama. This is an unusual departure in the Tibetan policy by India and has occurred due to the sensitive situation between India and China.
Though the burden of overarching areas of contention bothers both the nations, there is also enough room for dialogue, says Abhijnan Rej, Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme at ORF. “The continued disagreement on issues of NSG, CPEC, Massod Azar and with the standoff at Doklam, things between Indian and China have been strained for some time now. India has now come to understand that the way forward is through looking at areas of convergence. Defence Minister’s expected visit to China might bring out several confidence-building measures. Joint military exercises and diplomatic talks on the connectivity of Bangaldesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor could be another area of discussion”, Rej tells FE Online.
Manohar Parrikar was last Defence Minister to visit China was in April 2016, following which there were regular diplomatic and military interactions. But, Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit comes at a time where the relationship between the two nations needs sensitive and careful handling. Despite several agreements on border defence cooperation and peacekeeping, the border dispute continues to prick the two nations. Amid such a sensitive dispute, another standoff like Doklam would be hazardous, feel experts. Rej said that apart from other diplomatic talks, there would definitely be background talks on the border dispute, as it continues to be the sore sticking point for both the nations.
The Chinese might not have reacted strongly to the Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, but they remain quite observant about India’s movements in IOR. On the other hand, the constant effort by China to be an influencer in the Maldives particularly adds to India’s concerns. However, the Maldivian government which asserted it’s ‘India First Policy’, calling India a big brother was a big snub to China. The growing camaraderie between India and United States has also irked the Chinese sentiments. Nevertheless, the dialogue that would be initiated by the Defence Minister would be able to surpass the distrust between the two nations. Phunchok Stobdan, a senior fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses says that the nature of the visit will definitely be diplomatic in nature. The visit will try to implement capacity building measures and ensure peace at the border areas, he tells FE Online.
Apart from the Defence Minister’s visit, Sushma Swaraj, the External Affairs Minister is also likely to travel to China to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in April. She is expected to meet her counterpart, Wang Yi. The visit by the top two Indian ministers will not just help address defence and military issues, but will also help in taking forward solutions to issues like climate change, trade & connectivity, energy etc. The Defence Minister’s visit, in particular, will definitely seek to rebalance the issues and will look to establish new India-China bilateral relation that which is devoid of mistrust. Whether such an attempt would be fruitful is something that only time will tell/

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