New Delhi: After days of warning India not to interfere in the selection process of the next Dalai Lama and renewing its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, China has changed tack. Its designated ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, has mentioned an early boundary settlement possibly for the first time from the Chinese side although plenty of caveats have been gently inserted into the narrative. What does it mean? Does it signify a mild change of heart or is China stringing India along knowing that its rulers understand domestic politics better than geopolitics while caring little for the economy?

China is in a bind over the trade war with the United States in which Sun Weidong sought India’s help against Washington’s “unilateralism” without taking its name. Admitting to China’s yawning trade surplus with India, he spoke of easing imports of Indian medicines, rice and sugar but gave no firm commitments. Alluding to the boundary settlement which he wrapped in platitudinous words, he expressed China’s desire for peace on the frontiers as a prelude and the avoidance of military misunderstandings of which he provided no specifics. Envoys moving to new stations typically try to keep an open mind but Sun Weidong is not an ordinary envoy nor would he have spoken without Beijing’s clearance and indeed might have been prompted to. So what’s really at play?

With Donald Trump leading the United States, China is less able to manage the external environment than before. Relations with the other major power, Russia, have never been better and Moscow feels Washington’s heat as much as Beijing does if not more. In China’s own vicinity, there is no neutral country of India’s size, while an enormous economic power like Japan is a treaty ally of the United States, and the rest, whereas increasingly inimical to China, pose a real threat only should they come together in a coalition with a foreign leader, and Washington is not ready yet to take up the role.

In the normal course, India would find more in common with liberal democratic United States than authoritarian China, over and above India’s suspicions about China since the 1962 aggression and Beijing’s support to Islamabad as a proxy against New Delhi bolstered with illegal transfers and open supplies of deterrent and conventional weapons. China is also in occupation of Indian territories in the north-west, north and north-east in addition to Pakistan-occupied lands made over to China. China and Pakistan are “iron brothers” and an alliance almost as old as independent Pakistan has been further strengthened by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and passes through Indian territory. As a former envoy to Pakistan, Sun Weidong handled negotiations related to CPEC.

With all this, India should be expected reflexively to oppose China when the opportunity comes, but its relations with China’s chief adversary, the United States, have been soured by trade frictions. The United States wants free trade which the statist and religious right which rules India finds abhorrent. Focussed on total control of domestic politics and therefore populist to the extreme and embracing policies of redistribution with socialistic zeal, New Delhi seeks accommodation with Beijing as a means to isolate Pakistan internationally and turn public opinion even further in the ruling regime’s favour. While China has no intention to sell Pakistan short, it is playing on New Delhi’s hopes and fears in the hope to tilt the balance of power with the United States. Since New Delhi cannot see beyond domestic politics, China appears to have got its hooks into it. It is prepared to engage in the lie that it is moderating its hostility to India.

Basically, India has boxed itself in by undermining its economy in the past five years through disasters like demonetization and an extortionate GST and it is setting the stage for the country’s further economic ruin by steep increases in taxes and tariffs, notifying policies that scare domestic and foreign investors, and enabling an environment where wealth creators are hounded and capital compelled to flee the country. China is aware that India is headed towards economic catastrophe and is encouraging the process by giving New Delhi a false sense of its own importance. When a country is economically vulnerable, China walks in. It has happened to Russia and puny states like Sri Lanka. It is India’s turn.