After PM Modi-Xi meet, will new India-China relationship work?

 Sino-India,Wuhan Summit

PM Modi departing from China after concluding a successful visit to Wuhan

As in all structured events, the Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping has gone off well. It has highlighted what was seen as a major lacuna in the relationship — the need for the two sides to communicate more effectively with each other.

As for the other outcomes, they are more or less predictable because they contain elements of various decisions and confidence-building measures going back 30 years.

The summit’s short-term goal was to prevent inadvertent military or diplomatic confrontations across their borders or the South Asia-Indian Ocean region. The long-term one is to set their respective growth trajectories in order to create synergy instead of crossing each other in the Indo-Pacific region.

A New Relationship Model Between India and China?

The Wuhan summit has echoes of the 2013 meeting between Xi and US President Barack Obama at Sunnylands, California. It was at this meeting that Xi – who had just been elected president at the time – pushed the idea of a “new type of great power relations”. The only way to “constructively manage” US-China differences, XI argued, was if both sides:

  1. Prioritised dialogue over conflict and treated each other’s strategic intentions objectively.
  2. Expressed mutual respect for each other’s core interests.
  3. Abandoned the zero-sum game mentality and cooperated in advancing areas of mutual interest.

In essence, XI sought American agreement to accommodate China as a global power on terms of equality with the US, even before China had reached that position.

India and China are seeking a new model of relationship as well. Just as Xi sought to persuade the US to gamble on China’s future status as a world power, so is Modi wanting China to accept that India, too, is on the verge of becoming a power with the heft of China.

To that end, the Indian side has been calling for a policy perspective in which both sides should respect “each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations.”

On its part, China, which sees itself as a rising world power, knows that it needs to reduce tensions in its periphery, especially with large nations like India which occupy a strategic location at the head of the Indian Ocean, a waterway whose importance to China cannot be understated.

Change will not occur overnight, but it is worthwhile to keep a keen eye out for the signs of a strategic shift in behaviour. These signs should be visible in our problem areas, like the border or in the relationship between China and Pakistan.

During his visit to China in 2015, Modi pressed for the idea of clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as a means of preventing inadvertent confrontations. This would be pending the final resolution of the dispute. Such an action was actually envisaged in the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement.

But after exchanging maps of the Central and Western Sectors, the Chinese have balked. Minus a clear understanding on where the LAC lies, it is impossible for the two militaries to implement the “strategic guidance” of the Wuhan summit to prevent a recurrence of incidents such as the one in Depsang in 2013 and Chumur in 2014.

In Wuhan, Modi and Xi have commended the work of the Special Representatives; but truth be told, there work is largely done. It is the leaders themselves who need to take the next step to achieve a final settlement of the border dispute. This settlement lies at the heart of the Sino-Indian problem.

China’s Close Relationship with Pakistan a Lost Cause for India?

The second major action point for India would be in China’s ties with Pakistan. This is a fairly straight-forward subject. India can hardly object to good relations between the two countries, but there are obvious red-lines, such as the Chinese block on the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the UN’s 1267 committee.

There is also the more complicated area of China’s support to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. While India cannot object to the Sino-Pakistan relationship insofar as conventional weapons are concerned, it certainly has a right to expect that China will not encourage Pakistan’s WMD production.

Pakistan may be a lost cause for India in South Asia, but there are countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives that New Delhi views as being important for its security and well being.

Though China has been fairly circumspect so far, India’s own mishandling of the region and the growth of China’s economic power is generating insecurity in New Delhi.

China would also expect India to be circumspect in its support for the US Indo-Pacific strategy to the extent that it is directed against China. What China does in the South China Sea is not something that affects India directly but one that the ASEAN needs to take up.

Without necessarily backing China’s expansive maritime claims in the region, New Delhi does need to understand that China’s actions in the South China Sea are also driven by concerns over its security.

India has had a long-standing grouse over the balance of trade between the two countries. This is something that is not difficult to handle. In comparison to China’s trade issues with the US, the Indian problem is quite minor. But because of the indifferent relations, the two sides have not been able to iron out problems relating to trade and investment. Though, both recognise that this is an area that offers huge payoffs for both of them.

China’s Lifeblood Flows Through the Indian Ocean

An important aspect of any reset would be the importance of misjudging the strategic intention of the other party. Chinese investment in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka or Maldives is viewed with suspicion in India. There is no reason why the two countries cannot discuss this in a frank manner.

The idea of a joint project in Afghanistan is a good beginning; its experience can possibly be replicated in other countries to reduce Sino-Indian mistrust.

Like all great trading powers of the past, China is also looking to create capabilities to moderate the risks to its economic security that arise from its global trade.

China is hugely dependent on the Indian Ocean sea lanes for its economic prosperity. An estimated 80 percent of its oil imports go through the Straits of Malacca, just as 75 percent of India’s oil goes through Indian Ocean sea lanes.

A significant proportion of its cargo traffic also uses these routes.

Traditionally, the flag has followed trade, and so it is with China as the PLA Navy expands into the Indian Ocean. India cannot block it, but it can engage China and understand its motives. In fact, far from conflict, the two countries do have a common agenda of maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indian Ocean, as much as the South China Sea.

The bottom line in assessing the Wuhan summit comes from then US Secretary of State John Kerry when discussing the New Type of relations in 2014: “a new model is not defined in words. It is defined in actions.”

That, indeed, should be the leitmotif of those looking for a reset in Sino-Indian relations after the Wuhan summit. It is actions, and not words, that will matter in the months to come.


This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Manoj Joshi

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