Before reaching India, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and the real power behind him, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, suggesting that he was watching the situation in Kashmir and would support Pakistan in issues related to its core interests. And immediately from India, Xi flew to Nepal, the first by a Chinese leader in 23 years, and pledged Nepalese Rs 56 billion in assistance to Kathmandu over the next two years. In between was the pageantry of the informal summit at Mamallapuram where all Xi could discuss with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was how to rhetorically work together to tackle global challenges and on enhancing people-to-people exchanges. This was certainly quite a way to demonstrate Chinese sensitivity to Indian concerns.
True, there is a suggestion about a new mechanism to discuss trade issues and the need for closer defence cooperation, but there is a danger that Sino-Indian engagement has become one where processes tend to dominate at the expense of substantive outcomes. China is a much bigger power than India, so there are limits to what India can do about it, and Modi’s idea of engaging China’s top leadership in informal summitry is a sound one. Last year’s summit at Wuhan had come after the Doklam border crisis and it did play a role in moderating behaviour on both sides. With Modi and Xi deciding to issue “strategic guidance” to their militaries to strengthen communication and build trust and understanding, the two nations signalled their resolve to maintain stability at the borders. But by the time this year’s summit had arrived, the limits of such engagement were also quite evident, with China’s solid support to Pakistan after India’s decision to nullify Article 370.
The second informal summit should ideally have built on the Wuhan engagement, where Modi and Xi had agreed that “the two countries have the maturity and the wisdom to handle all our differences through peaceful discussion within the context of this overall relationship and bearing in mind that we would respect each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations.” But it is quite clear that Beijing has no interest in adhering to that spirit. At Mamallapuram, too, Modi seemed to be reminding Xi that “we had decided that we would prudently manage our differences and not let them become disputes, be sensitive to each other’s concerns, and be a reason for peace and stability in the world.” Xi did not care about this at Wuhan, and it is very clear that he has no intention of following this prescription even after enjoying India’s hospitality in Chennai.
The challenge from China for India is growing by the day and Indian policymakers have done well to recognise that they need a robust response to managing its consequences. China made it clear that with India’s consolidation of control over Ladakh—and by extension Aksai Chin —Sino-Indian border negotiations might be entering a new phase and a hardening of its position should be expected. This, despite the fact that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar made it clear to his Chinese counterpart that the legislative measures being ushered in by New Delhi would have no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.
China’s response is also driven by its wider interests as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has pushed Beijing to be even more aggressive on Kashmir. With China reportedly planning to set up a permanent military base in Pakistan for CPEC, India should be prepared for greater Chinese meddling on this matter. India’s deft diplomatic handling of the situation has ensured that China stands isolated at the UN. This has been happening repeatedly now. Earlier this year, China was isolated while trying to protect Masood Azhar from being declared a global terrorist, but had to later backtrack in the face of global opinion. Last week as well, the UNSC consultations on Kashmir concluded without any outcome or formal statement. Most members supported India’s stand that this was a bilateral issue to be resolved between India and Pakistan. This repeated isolation notwithstanding, China remains unambiguously committed to sustaining its partnership with Pakistan. That’s the strategic reality New Delhi will have to contend with.
In New Delhi, there is now a more realistic appraisal of China and Indian foreign policy has evolved in directions which demands reciprocity from Beijing. China is both India’s most important neighbour and its most significant foreign policy challenge. India cannot ignore China and it is cognisant of the growing power differential between the two. But New Delhi too has its options and over the last few years, it has made it clear to Beijing that it’s not a pushover. From Doklam to its opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative, India’s message has been clear: New Delhi will stand up for its vital interests. There is now less diffidence in carving out strategic partnerships with other like-minded countries.
Notwithstanding Indian attempts to reach out to China, the underlying factors that have shaped the trajectory of Sino-Indian relations over the last few decades remain unchanged. Moreover, as India becomes a more proactive player in the international order and China’s troubles with the rest of the world continue to grow, Beijing will target New Delhi even more pointedly. In that context, strengthening India’s domestic capabilities and building strong partnerships with like-minded countries remain the only options to secure Indian interests. The ‘Wuhan Spirit’ or the ‘Chennai Connect’ will be of no use. New Delhi should now let Beijing decide if it is serious about taking this process forward by demanding concrete positive outcomes on issues critical to the Sino-Indian relationship. Rest should all be ignored as good theatrics and nothing else.
(The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)