Until fairly recently, any kind of rapprochement between India and China seemed like a distant dream given the souring of ties particularly in the wake of the 73-day long Doklam troop face-off last year between the armies of two rising Asian giants. But with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting at an ‘informal summit’ in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the two sides appear to have set aside their differences for the time being and are seeking to look at the ‘positives’ instead in the bilateral relationship.
And yet, even as the India and China seek to look beyond their differences – President Xi on Day one of the Summit expressed the hope that friendship between the two countries will continue to flow like the mighty rivers Ganga and Yangtze – there is no gainsaying the fact that New Delhi will need to remain wary of Beijing’s geostrategic ambitions.
Beijing, with its economic might and promises of projects and infrastructure, has been making strategic inroads in India’s immediate neighbourhood – Maldives, Sri Lanka and even Nepal play the China card – much to India’s dismay and alarm. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is now a happy hunting ground for China as India strives to play catch up and counter its increasing influence in the region.
Beijing’s ongoing tango with Islamabad especially the move to build the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which will pass through PoK-has left New Delhi fuming as it says it will violate its territorial sovereignty. India is not a part of the BRI and while it’s not known if the Modi-Xi summit involved the two leaders discussing it during their numerous one-on-ones, it remains firm in its opposition to it.
The Chinese strategic footprint has been expanding on the African continent too despite India’s close historical ties with many of the African countries and its efforts to consolidate ties and deepen engagement with them.
President Ram Nath Kovind, for instance, has so far undertaken three foreign trips and all have been to Africa. Indeed, his maiden visit was to Ethiopia and Djibouti, the latter is a strategically located country sitting on the Horn of Africa where the Chinese have set up their first military base abroad.
However, even as India needs to keep a hawk eye on Chinese moves in the region and beyond, it’s perhaps the realisation on both sides that two neighbours, powerful ones at that regardless of competing interests, cannot keep the doors shut on each other for long which led to the Modi-Xi summit.
Besides, with President Xi virtually set to lead his country for life – last month China’s National People’s Congress passed a constitutional amendment doing away with the two-term limit on presidency – India also realises the long term import of engaging with a man said to be second in power to only late chairman Mao Zedong.
As two countries sharing a 4,057 km long Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has remained unresolved despite 20 rounds of special representative-level talks, there was need to work around their differences. This became imperative in the backdrop of the armies of the two countries being involved in at least three serious face-offs in recent years; the most recent one being in Bhutanese territory of Doklam last year.
With bilateral ties having plumbed the depths after Doklam, PM Modi and President Xi during their summit sought to focus on the broader management of the relationship rather than the specifics of it. Wisely so, as it’s the specifics that have bedevilled bilateral relations in recent times; the 73-day Doklam military stand-off being the final nail in the coffin.
The Doklam face-off was a stark reminder of Beijing’s expansionist behaviour and muscle-flexing as the People’s Liberation Army troops intruded into what is Bhutanese territory and in doing so altered the status quo. The PLA now permanently occupies north Doklam, much to India’s concern.
While neither the Indian or Chinese statement on the conclusion of the summit specifically mentioned Doklam, in perhaps one of the most important takeaways from the meet they decided to issue ‘strategic guidance’ to their respective militaries to strengthen communication, build trust, mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in managing border affairs.
With the two sides also deciding to direct their respective armies to implement various confidence building measures, major face-offs such as the one in Doklam last year, or in Chumar and Daulat Beg Oldi in preceding years, may be averted and thus prevent any consequent bitterness in ties. A reiteration by the two leaders asking their Special Representatives to intensify efforts for a “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement” of the boundary question signals an effort to cool tempers post-Doklam.
This was needed for the two leaders who held one-on-one talks in various settings – a walk by the picturesque East Lake followed by a long boat ride – to build a future roadmap for bilateral ties regardless of their differences and the fierce jostling for strategic influence in the neighbourhood and beyond.
There are other prickly issues which are counted under the category of ‘specifics’ that have widened the rift between the two neighbours in recent years – China repeatedly thwarting Indian attempts to get membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and also blocking New Delhi’s attempts to have JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar designated an international terrorist by the UN.
However, New Delhi will undoubtedly be hopeful that the Modi-Xi summit will eventually translate into Beijing backing New Delhi on the issue of NSG membership and Masood Azhar’s being designated a global terrorist.
Yet another important takeaway from the Summit, one which came as a huge surprise, was the decision by the two sides to work together on an economic project in Afghanistan. This will expectedly cause much unease within the Pakistani establishment to see the so-called all-weather friend China join India in executing a project in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always viewed any Indian outreach in Afghanistan, be it at the political level or in infrastructure building, as a challenge in a region it considers its own backyard.
With New Delhi and Beijing pressing the reset button as they set out to iron out differences and keep up “strategic communication at the leadership level” a lot is at stake for the two leaders as they seek to build a new paradigm to move ahead in bilateral ties.
PM Modi spelt out the positives thus in Wuhan: Soch (thinking), Sampark (contact), Sahyog (cooperation), Sankalp (resolve) and Sapne (dreams). Now, China will need to walk the talk. India, on its part, does not want the competition between the two countries to escalate into conflict.
(The writer is a senior journalist)