Several scholars and academicians are interpreting the informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in several ways. Some are actually quite optimistic about the summit and hoping that the two nuclear powers will arrive to fruitful solutions regarding the disputes that both the country face in the recent times. But, India as an emerging global power should also stay focused on building capacities and maintain good relational ties with her neighbours while also balancing with the major superpowers.
Every responsible government must factor in three geopolitical constituents while setting up a broader foreign policy trajectory – immediate neighbourhood, extended neighbourhood and powers. India’s current government has sent mixed signals on its diplomatic policy.
Its rising tensions with Pakistan involving the country’s developments with Jammu and Kashmir but has cultivated strong partnerships with other neighbouring countries like Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It has also strengthened its engagement with extended neighbours including the world’s superpowers like the United States and Japan, with the Prime Minister constituting JAI alliance in the backdrop of G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Though after 2014, India started to take a pro-American tilt in its foreign policy, New Delhi also maintained its cautious stance of not disturbing the equilibrium between the great powers and rising great powers.
China also holds doubly critical for New Delhi as it is both a neighbour and a rising great power with the second–most powerful economy in the world, and the only country capable to sustain a trade war with the United States. There are three main structural problems in ties – the boundary dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, the Pakistan factor and a historical mistrust involving Aksai Chin, Dalai Lama and Tibet. These are the formulaic conventional understandings in the understanding of the India-China relationships.
The rhetoric about India and China’s bilateral relationships are also masked by these persistent structural problems that hobbled their ties. Managing this relationship strategically with China during this crucial moment of New Delhi’s foreign relations has become the biggest test for India’s foreign policy. The second informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping is a good occasion to reflect on the trends in Delhi’s diplomacy towards Beijing, and these structural factors were more or less at play in the run-up to the meeting at Mamallapuram on Friday and Saturday.
An Indian military exercise in Arunachal Pradesh – the region the Chinese calls the South of Tibet – had also irked Beijing. And just last week China also hosted the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and has assured him of China’s support on all core issues, a statement that had irked New Delhi.
However, despite the bad optics and escalating tensions, the leaders of both sides went a step further for an informal summit suggests their quest to deepen engagement and to maintain peace.
However, this is not the first time that both the countries are setting up an informal summit. The first informal summit took place in Wuhan in April 2018 where both leaders exchanged issues of global and bilateral significance. The Wuhan Summit also managed to achieve to some extent a push-up to the Sino-Indian relationships after a two-month-long border dispute between New Delhi and Beijing at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction in Doklam.
At the Wuhan summit, the two leaders also reached to ‘strategic guidance’ so that serious issues do not escalate like the Doklam standoff and not to let situations spiral out of control. Both the countries do not share active hostility as ‘conventional wisdom,’ but are rather more inclined for a better understanding towards each other. The Chennai Connect summit must see through with this backdrop.
But, as many scholars have pointed out that New Delhi and Beijing are still in a tactical engagement with their ties and not a strategic partnership. It cannot be considered a tactical engagement just like the US and North Korea. The challenge for Modi-Xi meet up in Mamallapuram dialogue was not to allow any kind of glitches hinder their deep tactical engagement.
In this pursuit however, they both face fresh new obstacles to smoothen up the engagement. Some of their quite composite issues like – the massive trade deficit, the ongoing US-China Trade War and also China’s Pakistan Card. Earlier, this was not a challenge especially when China started its economic liberalisation, since the 1970s, under the leadership of the then Chinese dictator Den Xiaoping which transformed China into the world’s second largest economy.
Since then, Beijing’s primary focus was entirely on economic development and a peaceful rise. This period of reforms coincided with the golden era of globalisation and free trade that softened transnational borders making it easier for Beijing to enter the foreign markets, be it South Asia or the far West. At that time, the United States and China were in a much better space, but now things have taken a different turn.
Washington is now taking a more hostile turn towards China and India is steadily enhancing its strategic partnerships with the United States. Mr Xi is also quite bold, assertive and confident about China’s stance and position in the global stage. But, as C Raja Rao puts it, both the superpowers see India as a “swing power.”
Washington always pushes India to enter into alliance and move towards a joint Indo-Pacific strategy, however China doesn’t even want India to move towards the other side of the court. The Pakistan factor is also major issue of contention, and, is also one of the root cause why New Delhi tilts more towards Trump’s anti-China stance. Beijing however, has an upper hand in the international forum with its Pakistan card and opposing India in the UNSC.
This in turn, quite well proves that the Chinese are under no pressure to please India, rather they can afford to displease it with taking stances like the abovementioned Kashmir issue or to question the blocking of India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
This unpleasant fact of this diplomatic front is mostly translating to the power imbalance between the two Asian giants. China’s aggregate GDP, is now at about a staggering $14 trillion, which is nearly five times larger than that of India $2.8 trillion. China’s annual defence budget is at $250 billion which is four times larger than what India spends on defence annually. China has also further outpaced India in the much needed modernisation of its armed forces and a better defence organisation.
Even though China and India are facing a very complex relationship, it does not prove the fact that China and India are hostile neighbours and are on the brink of war. That would be a very unlawful assessment.
There are four major sectors in which India and China can work out to improve their partnership to the next level. Notably, among these sectors would be the avenue of economic cooperation, India and China as the emerging world orders and key players in Asia-Pacific, to negotiate strategically with the China’s Pakistan card –something which New Delhi won’t want China to play with and most importantly to patiently deal with the rising Chinese dominance.
However, now I will look into how China and India have dealt with these four major avenues and how much of it have been achievable through New Delhi’s diplomatic mechanism with Beijing.
China is quite keen to make investments in India – especially in the infrastructure and fifth generation network technology architecture. India, on the other hand, is also interested in a better market access to China and also wants the trade imbalance deficit to fall short.
In the Chennai Connect Summit, both leaders extensively discussed about this issue of trade imbalance. India has a massive $53 billion trade deficit with China, which makes up almost a third of its total trade deficit, with the Indian economy facing a slowdown the Indian Government would eye for a lesser trade deficit. Perhaps, even in the Wuhan Summit, similar contentions were raised by Prime Minister Modi to President Xi and according to the Ministry of External Affairs significant visible changes have been observed.
India is also facing a major issue regarding the commitment to sign in to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – a free trade agreement among 16 nations that would give China a better access to Indian markets- but New Delhi is stressing for a balanced stand in the agreement mostly because of China’s predatory trade policies.
However, the ‘High Level Economic and Trade Dialogue’ between the countries will enhance trade volumes, bridge massive trade deficits and will also increase investment in various mutual sectors.
If this dialogue works, then it will also allow influential stakeholders in the business communities of both the countries to promote ties and it will also help Beijing and New Delhi to work closely on a multilateral stage, and again, the Chennai Connect Summit plays a key factor for this cause. However, the true test for the bonhomie between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi will be the ASEAN-led summit in Bangkok where the conclusion of the RCEP agreement would be introduced.
India and China are also seen as the two most important emerging world orders and the champions of multilateralism. The two are key factors for both security and stability in the Asia Pacific region and both countries are cooperating over global issues like tackling climate change.
This is becoming a major irritant for New Delhi. While India knows that China’s Pakistan card is negotiable, it also has the international opinion in its favour but New Delhi still bargains cautiously, keeping in mind Beijing’s stance and its frequent U-turns. Some of China’s developments prove its adversary attitude to New Delhi.
Last year, Beijing had agreed upon a move that takes Pakistan out of the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) grey list, after India offered support for China’s push at the FATF. But amid mounting international pressure, Beijing removed its hold on the declaration of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist.
However, as the two leaders have agreed upon in the Wuhan Summit and at Mamallapuram, both countries would ‘prudently manage’ differences and will not allow ‘disputes to become differences’ so that it dilutes ‘bilateral cooperation.’
These are things that are easier said than actually done. India often views China through the lens of its ties with Pakistan and China is sceptical about Delhi’s increasing pro-American tilt. Both the China and Pakistani Economic Corridor and the US-India Joint Indo-Pacific vision have further derailed bilateral ties with both nations.
If New Delhi and Beijing actually want to improve on the ties and want to lay foundations of engagement and building cooperation ties in economic, territorial and strategic areas then both must remove the worry of ‘third parties’ from the room.
However, according to eminent scholars of South Asian Studies, informal summits are doing lesser than they are actually perceived to be. From Wuhan, many conclude that informal dialogues tend to be inadequate to cope with the range of structural tensions that have enveloped the bilateral relationships between the nations.
China is also a dominant superpower and the only nation in the contemporary post-Cold War, liberalised world where it has the potential to sustain itself even after Donald Trump’s furious trade disagreements which escalated to a trade war. India being a key trading partner of China and one of its nearest neighbours should stay focused on improving ties rather posing a competition.
India should focus on its building capacities and not on conflicts and rivalries. If key Indian policy makers take realistic and long term visions, it could result in expansion of avenues of deeper engagement with a powerful China.
Beijing also must liberate Delhi from prolonged and false illusions about strategic friendship with China and false hopes about building a new global order with it. However, this will help focus India’s effort at the Chennai Connect Summit to take small and pragmatic steps to narrow differences with China on various bilateral issues – the boundary dispute, trade deficit and the development of regional infrastructure.
Taking small and cautious steps might offer a long overdue corrective in the long run to India’s diplomatic tradition of putting the China relationship in the middle of a grandiose framework.