Bringing normalcy back

Modi-Xi informal summit

The informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping may not be “a milestone in bilateral relations” as sections of the Chinese media have suggested, but it certainly has the potential of changing the trajectory of Sino-Indian relations in a positive direction.

The fact that it allowed the two leaders to exchange views in a relaxed environment without a scripted agenda, is itself an achievement, in the wake of the negativity of the last two years. Given the stakes that India and China have in each other’s stability and success, it is imperative for the top leadership of the two nations to be in regular touch with each other and not allow the military commanders or a belligerent media to shape the discourse.

On border issues, Modi and Xi have decided to issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding, with the overall aim of “maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border region.” The two leaders also underlined the common threat posed by terrorism and have committed to cooperate further on counter-terrorism — an important move — and one likely to raise hackles in Pakistan. They have also agreed to undertake a joint economic project in Afghanistan. If operationalised, this can be a game-changer for Afghanistan and regional peace. After the summit, Beijing also made it clear that while there were no fundamental differences with India on the issue of “inter-connectivity,” China won’t be “too hard” with New Delhi on the issue of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

At a time when the protectionist tendencies in the West are growing by the day, the need for India and China to work together in global governance was also highlighted during the summit. The Chinese President argued: “As the two largest developing countries and emerging-market economies with a population level of more than one billion, China and India are the backbone of the world’s multi-polarisation and economic globalisation. He underscored the importance of building an open and pluralist global economic order, in which all countries can freely participate to pursue their development, while also contributing to the elimination of poverty and inequality in all regions of the world.

It is clear from the summit that key bilateral differences continue to plague the Sino-Indian relationship. Structural factors that have determined the trajectory of this relationship for the past two decades, continue to be influential and are not going to disappear overnight. What is equally clear, is that the top leaderships in both countries are cognisant of the challenges that bedevil their relationship and would like to stabilise their relations.

Just before the summit, India reiterated its opposition to the BRI as well Pakistan-sponsored terrorism even as the growing trade imbalance with China has been highlighted repeatedly. Contrary to what many seem to be suggesting, India did not go into this summit from a position of weakness. After standing up to the Chinese border adventurism on Doklam last year, and by taking a principled but consistent position on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), India made it clear to China that it will not succumb to brute Chinese power.

It is because of this reason that finally the Chinese President accorded the Indian prime minister the honour of an informal summit which is rare and usually reserved for American Presidents. It is China that is facing negative headwinds with the Trump administration, which is claiming down hard on trade tariffs. There are  also voices growing around the world against the predatory practices of the BRI. At a time when China is yet to complete its restructuring of the domestic economy, it is important for Beijing to work together with New Delhi in sharing the global economic climate.

Convergent interests

The idea that India and China share convergent interests on the global stage, and so, need to work together, is not new. Throughout the early 1990s, it was this idea on which the broader Sino-Indian partnership was predicated upon. In fact, the Russia-India-China trilateral arrangement and the BRICS platform evolved out of this synergy. India and China spoke in one voice against western interventionist policies in the 1990s and stood up against the West in global trade and climate change negotiations. It is recently that this engagement has been weakening, partly because Beijing seemed more keen on reaching bilateral understanding with major western powers without taking New Delhi into account.

If today China is once again talking about working together with India on global economic issues, it is because of an apparent realisation in Beijing that western opinion is turning against it rather rapidly. China would need partners which can help it alleviate some of these challenges. Its traditional partner of choice, Russia, won’t be of much help as it is not fully integrated into the global economic order, and also has burnt its bridges with the West.

India, meanwhile, remains an emerging economic power both with the heft and credibility to shape the global economic architecture in partnership with the West. It is this changing geopolitical reality that is making China reconsider its stance towards New Delhi, bringing an element of pragmatism in its approach and outreach. It remains to be seen if these sentiments will be operationalised.

This is certainly a moment for New Delhi to tap into and use this opportunity to its fullest. Modi’s visit to China is a welcome first step. But New Delhi will need to be aware that unless there is a real change on the ground in China’s policies towards India, this summit, like past several ones, will soon be
forgotten.

--

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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Bringing normalcy back

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