The informal two-day summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Chinese city of Wuhan last week was carefully planned to showcase how the two nations can productively conduct business.
But it was also a testament to the resolve and flexibility of India’s China policy. Modi, like his predecessors Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has been quick to pivot from hawk to dove and unreservedly engage Beijing in good faith whenever an opportunity in bilateral relations presents itself.
With Modi having extended an invitation to Xi for 2019, the Wuhan summit could become the first of many semi-scripted meetings to be held on an annual or biennial basis. Chinese and Indian leaders already gather annually at the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summits and meet on the sidelines of major multilateral events, such as the G20 Leaders Summit. India’s sharpest diplomats also typically rotate through the ambassadorship position in Beijing prior to their elevation to the foreign secretary post and, potentially thereafter, national security adviser roles.
With an informal leaders-level summit now added to this mix, a critical bilateral relationship appears to be cemented.
The Xi-Modi meeting was notable on two counts: for what was agreed upon and (with requisite political will) can be expected to be implemented; and for what the meeting denotes within the broader context of three decades of Sino-Indian ties since normalisation in the late-1980s.
With regard to near-term deliverables, both leaders issued a strategic guidance to their respective militaries to lower the temperature on their disputed frontier and ensure predictability in the management of border affairs. A limited joint-patrolling concept that has been successfully piloted at two sensitive points on their disputed boundary is likely to be extended to other areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The pressure that both sides had heaped along their unmarked boundary over the past few years that culminated in the stand-off last summer at Doklam – ironically one of the few resolved points along their vast Himalayan frontier – is expected to gradually ease.
The Sino-Indian frontier serves both as a dispute and a barometer. From New Delhi’s perspective, peace and tranquillity – or lack thereof – along the border is defined by the long historical context of the territorial dispute (as well as, to a lesser extent, a reflection of creeping assertiveness in China’s foreign policy).
In Beijing’s more strategically minded view, however, the frontier is as an expedient pressure point to signal disaffection at New Delhi’s overall China policies. It is also a land bridge to restore the spirit of good neighbourliness when circumstances merit.
In terms of symbolism, and its connotations going forward, the Wuhan meeting will be primarily remembered as a moment when a Chinese and Indian leaders jump-started a fresh, virtuous cycle in Sino-Indian relations. In this regard, the Xi-Modi summit falls squarely in the category of two previous meetings.
In November 2000, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, paid a secret visit to Beijing to resolve bitterness following New Delhi’s caustic accusation that China’s hostility and policies were key drivers of its May 1998 nuclear tests. In June 2003, Vajpayee paid a landmark visit to Beijing, setting in motion a process that in 2005 led to a set of political parameters to resolve the long-standing boundary question.
In October 2009, on the sidelines of an Asean-led summit meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao discussed tensions that had bubbled over following a marked uptick in Chinese pressure along the frontier. Beijing expressed its displeasure at New Delhi’s casual flirtation with the Quadrilateral Initiative – an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India – as well its concerns about New Delhi’s pro-American tilt.
Reassured in Hua Hin of New Delhi’s fidelity to its policy of strategic autonomy, the two leaders charted a cooperative path at a subsequent BRICS summit in 2011. By October 2013, they had signed a boundary management protocol.
Looking ahead, as Xi and Modi usher in a new era in ties, there are two key takeaways to glean from the past practice of Sino-Indian relations writ large.
First, each cycle over the past two decades has witnessed an initial focus on repair and on-the-ground stabilisation of the boundary, followed by an intensive and successful effort to narrow the underlying dispute at the negotiating table. The current cycle is likely to be no different – although it will have to await Modi’s re-election as well as the roll-out of a more astute special representative (who doubles as New Delhi’s China point person and boundary negotiator). It is not a coincidence that both recent episodes of a cyclical downturn in ties – from 2006 to 2009 and from 2015 to 2017 – have been during the tenure of ex-Intelligence Bureau functionaries elevated to – and unfit to execute – the role of special representative.
Second, New Delhi’s relations with Washington as well as the issue of the subcontinent’s nuclearisation have never been far from the surface. New Delhi and Washington stand today on the cusp of qualitatively deepening their defence relations into an interoperable partnership.
For its part, Beijing’s ambitious infrastructure export schemes, headlined by its Belt and Road Initiative, have newly and rapidly undercut New Delhi’s dominant influence in its neighbourhood.
But if the past is a prologue, both parties will successfully manage these challenges. India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group will be greenlit by Beijing, as long as the US-India defence alliance remains a fundamentally bilateral – not trilateral or quadrilateral – endeavour operational. China will learn to cast a blind eye towards it.
And on the Belt and Road, India will mute its criticisms and might in fact come to borrow a page from its Himalayan neighbour on how to become a driver of sub-regional connectivity, integration and prosperity.
History will show the informal summit in Wuhan as a relatively small but nevertheless noteworthy event. For that, Xi and Modi deserve credit. If they can translate the foundation that they have laid into a durable arrangement on their contested boundary, history will even record their contributions generously. ■
Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington