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All eyes on NSA Ajit Doval’s China visit this week amid Dokalam standoff

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-07-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is to visit China this week for a meeting with his counterparts from Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (Brics) emerging economies but all eyes are focussed on the trip because of the military standoff between India and China in Dokalam.

Doval’s visit starting on 27 July will be the fourth by an Indian government representative since the start of the face off on 16 June in the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China triggered by the Chinese trying to build a road on the plateau in Bhutanese territory. Human resources development minister Prakash Javadekar, minister of state for tourism Mahesh Sharma and health minister J.P. Nadda have visited China for Brics-related meetings earlier this month.

But the visit by Doval, who is also India’s special representative for border talks with China, is the most closely watched given the stakes involved.

“Doval’s visit is a major opportunity for the two sides to scale down the temperature on the border,” said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College. “He is best placed to achieve the outcome that would satisfy both sides. But I don’t see any dramatic development out of the visit. Both sides have ratcheted up the tension to a level from where a dramatic climb down would be difficult. But Doval’s visit can certainly lay the groundwork” for a cooling of temperatures, Pant said.

In the past weeks, China’s foreign ministry has launched unprecedented attacks against India, accusing it of “trespassing” into Chinese territory. Chinese officials as well as state-controlled media have warned India to remember lessons from history—an allusion to the 1962 war between the Asian giants which ended badly for India. The Chinese foreign ministry has also said any talks could only happen after India withdraws from Dokalam.

Lately, the Global Times news website has launched seemingly personal attacks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, pointed out.

A case in point: The Global Times saying that Modi’s election in 2014 had fuelled nationalist sentiments. “In diplomacy, New Delhi is demanded to act tougher in foreign relations, especially toward countries like Pakistan and China,” it said in an opinion piece. “The border row this time is an action targeted at China that caters to the demand of India’s religious nationalists,” it said. In another instance, the Global Times accused Swaraj of lying to the Indian Parliament when she said “India’s position is not wrong on the tri-junction and all nations are with it. The law is with our country.”

But over the weekend, just ahead of Doval’s visit, a commentary by state-run Xinhua news agency underscored that India and China “need to enhance communication and nurture trust between them”.

According to Kondapalli, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 19th Party Congress—where five of the seven members of the powerful Politbureau Standing Committee (PSC) will be newly appointed—to be held in October/November has complicated matters. “President Xi Jinping would not like to be seen as giving in to India as it will weaken his hand before the Party Congress,” Kondapalli said. This will mean factions supported by former presidents like Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin getting an edge in getting their nominees appointed to the PSC rather than Xi’s, he said adding, “this would be something he (Xi) would like to avoid”.

But no breakthrough or a heightening of tensions would cast a shadow over Modi’s visit to China in September for the Brics summit. “It would be very awkward for Modi to be in China and for China to receive him if this standoff continues till then (September, when China will host the BRICS summit),” Pant said.

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