India & China

A fresh start?

Print edition : May 25, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping taking a walk together in Wuhan on April 28. Photograph released by China’s Xinhua News Agency. Photo: Yan Yan/AP

Modi and Xi on a houseboat in East Lake, Wuhan. Photograph released by the Press Information Bureau. Photo: AFP

Against a backdrop of accumulated grievances, highlighted by the Doklam standoff, the informal summit at Wuhan comes as an unprecedented trust-rebuilding exercise at the highest level.

The informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping of China in Wuhan, the picturesque city on the banks of the Yangtze, has raised valid hopes that the several rounds of talks between the two leaders in an unconventional setting, which included a boat ride in the East Lake and a stroll in the woods, could give a complex and troubled relationship a fresh start.

But historical baggage comes in the way of unbridled optimism. The India-China relationship has been fraught with several false starts. In the 1950s, the “brotherly friendship” between the two countries, led by two strong leaders—Jawaharlal Nehru from India and Mao Zedong from China—promised to redefine Asia. Dreamers in both countries, as well as in Asia and Africa, at that time entertained hopes that India and China, the two most populous countries in the world, yearning to occupy a place on the global stage, would play a big part in bringing about a postcolonial renaissance. After the trust-shattering 1962 war, a new generation of leaders started to pick up the pieces during a phase when the bipolar certainties of the Cold War were about to abate. Rajiv Gandhi’s famous visit to China in 1988 helped calm the borders. It also opened up new opportunities for an economic engagement, encouraged by economic reforms that had already been launched in China and were about to begin in India.

But notwithstanding the willingness of the two countries to work together, based on an understanding that differences over the border would not be allowed to impede economic and commercial interaction, the overhang of the unsettled frontiers has remained harshly persistent. That became embarrassingly clear when there was a face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Chumar during President Xi’s high-profile visit to India in 2014. Modi’s visit to China the following year again seemed to infuse expectations that China’s excess capital routed into Modi’s Make-in-India campaign would become the template for a growing geoeconomic partnership between the two neighbours.

But within two years, the borders were aflame again. The military standoff in Doklam in the Sikkim sector nearly drew the two countries into another border war. Tensions between Beijing and New Delhi were also ringing in other theatres. China was making its presence felt in the Indian Ocean, especially in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, riding on its Maritime Silk Road (MSR). China’s forays into the Indian Ocean had upset India, which stood firmly opposed to a surrender of its geopolitical dominance in its periphery.

The MSR is a subset of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India had openly opposed the BRI after China signed up Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) within the BRI umbrella. CPEC projects were being undertaken in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). New Delhi, which has never given up its claims to the area, argued that the CPEC infringed on India’s national sovereignty. China’s relations with Nepal—another South Asian country with special ties with India—also became another point of friction between New Delhi and Beijing.

The Tibet issue

Earlier, China had loudly protested against India’s growing proximity to the Dalai Lama, especially his visit to Tawang escorted by senior government functionaries. The Chinese saw in the visit New Delhi’s tacit support for Tibetan separatism, posing a serious challenge to the non-negotiable “One-China” policy. China also objected to India’s assertion in the Indian Ocean, comparing it to the Monroe doctrine of the United States.

Against this backdrop of accumulated grievances, highlighted by the Doklam standoff, the Wuhan informal summit was an unprecedented trust-rebuilding exercise at the highest level. At a media interaction ahead of the summit, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou stressed that last year’s Doklam crisis “reminds us that both China and India need to make even greater efforts to deepen their mutual trust. The events of last year reflect the somewhat lack of mutual interest between the two countries.”

Imparting stability to the borders was therefore an important undertaking during the Wuhan summit. But unlike in the past, when “management” of the frontiers through a dense regime of confidence-building measures was the template, the final resolution of the border issue is now being brought on the horizon. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said during a media interaction in Wuhan that a two-stage process was in the works. The resolution of the borders will be in focus during the “second stage” of an existing mechanism of the Special Representatives of the two countries. He said that a 2005 agreement on the “political parameters and guiding principles” would be invoked to resolve the boundary question.

Kong, on his part, also hinted that it was possible to define a road map where a process of building “mutual trust” at the borders could yield a final settlement at the frontiers. “Both sides need to work together to create favourable conditions and gradually settle it [the border issue]. And the proper settlement of the boundary question will deepen mutual understanding and consensus…,” he observed.

Analysts say that any final settlement of the boundary will have to address the Tibetan issue. Zorawar Daulet Singh, Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said: “A final settlement based on the existing status quo on the frontiers would need to also resolve the Tibet question for all time… perhaps the SRs [Special Representatives] could consider formulating the principles on such a grand bargain, where China’s sovereignty over Tibet is also part of the terms of the package deal.”

Some Chinese scholars also signal that for China to arrive at a final border settlement it would need credible leverage that would enable it to exercise iron-clad sovereignty over Tibet. In a lecture ahead of the Xi-Modi informal summit, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual head in exile, said Tibet could remain a part of China. Last year, the Dalai Lama expressed his readiness to return to Lhasa from his abode in Dharamsala.

“Historically, the boundary issue and the Tibetan question are linked. If the Tibetan issue is resolved, it is very favourable for China and India to resolve the boundary,” said Long Xingchun, professor at the China West Normal University, in a conversation with Frontline.

The two leaders in Wuhan revisited the existing CBM (confidence-building measures) framework, which came under enormous strain during the Doklam standoff. They decided to “issue strategic guidance to their militaries to strengthen communication”, essentially to avoid another Doklam-like confrontation.

The two countries have re-flagged the “mutual and equal security” clause of the 1993 Peace and Tranquillity accord, signed when P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister. Military sources told Frontline that the arrangement under this principle, where troop deployments by either side were to take place in accordance with differential terrain and other factors, had been regularly flouted in the past. Despite the Doklam standoff casting its shadow, the two-day talks went much further than promising a new India-China detente, disturbed by last year’s tensions on the border.

Room for optimism

On the contrary, the Wuhan dialogue is likely to yield far more positive results, compared with the last two summits of the two leaders. The rapidly changing, and grossly underappreciated, geoeconomic context provides room for optimism.

China is facing headwinds from the Donald Trump administration, intent on a trade war with it and more. In China, there is a clear appreciation that the so-called trade war masks a bigger reality of the Trump administration’s long campaign to impede China’s rise. That includes attempts to disrupt supply chains of high-end products by erecting high tariff walls and preventing them from entering U.S. markets. Chinese telecom giants such as ZTE, which are at the heart of the 5G networks, are being denied crucial U.S. technology. President Trump’s advisers such as Peter Navarro have made it plain that Washington is targeting Beijing’s Made-in-China 2025 strategy for advanced digital manufacturing.

The Chinese have made no bones about the fact that they urgently need India’s support to counter the headwinds blowing across the Pacific. “The world is now faced with rampant unilateralism as well as rising protectionism in the process of globalisation. All these trends have been closely followed and debated. So against such a backdrop, China and India have a lot to discuss,” observed Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang. It is India’s lure as a powerhouse of consumption and as an important focal point of badly needed post-U.S. supply chain networks that beckons China to India’s shores.

In anticipation of the worsening economic relations with the U.S., the Chinese are also reaching out to Japan, South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to position Asia as the vanguard of a new wave of globalisation.

China’s outreach to India also has broader domestic and international objectives. During the 19th party congress that concluded in October, President Xi rang in his concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind. He has also been the chief advocate for building a “new type” of international relations that are not based on Machiavellian power politics. Hard-nosed sceptics have naturally dismissed his idealistic utterances. But a successful turnaround in ties with India, and perhaps later with Japan, will add enormous credibility to President Xi’s slogans at home and abroad. It is not surprising that after the high-profile engagement with India, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang is headed for Japan later this month. That is likely to be followed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to China.

From Modi’s perspective, a deeper engagement with China is vital. Domestic compulsions, including the 2019 general elections, partly explain Modi’s urgency to re-engage with China. “Before going to the elections, he [Modi] can say: ‘Look, I have achieved something with regard to China,’” Nikkei Asian Review quoted Pankaj Jha, Professor of Defence and Strategic Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, as saying. “If Modi can get billions of dollars of foreign investment from China, it would be a big coup,” an official source who did not wish to be named said.

Another official told Frontline earlier that the Prime Minister was looking for progress on two pet themes—a final settlement of the border rather than “management” of the frontier and the rise of an “Asian century” in cohabitation with China. If tangible progress is achieved along these lines, it will raise Modi’s status as a “world statesman”, a feat that has not been accomplished by any Prime Minister outside the Nehru-Gandhi clan.

India has reciprocated, though less loudly, China’s protest against protectionism. Last month, NITI Aayog Vice Chairperson Rajiv Kumar said in Beijing during his opening remarks at the China-India Strategic Economic Dialogue that the “cyclical and synchronised recovery in the world economy” had been “marred and disrupted by some unseemly protectionist noises that are coming out of the Atlantic basin in North America and Europe”.

During the summit, Xi was unambiguous in stating that a permanent revival of ties with India was central to his vision of the rise of the “Eastern civilisation”. In remarks front-paged by People’s Daily, the authentic voice of the Communist Party of China, Xi said: “China and India should carry out wider fields and exchanges at a deeper level, jointly commit themselves to the revival of Eastern civilisation, and jointly advocate respect for the diversity of civilisations and promote the harmonious coexistence of different civilisations.” Xi underscored that the two leaderships “must strategically grasp the overall situation of Sino-Indian relations and ensure that the relations between the two countries always proceed in the right direction”.

India, on its part, appears avidly on board in working together with China for the emergence of the “Asian century”. But it remains to be seen how far it is willing to back China to advance a post-U.S. geopolitical construct. Nevertheless, Modi, in Wuhan, proposed that the two ancient civilisations “must increase mutual understanding, use the wisdom of the two countries, and work together to deal with global issues and challenges”.

The Wuhan summit was all about providing “strategic direction” to untangle a difficult and convoluted relationship. Going ahead, the two countries may need to reconcile their differences on the BRI and the Indo-Pacific strategy, at the heart of which is the formation of the India-U.S.-Japan-Australia security grouping. That worries China as it perceives the grouping as a U.S.-led military formation to contain its rise.

In a media interaction in Wuhan, Kong said that China would not press India too hard to accept the coinage of BRI. “The Indian side does not exclude this cooperation. It is also continuing to advance on interconnection. India is also a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [AIIB]. It is the second largest shareholder of our region,” he observed. “As for whether India accepts the expression Belt and Road, I think it is not important and China will not be too hard on it,” Kong observed.

It remains to be seen whether this was a carefully emitted signal by the Chinese official to persuade India to gradually shed its rigid opposition on the BRI and join China to become a full partner in the larger Eurasian geoeconomic construct.

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