A tale of two summits

Face-to-face talks between the Chinese and Indian leaders have helped defuse tensions and set out a roadmap for future ties. G. Parthasarathy reports

As the two most populous countries of the world, India and China have had a complex and periodically tense relationship over the past six decades. Things came to a headin 2018 when the two nations’ armies confronted each other across their disputed borders in Doklam, located in the strategic tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China. It was evident that the face-to-face confrontation had the potential to escalate into a larger conflict, which neither side wanted. Soon it became clear that these differences and tensions could be addressed and resolved only if China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi met personally and informally.

The determination of the two leaders to ensure that border tensions did not get out of hand led to a summit meeting between them in February 2018 in the historic city of Wuhan, the capital of China’s Wuhan Province and considered the political, economic, financial, commercial, cultural and educational hub of Central China. The Xi-Modi meeting led to the militaries of both countries taking measures to pull back and de-escalate tensions. The result has been that, while there may still be occasional standoffs along the borders, measures are soon takenby both sides to pull back from disputed areas.

Mr Modi responded to President Xi’s gesture by inviting him for a summit meeting in the historical seaside temple-city of Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, located in the southeastern State of Tamil Nadu. President Xi was thrilled to learn that Mamallapuram had been a historic seaside port for trade with China for centuries, and he has since promised to encourage Chinese tourists to make the city part of their itinerary when visiting India.

While enjoying a visit to the historic sites in Mamallapuram, the two leaders spent hours discussing issues of mutual interest and concern. China has often voiced concern about India joining American-backed security-oriented groupings like the ‘Quad’, comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan. It became clear just before President Xi’s visit that China had taken note of India’s opposition to using regional security groupings to threaten any of its neighbours. A senior Chinese military official told the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, Global Times, that during the ‘Shangri La’ meet in Singapore in 2018, Prime Minister Modi had said: ‘India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy, or as a club of limited members. And by no means do we consider it directed against any country.’

Despite what Mr Modi said in Singapore, India does have serious misgivings about China resorting to coercive measures to enforce its maritime boundary claims over countries ranging from Japan and South Korea to Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Added to these maritime boundary issues are concerns about Chinese efforts to interfere in the domestic political and electoral processes of India’s South Asian neighbours like Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal. There have also been long-term concerns in India about China’s military, missile and nuclear weapons cooperation with Pakistan. A new factor has been the expansion of Sino-Pakistan maritime cooperation, including supplies by China of new submarines and frigates to Pakistan.

Despite these Chinese policies, however, New Delhi appears determined to continue its efforts to resolve its differences with Beijing on the delineation of their land borders. The guiding principles for resolving these differences were agreed to by Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao in 2005.

Both India and China are ‘Dialogue Partners’ and have concluded Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the members of ASEAN. Both countries have also been engaged in prolonged negotiations bilaterally and with ASEAN to form a free trade area, referred to as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (CPEC), extending across the Indian Ocean and the Eastern Pacific. This grouping includes Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, India and all members of ASEAN. While India already has FTAs with the members of ASEAN, Japan and South Korea, it needs to negotiate special arrangements with China, with whom it has a massive trade deficit of $59 billion, before it can agree to join the CPEC. China appears more forthcoming than earlier on such negotiations. It remains to be seen if China will show the requisite flexibility to address India’s concerns, as negotiations for CPEC have reached an advanced stage.

Interestingly, the Chinese now appear to be more concerned about India’s long-term partnership with Russia than about India-US relations.Referring to Modi’s recent visit to eastern Russia, Global Times, noted: ‘The advance of India-Russia ties will push the multi-polarisation of international relations and reinforce India’s role in Asia. It will also add to the leverage of Russia to counter western pressures on diplomacy and security, empower Russia to effectively resist western countries’ strategic blockade and defend its strategic and economic interests in South Asia. Stronger Russia-India ties, especially their military-technical cooperation, would have a negative impact on China’s national security. Consolidating and developing ties with Russia implies India’s strategic intention to contain China’s rise. It would pile more geopolitical pressure on China and increase instability in China’s periphery.’

China appear to be more concerned about India’s long-term partnership with Russia than about India-US relations

With growing suspicions in the United States about China’s mercantilist trade and investment policies, China does appear to be readying itself for an era when availability of US investment and technology will not be as forthcoming as in the recent past. China’s disregard for international Intellectual Property Rights, including in areas of most sophisticated equipment like the American F35 fifth generation fighter aircraft, has raised deep concerns, not just in US security industries, but also across a wide cross-section of American businesses. These suspicions about Chinese policies are unlikely to end soon.

It remains to be seen how China now goes about getting easy access, as in the past, to high technology from the US and other foreign sources. India is carefully studying how these developments will affect its own industrial and defence ties with Washington. New Delhi is in no hurry to accept offers of 5G Technology from China’s Huawei Industries, without careful analysis and study of its national security implications.


G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office

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