Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “informal summit” with Chinese President Xi Jinping over Friday and Saturday in central China’s Wuhan elicited much comment on the reasons impelling both countries as indeed its usefulness. The “informality” was a convenient ploy to lower expectations and allow a discussion at the strategic level, unhindered by any agenda.
The reason for caution is understandable as since the Doklam standoff a year ago, at a tri-junction of territory held or claimed by Bhutan, China and India, Sino-Indian relations have been far from normal. A turnaround may have begun on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit soon after Doklam, but it gathered momentum only after foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to Beijing in February. On his return, he had issued directions to ensure a muted Indian participation in the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India. This was India signalling a concession on a subject that often riles China. The rest followed from this opening public move.
Why did the two Asian neighbours agree to the Wuhan summit? This needs to be explored first. Clearly, no such meeting was possible without mutual benefit. China is worried over US President Donald Trump’s assault on free trade under the World Trade Organisation rules. The imposition of tariffs on 1,300 Chinese products worth $50 billion has shown Mr Trump acting on his bluster about Chinese predatory trading, currency manipulation and intellectual property theft. His Cabinet colleague terms it as “economic aggression”. With a trade surplus of $288 billion with the United States in 2017, China can ill-afford to lose a lucrative market and its resulting industrial disruption, possibly with cascading affect. India is a natural market to covet under any circumstances, but in a possible trade war scenario and an erratic US President, it may seem manna from heaven.
Additionally, the geopolitical plates are shifting in East Asia in a manner that is detrimental to the Chinese strategic calculus. The leaders of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) holding a summit as the Modi-Xi parleys began was either a coincidence or a Chinese attempt, not very successful, to distract attention from possible historic strategic evolution on the Korean peninsula. China could be seeing the loss of an important buffer it has used ruthlessly to tie down the US, South Korea and Japan.
Prime Minister Modi too is not without concerns. The defiance of India by Sri Lanka, now the Maldives and the victory of the Communists in Nepal makes the managing of India’s periphery difficult, and with one Chinese client state like Pakistan more complex, if not impossible. China is vital to handling the Pakistan Army, with the Americans’ clout flagging, as besides being its major military equipment supplier, it is now an economic patron via the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Further, as the New York Times surmised, Mr Modi does not want another summer surprise like Doklam, particularly where the Chinese have the strategic advantage on the Line of Actual Control, in a pre-election year.
The Modi government’s conundrum is – with the Congress Party having already forcefully asked whether vital national issues are being forthrightly projected by Mr Modi, how to spin a strategic recalibration, the results of which would only emerge gradually, if at all? In a politically surcharged atmosphere prior to the elections in Karnataka, the last major Congress citadel, the New Delhi statement attempts to answer those questions. Interestingly, both nations have issued separate statements implying some divergence of tone and content. Both also had domestic audiences as well as international partners in mind.
The Indian statement, after some introductory moralising on the need for strategic convergence, addresses the border issue. The two leaders will issue “strategic guidance” to their militaries to strengthen communication and obtain “predictability and effectiveness”. The Chinese statement talks more of implementing the existing guidelines and mechanisms. Whether this would be supplemented by China resuming implementation of the 2005 agreement on “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India China Boundary Question” remains to be seen.
Post-2008, the special representatives met to hold sterile discussions as China reneged on the 2005 understanding. Unless the resolution of the boundary issue is undertaken, overlapping patrolling in disputed sections by both sides will invariably lead to fresh standoffs.
The New Delhi statement thereafter is largely replete with statements of intent on meshing visions, furthering global prosperity, combating climate change and disease, helping digital empowerment, etc. There is a hortatory condemnation of terrorism, noted in the passing by China, thus indicating that China may only modify its defence of Pakistan’s state-sponsored terror gradually, if ever. A senior Chinese official said they would not press India on the Belt and Road Initiative. China obviously realises that issue will have to resolved in the India-Pakistan context.
Wuhan was an exploratory exercise to assess if both nations are ready to begin recalibrating their known stances. For instance, will China be willing to accept India’s rise without counter-moves to tie it down in South Asia, or India prepared to not openly question the Chinese assertion of domination in the Pacific? The truth is — neither will happen overnight or fully as India is a swing power that will play both sides. But for that the Narendra Modi doctrine of chest-thumping alternating with bear-hugging must be replaced by temperate diplomacy sans theatre.
On April 28, a meeting began to consider the China-pushed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), seen by them as a counter to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), kicked off without the United States. The RCEP is to consist of 10 Asean members and China, Japan and South Korea, besides Australia, India and New Zealand. President Xi would have sought Indian support. China wants the Indian market to open fully, while India wants China to lower its non-tariff barriers on India’s competitive products to enable trade balancing. That Wuhan was an important meeting is undeniable. The next few months will show if the strategic recalibration between the two Asian giants has actually begun.