An informal meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) took place on April 27 and 28 with the aim of resetting the relationship between the two nations. During the summit, the two leaders discussed a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues. Modi and Xi said that since the two nations represent 40 percent of the world’s population and are an import engine for global growth, they are central pillars for promoting a multipolar and globalized world.
A good China-India relationship is an important and positive factor for maintaining peace and stability in the world. The summit led some experts in New Delhi and Beijing to argue that it has set a major milestone in improving bilateral relations.
The political posturing by Modi and Xi was indeed very encouraging, especially when relations between the two nations has been at a low ebb: A 73-day military stand-off in the Doklam region last year, China’s deepening footsteps in South Asian nations, the China-Pakistan economic corridor running through part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the Modi government’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh last year and other factors badly affected relations.
Several academics and experts have argued that the two sides would be fast approaching a serious crisis if New Delhi and Beijing did not effectively use diplomatic tools to cool down tensions. Quite understandably, the governments of the two sides also realized the same rationale in normalizing their relationship.
Thus, the Doklam crisis was brought to a peaceful end and the two capitals focused on reversing the downward direction of bilateral ties. It was in this context that during Modi’s visit to China to attend a BRICS summit last year a proposal emerged for an informal meeting between the leaders of the two sides.
Soon after his visit to China in March, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale wrote a letter to the Cabinet secretary saying that the participation of senior leaders and dignitaries at a high-profile event commemorating the Dalai Lama’s 60 years of exile is not desirable and should be discouraged.
The Modi government also changed the venue of the event from New Delhi to Dharamshala in a bid to address China’s concerns about India’s position on the Tibet issue.
A series of high-level exchanges, including Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Dova’s visit to China, took place from April 12 to April 13.
After meeting Nepalese Minister of Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) floated the idea of a trilateral economic corridor with India and Nepal as part of a trade initiative.
Indian Minister of External Affairs Shushma Swaraj and Indian Minster of Defense Srishita Ram also visited China.
On the heels of these high-profile visits, Modi’s visit to China saw some significant steps taken by both sides to infuse new trust into their relations. India and China have agreed to improve communication between their militaries to maintain peace at the border, with the two leaders endorsing the work of special representatives in their efforts to find a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement.
The two leaders underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquility in all areas of the India-China border and agreed to undertake a joint India-China economic project in Afghanistan, which could help India to reduce Pakistan’s presence in that nation.
Both nations have their own reasons for taking the corrective efforts to bring ties back on track. For India, China’s deepening engagement in South Asia is a major cause of concern. An improvement in India-China ties would force South Asian neighbors not to play the China card against New Delhi.
In particular, New Delhi wants to see the expanding relationship between Beijing and Islamabad not become a major cause of concern for its security.
Another reason for New Delhi’s rapprochement toward Beijing is Modi not wanting to see Chinese posturing on the border with general elections only one year away.
For China, US President Donald Trump’s containment policy toward Beijing and a trade war necessitated Xi to improve ties with India in a bid to develop joint efforts to face the US administration’s protectionist approach.
Beijing is also concerned about the strengthening security cooperation between India and the US, as well as the revival of the quadrilateral group comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India.
The success of Modi’s visit will depend on the extent that the two sides develop a comprehensive mechanism to address each other’s concerns, including China’s stance on supporting India’s induction in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, how to resolve the border issue, and how China and India can work together in South Asia.
While the visit marked a new beginning in the direction of fostering at least a working relationship between the two nations, given Xi’s expansionist behavior, it appears highly unlikely that Beijing will show magnanimity in bridging the gap with India.
Sumit Kumar is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University and a research fellow at the Chennai Center for China Studies.
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