Boldly Informal
         Date: 09-May-2018

Peace on the border and cooperation in Afghanistan are the two big takes from the Modi-Xi informal summit in Wuhan which is diplomatically a big leap forward


 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown boldness and imagination in engaging President Xi Jinping at an informal meeting in Wuhan. The undercurrents of tensions in India-China relations rising in recent times, with the stand-off at Doklam in October last, have been demonstrating a dramatically downward trend. The abuse heaped on India by the Chinese press and the intimidating statements made at official levels during this episode would have suggested that, despite the stepping back by both sides from the area of confrontation and subsequent soft noises form Beijing, too much damage had been done to ties to visualise any significant improvement in the period ahead.

In fact, Indian defence and strategic circles had speculated that notwithstanding an appearance of wanting to reach out to India, it was more than likely that China would stage some incident on the Indian border in an area in which it has tactical advantage in order to undo what has been seen as a political and military set back to it at Doklam. While China got away with changing the facts on the ground in the South China Sea by reclaiming reefs and militarising them in the face of US power and ASEAN concerns, it could not do so at Doklam.

The rest of the world would no doubt have taken note of India’s willingness to resist China’s unilateral moves to change territorial status quo in sensitive areas to its advantage.

Act of Statesmanship

Having made a point and sent a message to China that India would not be averse to risking a conflict to defend its security interests, it made diplomatic sense for India to avoid a new conflict erupting on the border, as that would not serve its interests. A recourse to active diplomacy is advisable when stakes are high, and therefore willingness to explore the thinking and intentions of a powerful neighbour constitutes an act of statesmanship.

The massive air exercise by the Indian Air Force to validate its combat plans just before Shri Modi travelled to Wuhan suggested that he was going to China not out of a sense of weakness but with one of confidence in India’s commitment to peace and stability on the border if China were willing to reciprocate to it.

Shri Modi and his advisers have no illusions about China, given the history of India-China ties ever since China occupied Tibet in 1951 and became our direct neighbour for the first time. India accepted Tibet as part of China, but that did not deter China from seeking territory and influence south of the Himalayas and weakening the buffers between the two countries.

The 1962 conflict, the transfer by China of nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan to neutralise India strategically, the continuing claims on additional Indian Territory are all too well known. More recently, China sought to bolster Pakistan even more with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the construction of Gwadar as an eventual logistics base for the Chinese navy.

It has blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and has opposed the designation of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist by the UN Security Council as part of supporting Pakistan on nuclear proliferation and terrorism issues, when on both counts Pakistan acts like a rogue state. Furthermore, Shri Modi and the Chinese President have met on numerous occasions in bilateral and multilateral formats and yet the tensions in the relationship have endured, and this experience has not been lost on our side.

The Context

It is in this background that the intention behind the Wuhan meeting should be analysed and understood. India is not counting on a radically new chapter in India-China ties or a resolution of all outstanding issues in the foreseeable future. There are serious structural impediments in forging relations on a new basis. China has unveiled huge geopolitical ambitions under Xi Jinping. It seeks to challenge US power regionally and globally, dominate Asia and eventually replace the US as the world’s pre-eminent power. The vehicle for achieving its ambitions is its Belt and Road Initiative both in its land and maritime dimensions. For this it needs to position itself politically and economically much more strongly in our neighbourhood, and this at the cost of India’s influence and interests. The economic and military gap between India and China has widened to our disadvantage. Being contiguous neighbours with an unsettled border and Chinese territorial claims on us, the challenges from China’s rise are that much more serious for us.

From what has been agreed to at Wuhan it would seem that the likelihood of China provoking a fresh incident on the border has been averted. This would be the sense of the strategic guidance that the two sides will give to their respective militaries to build greater trust and effectively manage border affairs, with both the armed forces implementing confidence-building measures to prevent incidents in the border regions. This was the most important outcome of the informal meeting, especially in the light of the fact that general elections are to be held in India in 2019. The other politically significant outcome was the decision to work on a joint project in Afghanistan. This announcement served the political purpose of both sides. Pakistan would be perturbed by China’s implied message that India has a role in Afghanistan and China is willing to endorse it concretely. In return India has sent a message that it does not look askance at China’s role in Afghanistan and is willing to legitimise it politically by joining hands with it in implementing a joint economic project.

Studying Xi’s mind

For the rest, the Wuhan meeting was intended on India’s part to make an assessment of Xi Jinping’s thinking at the international, regional and bilateral levels now that he is all powerful and will remain China’s leader indefinitely. Shri Modi wanted to sound out Xi Jinping “strategically”, which is why it was agreed to strengthen strategic communication on matters of common interest. These are obviously rising anti-globalisation and protectionist sentiments in the West that would negatively affect the interests of both countries, the threat of trade wars erupting and derailing the global economy with consequences for all. Shri Modi would have had interest in gauging  Xi Jinping’s thinking on the future course of China-US ties, as that would have implications for the trajectory of India-US relations. President Trump’s unpredictability and the shape US-China ties would take in the wake of positive developments in the Korean peninsula, not to mention Japanese overtures to China under Prime Minister Abe, have to be factored into Indian foreign policy decision-making.

The fluidity of the international situation requires India to hedge its bets in all directions so as not be wrong-footed. If India aims to be a leading power, this kind of all-round diplomacy is required in order to preserve India’s autonomous space. For the rest, one will wait to see how this informal meeting will impact on China’s position on terrorism affecting India and the serious trade imbalance between the two countries. This will be work in progress as suggested by some differences in the briefings given by the two sides on the conclusion of the Modi-Xi meeting.

(The writer is a former foreign secretary)