The eyes of the world this week will be on Buenos Aires, and the much-awaited meeting between President Donald Trump of the United States and President Xi Jinping of China.
Whether their meeting at the G20 will help reduce hostilities – if not avert a brewing cold war – will have an impact that reaches far beyond the US-China relationship.
Indeed, the US-China trade war has already prompted a recalibration in many relationships. China, unnerved by Trump’s pressure on trade, has already pursued unlikely rapprochements with countries such as India and Japan, both of which have reciprocated to hedge against the unpredictability of Trump’s Washington.
Trump will certainly cast a shadow on Xi’s other engagement at the G20 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. It is no accident that this will, remarkably, be their fourth meeting in just half a year, underlining the warmth in relations since the first-of-its-kind “informal summit” in Wuhan in April, when Xi broke with protocol and hosted Modi for two days outside Beijing, the first time he had done so for any foreign leader.
The consensus reached by Xi and Modi at the East Lake has been most evident in the boundary question, which remains the biggest challenge in the relationship.
Last year, ties went into deep freeze over the stand-off in Doklam that lasted 73 days. In Wuhan, both leaders agreed to issue strategic guidance to their militaries, and to not allow differences to become disputes. That this consensus on the border has lasted seven months is no small feat.
As the conversation in Wuhan suggested, however, the focus very much remains on managing – rather than resolving – the boundary question.
When Xi and Modi meet in Argentina, the boundary isn’t expected to dominate their attention. As was the pattern of their previous meetings, conversations have been wide-ranging and focused on the big picture of ties.
Yet they will certainly discuss the boundary, and are likely to review the outcomes of the November 24 meeting between their two Special Representatives, State Councillor Wang Yi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who met in Chengdu for the 21st round of talks on the issue.
(This was a departure from the usual meeting place at the Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing, and included a visit by the two officials to Mount Qingcheng, the birthplace of Taoism - perhaps seeking divine assistance.)
Both noted “the strategic guidance and support to their work provided by the leaders at the Wuhan Summit” and “resolved to intensify their efforts to achieve a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the India-China boundary question at an early date”, according to a statement.
They reiterated the need to “maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and to ensure that the boundary question does not affect the overall development of the bilateral relationship” and “noted the mature handling of issues relating to the India-China border areas since the Wuhan Summit”.
Indeed, reaching a solution – or even considering one – is a moot point without a period of prolonged stability on the border without incident, or what both sides, since Wuhan, have stressed as “predictability in border management”.
Wuhan was, however, just the start, and much work remains to be done in increasing confidence-building measures, improving channels of communication to prevent the recurrence of a face-off such as Doklam, and clarifying the differing perceptions of the as-yet-undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Both sides like to point out that despite sharing an undemarcated, 3,488km border, no shot has been fired in four decades. (The border has, in fact, seen fewer incidents than even China’s border with North Korea.)
Yet ensuring stability has proved elusive, with serious face-offs occurring on an almost annual basis.
Xi’s first visit to India as head of state in 2014 was derailed by a stand-off in Chumar, as was Premier Li Keqiang’s visit the previous year, following a face-off at Depsang.
Modi’s first visit to China in 2015 was similarly followed by incidents along the LAC. Hence, the 21 rounds of talks have increasingly tended to focus on managing, rather than resolving, the boundary question.
Where does that leave the prospects of a resolution? The talks are currently in the second stage of a three-stage process, which involves agreeing on a framework for a package settlement in the western, middle and eastern sectors.
The first stage was completed in 2005 with an agreement on political parameters. The last stage involves delineating and demarcating the border in maps and on the ground. The biggest disputes are in the west and east.
In the western sector, India sees China as occupying at least 38,000 sq km, while in the east, China claims as much as 90,000 sq km in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Shivshankar Menon, India’s former Special Representative and Doval’s predecessor, wrote recently that he didn’t see a solution as impossible. “Nothing is impossible in politics,” he said. “What is impossible is a settlement on the terms the Chinese have announced in public, which include Tawang and significant Indian concessions in the eastern sector in Arunachal. But as the history of the last 69 years of India’s relations with the PRC show, nothing should be assumed to be set in stone.”
Menon said in another interview that the negotiations had “got to the point where it can be done by an act of political will on both sides” and most of the technical work had been completed.
CONCESSIONS AND RISKS
In one sense, both sides agree on what a settlement will look like, having ruled out a status quo solution. They have agreed on mutual adjustments and a package settlement for all sectors that takes into account the interests of settled populations.
In other words, it will involve minimal adjustments across all sectors, but enough to allow both sides to claim that their concerns have been addressed. India will have to give up most of its claims in the west, and China will have to do the same in the east.
Yet the irony is that neither side finds the prospect of agreeing on a solution appealing for different reasons. For any democratically elected government in India, the political risks outweigh the benefits - although in the past India has been able to achieve a national political consensus on such matters, such as in the settlement with Bangladesh.
The greater obstacle appears to come from China’s calculus. It appears to be the case that even if India was to come forward with a reasonable solution involving concessions in the west, China might not reciprocate. This has been evident in the public posturing on China’s claims to Tawang in particular, which former Special Representative Dai Bingguo described as being non-negotiable.
India, in contrast, has made no corresponding statements about the western sector. Chinese officials like to say that no government in Beijing could risk ceding Tawang because of popular sentiment. This is somewhat of an exaggeration considering the issue is nowhere near as emotive in the public imagination as the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands or the South China Sea, and that achieving a national consensus in China is a far easier proposition given the political context.
In a recent article, Chinese strategist Zhang Jiadong wrote that the importance of the border issue “has reduced”. This reflects the perception in Beijing is that the boundary question is neither a priority nor one to be resolved on its own merits.
Rather, an unresolved border is seen as valuable leverage that can be used in its relationship with India, which remains influenced by China’s close relations with Pakistan as well as Beijing’s concerns over India’s ties with the United States.
As Zhang observed, “China’s experience indicates that resolving border disputes is usually the result rather than the cause of improvements in relations.” And until that calculus changes, the stalemate is likely to endure.
Ananth Krishnan is a visiting fellow at Brookings India and was previously China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu