Xi Jinping was the first leader whom PM Modi hosted in his home town Ahmedabad in Sept 2014 and Xi responded by hosting Modi in Xi’an, his own home town in May 15. Since then, the two have met on multiple occasions as both nations are part of multiple international organizations, where heads of state meet. Despite all tensions both leaders have always spoken,contrary to the Pak leadership, where despite being on the same table in a conference, no words are exchanged.
Unaddressed issues remain between both nations. These are not merely border and confrontation, but also trade, international groupings, enhancing ties in domains each considers its own backyard as also blocking the other in international forums. It is against this backdrop that the two leaders met.
The intention of the summit was to reset ties, establish communication for deescalating any crises and moving forward in areas of mutual interest. Only part of the issues discussed would be placed in public domain as was evident from the announcements made by both sides. Most aspects would be handled quietly by respective governments and would slowly become visible with minor tweaking in policies.
The reality is that both are growing powers, militarily and economically, and have the capability to challenge the other. Neither is a pushover. The fact that they are neighbours with an unresolved border problem, for which there is no easy military solution is also evident. For China, Tibet is always a thorn on its side and hence, it views activities of the Dalai Lama in India as a threat to its national security. Indo-China border issues are one sided. India has no claims on Tibet, while China claims Indian territory.
For China, India’s unwillingness to join the BRI makes its construction of the CPEC a stand-alone project, as also Indian attempts to isolate Pakistan places China in a difficult position. China cannot ignore Pak, nor stop supporting it, however needs to maintain a suitable relationship with India. When it comes to choosing between the two, India will be the loser. As Chinese investments grow in Pak, so will its support.
Further, India’s growing military to military ties to nations in China’s backyard and ASEAN is viewed with suspicion by China, as is Indian proximity to the US and Japan and participation in the QUAD naval exercises. Hence to send a positive message just prior to this visit, India turned down the request by Australia to re-join the QUAD.
For India, Chinese support to Pak including employing its veto power in the UN Security Council against declaring Masood Azhar as a global terrorist and blocking Indian entry into the NSG are mere irritants. These only impact India’s international standing.
Chinese forays into India’s immediate neighbourhood including the taking over of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and possibly controlling 70% stake in the Kyauk Pyu port in Myanmar add to our security concerns. Increased Chinese foray into the Maldives is another contentious issue. China advancing loans and seeking to push its way into India’s immediate neighbourhood remains a matter of concern.
The standoff in Doklam needed to be resolved as early as possible as neither nation would have desired an escalation of the incident. China is aware that the changed Indian military would not be a pushover and any serious incursions would be met by a strong response. Escalation into war over an issue which could be resolved by other means would damage both.
Hence, while immediate resolution of the boundary dispute remains a distant dream, a conscious decision to continue engagement is the only option. China would needle, as remaining quiet would indicate a surrender of its claim lines, which it would never accept. However, needling would remain within acceptable levels.
Politically, post his election as President for life, Xi Jinping is amongst the strongest rulers in the world, with no one possessing any authority to challenge his power, unless a wrong step embarrasses China. This step could possibly flow from an Indo-China border clash. Modi on the other hand would be facing re-election next year, hence would desire peaceful relations with no major border issues, which could hamper his chances. Any wrong step could be exploited by a desperate opposition.
In the external environment, China would consider the US and its actions as their main threat, rather than India. Thus, reducing confrontation with India would benefit it. Simultaneously India would seek to avoid confrontation with China enabling it to concentrate on domestic issues rather than facing military threats on both its borders, including a collusion between China and Pak.
Both nations therefore view the other as a threat to their power and domination in their respective regions as also in international groupings. With such vast perceptions and differences, finding common ground may appear difficult, especially as both are moving towards strengthening their armed forces and economy. The world views India as the only nation capable of taking on the Chinese dragon in Asia, an aspect not lost sight of in China, adding to differences.
Thus, logically expecting one to bend in favour of the other is expecting the moon. Enhancing trade and reducing balance of payments, while enmeshing the two economies with greater investments as announced would ensure that any border situation does not go beyond dangerous levels. Agreeing to continue with border talks while enhancing military to military engagements, without seeking an immediate solution, leaving it for the future is ideal, as has been announced. It basically conveys that both nations would avoid changing status quo in disputed regions.
Collaborating in an economic project in Afghanistan is a welcome step forward. It would enhance cooperation while opening doors for China in the country. This would also ensure that Pak protests are reduced on Indian involvement as Chinese participation exists.
While talks may be positive however no agreements being inked could leave most in doubt on a possible outcome. The meeting aimed at resolving issues which could be handled in the immediate future without too much give and take. Contentious disputes have been left for the future. Expecting either nation to change its stand in one meeting appears illogical. The fact that two leaders reset ties which had drifted apart is itself a forward step. Immediate solutions were neither expected nor announced.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)