Very noticeable resetting of ties between India and China are underway. There is realpolitik in progress which is inevitable if the economic growth of the world, driven by the two Asian giants, is to be sustained. The two neighbours are the world’s fastest growing economies, eager to achieve medium prosperity for their citizens. The previous Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar has stated that contestation between China and India should not become confrontation. This is precisely what the two countries are pursuing.
Both PM Modi and President Xi had made it clear that their one-on-one meetings were designed to improve relations following the 72 days Doklam stand off last year. Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province was chosen the venue, which is the first destination outside Beijing that President Xi chose to receive a foreign leader—perhaps taking a leaf out of Mr Modi’s book. The timing of the meeting is important from Chinese angle which senses geopolitical shift and increasing influence of the US on India, whereas there is overall uncertainty in the US policies in the region. Formation of Quad is being seen by Beijing as a military framework to contain Chinese rise. Though no goals were set for the summit, yet the thought of advantages which the two fastest growing economies of the world with 40 percent of the world population could achieve by maintaining peace and stability underpinned the expectations. This meeting also preceded the SCO meeting scheduled in Qingdao in June this year, where China will drive the agenda. While Delhi sees the economic advantages, Beijing clearly foresees its ambition of replacing the US from top spot in the world order jeopardised, if it allows India to drift westwards.
If that was the underlying desire of two leaders, much was achieved and its implementation by the lower bureaucracy should show the outcomes in future. India’s Foreign Secretary stated that both sides pledged to improve military communication to avoid a repeat of Doklam stand off along the long border. The militaries will be directed to strengthen mechanisms of confidence building for maintaining peace and stability on the border. The two leaders also agreed to work together for an open global economy and support multilateral trading systems.
Does it then point at resolving of major issues? Perhaps it is a bit early to say but the ice breaking visit of PM Modi is a step in that direction. President Xi in an interview to Xinhua said, “The China-India relationship should be a stable and developing one, with mutual trust as the foundation. In the next step, the two countries should make a comprehensive plan for cooperation and further enhance strategic communication for timely negotiation on major issues”. The two leaders have also agreed to properly handle and manage disputes and “fair settlement” of border disputes. Here lies the core issue which has led to lack of mutual trust.
These are necessary steps to maintain status quo on the Line of Actual Control. Border is an issue of perception by the two militaries and unless each side pledges not to patrol in the areas where perceptions are different, a face off is likely. Will the higher level strategic communication lead to such ‘no patrol buffer zones’? Only time will tell. On the international platform, there is much that China and India can do together such as trade, counter terrorism, development of third country, climate change and maritime security of sea lanes of communication in area of common interest to name but a few.
What is the significance of giving strategic direction to the militaries to maintain peace all along the border? One clear possibility is that broad understanding between two special representatives having been reached in the 20 rounds of talks and it requires broad political directives to the respective militaries not to vitiate the atmosphere by skirmishes. PM Modi and President Xi command large acceptance as strong leaders from their domestic constituencies, so initial steps for a reasonable settlement can be taken. The two have also emphasised on intensifying the border talks. The realisation that adversarial relationship would be major hurdle in their economic growth and prosperity is one major outcome of Wuhan informal talks.
The understanding of working together in Afghanistan developmental projects is fair messaging to the world and particularly Pakistan that in future similar joint projects could be undertaken in India’s neighbourhood. In the current uncertainty of US Foreign Policy, China is getting a sense of placing itself as the second pole in a bipolar international order. However, with the formation of Quad, India-Japan-Africa Growth Corridor, Peace and denuclearisation of two Koreas, Russian entry into Syria, Saudi Iran confrontation in Yemen, China has realised that the world is probably headed for a multipolar construct in which number of middle powers will play dominant regional leadership role in future. PM Modi and President Xi meeting is clearly one such necessity of changing geopolitics.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command & former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff.