“Keep your friends close – hold your enemies closer”
Sumera B Reshi
Two largest economies & militaries in South Asia and Southeast Asia, China and India represent more than one-third of humanity and are considered among the fastest growing global energy consumers, and have economies that are expected to grow at about 7 per cent this year. Both China & India are called Asian giants besides their differences their relations have implications beyond their region. Both the countries tend to compete for more than cooperate and for decades each one of them has claimed a chunk of others territory.
Both China & India harbors a list of irritants. Each of them suspects the other and have many grudges. Over the border dispute, they clashed in 1962 and every now and then they are on the brink of war. Oftentimes, they exhibited a capricious friendship and suspect each other over the Himalayas and that is why the two-day “informal” summit took place between Modi & Xi in the Chinese city of Wuhan on April 27th & 28th which marked a noticeable departure from the normal bickering. Both India and China agreed to improve communication between their militaries to maintain peace at the border.
Premier Narendra Modi spent 24 hours in the central Chinese city of Wuhan for informal meetings with President Xi Jinping, months after a dispute over a stretch of their high-altitude Himalayan border reawakened fears of war between the Asian nations. The much-hyped Modi’s trip to China became the cynosure of all eyes in media circles and a best-selling news in print and electronic media in India and around.
As stated by Indian Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, Modi and Xi summed up their talks and both leaders agreed that the two countries had the maturity and wisdom to handle all their differences peacefully and through talks.
Since the relationship between India & China has had an element of cooperation, competition, potential and conflict, Modi’s recent visit to China was to enhance cooperation, reduce asymmetries, manage competition and deter conflict according to Brooking Institute article.
Compared to past, the relations between India and China has been murky and hostile. However, both sides maintained high-level engagement with senior policymakers meeting in bilateral regional and multilateral gatherings to mitigate the disparities. Both the countries are working on political dialogues on Afghanistan and counter terrorism and defense as well as economic dialogues.
Despite the fact that they are engaged in a continuous dialogue process, border dispute among them remains unresolved. Besides the differences and disputes, bilateral trade has gone from just over $2 billion in 2000 to $65 billion in 2013 -14.
Even though the trade between China and India has improved and people to people contact has also strengthened, there is the bitterness in each other’s tone. It appears that the old sources of strain have not disappeared, the border issue is still unresolved and often leads to a war of words, threats and counter threats which further embitters the relations.
Beyond the border, the issue of Tibet, especially the presence of the Dalai Lama in India, the sharing of river waters and China’s increasing activities in India’s neighborhood particularly Pakistan and in its periphery have been a source of concern for India.
As a result, no one in India or China believes that one summit can resolve all the bilateral issues. In one of the nationalist newspapers, the Global Times, a Chinese academic Liu Zongyi said: “The changes of India’s China policy are only tactical, not strategic, as India’s traditional hegemonic and cold-war mentality has not changed.” And in Zongyi’s response Dhruva Jai Shankar, an analyst at the Brookings Institution said: “For things to really change, China has to reconceive how to play its role as a major power.” In other words, it has to be less of a bully, and treat its neighbour as an equal.”
The drift in recent years towards escalating friction hasn’t helped either India or China. Last year, the biggest stir came when Indian troops moved to block a Chinese army road-building crew at Doklam, a high plateau where the borders of China, India and its small ally, Bhutan meet.
Since the area is in close proximity to the Siliguri Corridor where eight easternmost states of India lie, was of utmost concern for India. Thus, India backed Bhutan’s claim to the disputed territory. The Indian forces held firm for 73 days until China backed off. Hence Modi stole the credit for this victory. However, since then China has built up its barracks in the region.
Therefore, the visit to China in April this year was considered a big gamble for Premier Narendra Modi in view of the mood of the nation following 73 days uptight standoff in Doklam. Experts are of the view that if the informal summit turns to be a success, it would then be a game changer and perhaps further the final settlement of the border issue. Thus far, talks have dragged on for decades with no solution in sight but if the summit which was held in April this year doesn’t succeed, the détente will surely lead to a long-term stability in Asia.
Previously, Modi visited China in May 2015 and the trip was considered a hard test of diplomacy. Political pundits that time believed that since China has thrown a big net around India and this net is also bleeding the US in Asia. China’s strategies in the east and South China Seas imposed high costs on the US.
Experts then maintained that Modi’s diplomacy had to pass the test of a diplomatic balance in Asia through his visit as Chinese leaders amuse and accord him a royal treatment without compromising on any substantial issue. Since China has a significant role to play globally, its network of the multibillion-dollar Belt & Road Initiative is progressively finding takers across South Asia.
One of BRI’s six flagship projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), something that has peeved India. Only India refused to attend the May 2017 mega meet of the Silk Route Initiative, Beijing had approached New Delhi several times to be part of Xi’s major initiative. India had resisted on grounds of sovereignty, as the CPEC runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which Delhi claims as its own. As per political experts, Xi’s neighborhood policy is gentle, but he is more assertive than before.
This year is different than 2015. The informal summit held on 27 & 28th April was aimed at exchanging views on bilateral & international matters and to boost mutual communication between the two leaders. As of now, China is in no mood to have a military conflict with India. Currently, the dragon is focused on ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the maritime Silk Route via CPEC but the only concern for China is the Baloch resistance in Pakistan’s Gwadar region.
Since the summit is over, many important policy announcements are expected to come to the forefront. Undoubtedly, the focus of the informal summit was the Belt & Road Initiative, President Xi’s favorite project. But the summit also demonstrated how Asia’s chief strategic rivals need not let their 20th century differences over the demarcation of their shared Himalayan border overly impact their inevitable emergence as the world’s two largest economies.
Moreover, Modi & Xi’s extended conversation did not yield any unexpected progress in bilateral disputes, as was expected, yet it did yield a promise to jointly execute an economic project in Afghanistan.
Chinese officials and diplomats have been trying hard to bring India on board, assuring the issues pertaining to CPEC. China is, however, hopeful that India will consider its participation in BRI and the matter is being discussed through back channels in complete secrecy.
Further, according to political pundits, India’s focus will be to prevent China away from Pakistan, a mission impossible. But, the two sides can stitch their coat around the button if China gives vital concessions to India on the CPEC at the expense of Pakistan. A renowned foreign expert, Choudhary Israr Khan opined that the friendship between two Asian giants is an example for Pakistan to follow. “While India and China have a long-standing border dispute, yet both countries are increasing the business ties at a very fast pace. There two- way trade is almost touching $100 billion. It is huge and China cannot afford to annoy India,” said Khan.
The current Modi’s visit to China has surprised Pakistan the most and the reason is that even India- Chinese were locked in a 73-day military stand-off in a remote, high-altitude stretch of that boundary last year, now they are going steadily to improve ties and bury the bad memories of the recent past. In the past, China’s efforts to impede India’s rise frustrated India. India retorted without losing cool, pushed Xi in more flexible direction.
In addition, Modi visited China in the past as well but the summit held in April 2018 was stated to be unique as the two leaders had no pressure and obligations to strike any agreements nor make big announcements but focus was mainly on candid discussions on solutions to some of the controversial problems like the border and other issues. At the sidelines of the summit, Modi offered to host the next informal summit with Xi in India in 2019. The resultant of the summit, so far, is that both the countries agreed to increase mutual trust.
According to Indian media experts, the meeting, which comes ahead of the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in China’s eastern coastal city of Qingdao in June, is set to redefine the future relationship between the two Asian giants. But the question arises, can Xi-ism and Modi-ism happily coexist, or are they heading for increasing tension, and perhaps even conflict, in the years ahead? India being a democracy, public opinion leads to a healthy dialogue between leaders and those they lead. And China being an authoritarian regime, strictness might turn out to be illusory.
If Xi’s government fails to deliver on its objectives, a backlash isn’t out of the question; Chinese history down to modern times has been full of such turbulent events. If that were to happen, then India, despite its current challenges, would be waiting on the sidelines to pick up the regional baton.