Don’t expect major breakthrough

IN PERSPECTIVE

Chinese President Xi Jinping and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak as they walk along the East Lake in Wuhan, China. (Photo by Reuters)

While India and China will hold the second informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping today and tomorrow, events over the past few weeks have dampened the prospects of forward movement on the boundary dispute.

The first informal summit between Xi and Modi in Wuhan in 2018 had provided a tentative new template for first stabilising and then advancing the bilateral relationship, which had come under increasing strain. The broad framework that was agreed upon was to engage to build trust across a range of issues while taking steps to maintain peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Since then, there were signs of some gradual, yet positive momentum on a broad set of areas such as trade, counter-terrorism, people-to-people engagement and working together at multilateral forums. Most importantly, frictions at the border had been kept in check through regular meetings and the use of established mechanisms.

The meeting between Modi and Xi at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit at Bishkek earlier this year took stock of this progress. Speaking to the press after the meeting, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said that the two leaders were seeking to “expedite discussions” on the boundary issue to achieve “a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution,” while keeping in mind the larger context of the bilateral relationship.

The Chinese side was much more constrained, with state media reporting Xi as saying that both sides must enhance “trust-building measures so as to preserve stability in border areas.” In July, China’s new ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, was reported as saying that Beijing wants an “early settlement” of the boundary dispute with the caveat that the priority, for now, was to properly manage differences. 

However, events over the past month and specific developments over the past week suggest that the so-called Wuhan spirit is rapidly dissipating under the weight of the inherent conflict between Indian and Chinese interests.

First, on the trade front, both sides have been sparring over the terms of the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. After years of negotiations, there are now serious questions about India being part of the pact. While Indian industry and government have a number of concerns with regard to RCEP that need addressing, chief among them is the nature of trade with China and the prospects of Chinese goods flooding the Indian market.

Second, Beijing has been extremely critical of New Delhi’s decision to strip the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status. Beijing’s specific concern, apart from its support for Pakistan, is about the impact the decision will have on its boundary dispute with India. 

In a shift in the process of engagement after New Delhi’s decision on Kashmir, on September 3, it was reported that Northern Army Commander Lt General Ranbir Singh’s visit to China had been postponed. Soon after, 22nd round of Special Representatives talks on the boundary issue, which was scheduled to be held in September, also suffered the same fate.

Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor, who is also the Special Representative, was expected to travel to Delhi to meet NSA chief Ajit Doval. Wang would have travelled after having completed a visit to Pakistan. 

Scheduling constraints

Officially, as per the Chinese foreign ministry, the meeting was pushed back due to scheduling constraints from the Indian side. However, reports in the Indian press suggest that the fact that he was due to travel from Pakistan was not viewed in a favourable light as it would imply hyphenating India with Pakistan. 

More recently, the joint statement between the two sides during Wang’s Islamabad visit on September 7-8 mentioned the Kashmir issue. It said that China opposes “unilateral actions,” but sees this as “a dispute left from history, and should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.” 

India’s foreign ministry was prompt to criticise this reference to Kashmir, specifically mentioning CPEC projects and raising concerns about changes in the status quo in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. At the same time, reports tell us of the first serious post-Wuhan border incident between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh this week. The standoff was reportedly resolved after delegation-level talks.

Clearly, the mood ahead of the informal summit in Mamallapuram is very different from what it was in the lead up to Wuhan. In many ways, this suits Beijing. Given the challenges that the Chinese government faces, engagement with India and maintaining peace along the boundary are in its broader interest. 

But there is little for Beijing to gain by moving ahead to resolve the dispute. It continues to command the upper hand in terms of the power asymmetry with India, and there is little to no incentive for negotiating away territorial claims. Don’t expect any breakthroughs in Mamallapuram.

(The writer is Associate Fellow-China Studies, The Takshashila Institution)

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