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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the Chinese city of Wuhan to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping was accompanied by much media fanfare in both countries. But although the summit has been referred to on several occasions as a ‘reset’ in the historically tense links between the two countries, this terminology was avoided by Indian government officials, who acknowledge that structural difficulties will remain. Expectations were lowered from the outset, as the visit was billed as an ‘informal summit’ where no agreements and announcements would be forthcoming; rather, the official aim was for the two leaders ‘to exchange views on bilateral and international matters from an over-arching and long-term perspective with the objective of enhancing mutual communication’.
Clearly, the meeting amounts to a positive step, and it served as the culmination of a lengthy rapprochement following the Doklam crisis, which saw the two regional powers come closer to military conflict than at any time in the past thirty years. The process of diplomatic relaxation began with the BRICS Summit in September 2017, where Modi and Xi met on the sidelines and stressed the need for ‘healthy and stable ties’. This was followed by a series of high-level bilateral meetings, which included visits to Delhi by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi. The recent summit also comes hard on the heels of a flurry of visits to Beijing by the Indian National Security Advisor, External Affairs Minister and Defence Minister. Furthermore, the appointment of Vijay Gokhale, an experienced China hand, as foreign secretary reflects India’s focus on its relationship with China.
India’s concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and its specific objections to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, appear to remain unanswered by Beijing
Both sides have also made other concrete moves. Foreign Secretary Gokhale reportedly advised Indian government officials against attending events marking sixty years since the Tibetan leader Dalai Lama’s exile from China and residence in India, celebrations guaranteed to annoy China. Furthermore, India offered to export soybean and sugar to China during a bilateral strategic economic dialogue. The intended impact is to not only meet Chinese demand as a Sino-US trade dispute is looming but also to take a step towards reducing the bilateral trade deficit between India and China, which is a source of considerable anxiety in New Delhi. And the Chinese reciprocated, albeit indirectly: at the February plenary meeting of the Financial Action Task Force, the anti-money laundering international organisation, China was persuaded to suspend its objections to grey-listing Pakistan for Islamabad’s insufficient action against UN-listed terrorist groups.
However, rather than building on this momentum and forging a broader understanding that would facilitate much-needed progress towards addressing longstanding disagreements, the meeting between Modi and Xi seems to have had the limited result of merely returning bilateral relations to the status they enjoyed before the Doklam crisis.
According to Indian sources, last year witnessed a surge in the number of military faceoffs and border transgressions along the frontier with China, compared with 2016. Modi and Xi emphasised the importance of peace and tranquility along the disputed border, offering ‘strategic guidance’ to their militaries to strengthen communication and enhance predictability and effectiveness. Concurrently, however, it was reported that the Indian government is looking to build 96 additional border outposts along the Sino-Indian border, perhaps indicating that while the mitigation of risks along the border was discussed, Indian concerns over Chinese adventurism persist and there is little expectation of moving towards a resolution of the border disputes in the near future.
In addition, the broader Sino-Indian strategic rivalry continues to rear its head. Even during the period in which tensions appeared to be thawing, Beijing–New Delhi regional competition came to the fore during the political crisis in the Maldives, where it has been suggested that India may have been dissuaded from intervening more substantially because of Chinese pressure. There have also been reports of a build-up of military forces on either side of the border near the Doklam stand-off site. At the same time, India continued to strengthen its relationships with its existing global partners in order to counterbalance China; it has deepened ties with Japan and the US – bilaterally, trilaterally as well as in the form of the frequently faltering Quad, which also includes Australia.
Moreover, India’s concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and its specific objections to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, appear to remain unanswered by Beijing, with each side restating their own positions on the matter. Nevertheless, there remain avenues for India and China to work together. Reports indicated that the two sides agreed to undertake a joint economic project in Afghanistan; details remain scant for now, but this would represent a significant step forward, and there have been suggestions on how this can be taken forward. The two sides share the broadly similar goal of securing stability in the country; however, the role of Pakistan in this dynamic will be crucial, and it will be up to China to pacify its ally and delink its engagements with India and Pakistan in Afghanistan if such a project is to bear fruit.
It was reported that the Indian government is looking to build 96 additional border outposts along the Sino-Indian border
India and China also share concerns related to terrorism, and it is becoming clear that there are limitations to China’s support for Pakistan, in spite of the growing economic and military ties between Beijing and Islamabad.
Still, the omission of such contentious topics during the summit is disappointing in light of the considerable groundwork laid in the preceding six months. The intensity of bilateral engagement required to simply move back to a pre-Doklam crisis status quo indicates how difficult bilateral ties had become, implying that the momentum generated thus far will need to be sustained to achieve substantive progress.
Prime Minister Modi has invited President Xi for a reciprocal informal summit in India in 2019, and with his scheduled visit to Qingdao for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in June, there will be opportunities for the two leaders to engage. However, they will need to move beyond optics and be willing to take on thornier issues in the bilateral relationship if they are to resolve structural issues and achieve anything close to a ‘reset’.
BANNER IMAGE: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2017 BRICS Leaders Summit. Courtesy of Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.