The second Modi-Xi informal summit in Mamallapuram showed that the leaders are keen to maintain high-level dialogue to enhance their bilateral relations. But the ‘differences’ over the Jammu and Kashmir issue and China’s support for Pakistan were prevented from turning into disputes by leaving these core issues untouched.
Taking the “Wuhan spirit” forward, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted President Xi Jinping of China for a two-day informal summit at the ancient town of Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. During the summit, they agreed to establish a mechanism for bilateral trade and reflect on their commitment of not “turning their differences into disputes’’. The hopes were high this time too as the last year’s summit in Wuhan yielded significant results in the form of new border engagements that decreased skirmishes post the Doklam standoff.
On the economic front, China acknowledged India’s long-pending trade concerns, increasing the trade deficit to $50 billion and concerns over Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the biggest FTA in the making. India has been repeatedly raising these concerns but the progress to address the trade imbalance has been very slow. During the meeting, the leaders did not discuss the barriers that restricted India’s access to Chinese markets. However, Prime Minister Modi has shown interest in joining the RCEP only if there is a framing of India-China protocol under RCEP for an equitable and balance deal. China’s response towards India’s economic concerns will also depend on whether India, the world’s second largest telecom market, will allow Huawei to rollout its 5G services amidst growing criticism from the USA. The other dynamics shaping the Chinese move has been its trade war with the USA. President Donald Trump launched trade war with China which involved slapping of tariffs on $60 billion worth of Chinese imports. This has led President Xi to retrieve the trade benefit it could get from Indian markets. Immediate gains in the space of economy and on geopolitical stage cannot be expected without sound economic concessions.
When India and China talk about resolving differences prudently, their co-operation is further hindered by diverging alliances. On the one hand, China is growing increasingly paranoid about India’s strengthening defence and security co-operations with the USA as it can shift the balance of power in the region. On the other hand, India has strong reservations about China’s staunch and unconditional support for Pakistan. Thus, India and China have always viewed each other through the prism of their relations with other countries rather than as independent actors.
Excluding on the economic front, there was nothing substantial in terms of the outcome on the underlying differences from the summit. The summit aimed at verifying each other’s positions rather than building trust deficit due to the unresolved conflicts and shaky assurances. The lack of consensus on the diverging issues such as passing of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through the disputed territory of PoK, border dispute over Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin and obstructing India’s entry in the Nuclear Supplier Group are some of the issues that need to be addressed.
The visit of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to China preceded by President Xi’s visit to India had hidden signals. It showed that China will continue to prick India on the Kashmir issue as both the leaders issued a joint statement that Kashmir issue should be resolved as per the UN Charter. This also highlights that China is not going to give up its territorial claims over Aksai Chin. It is therefore not surprising to see how President Xi chose to ‘brief’ Modi about Imran Khan’s visit rather than resolving their disputes related to Aksai Chin.
Further, President Xi’s visit to Nepal right after India might have annoyed the latter. Before his visit to India, Indian Army conducted “Hem Vijay”, its first ever biggest mountain combat exercise, in the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh, 100 km away from the LoC. This is significant as these military exercises at this mountain core are designed to put pressure on China’s future military activities in the state. Just as Indian defence Secretary’s visit to Vietnam on October 3, President Xi’s visit to Nepal can be seen as Chinese sending subtle signals to India that it is proactively engaging in its neighbourhood.
The relations between the two countries turned sour when in 2016 India devoid Nepal of its basic supplies after closing the only border that it shares with India. India’s practice of treating Nepal as its backyard and acting as big brother by interfering in its internal matters has pushed Nepal to reduce its economic dependency on India leading to signing up of China-led BRI in 2017. President Xi’s visit can be seen as an attempt to bring Nepal into the Chinese fold. It was the first visit by any Chinese leader to Nepal in 23 years. To restrict Indian influence in Nepal, China has announced $50 billion for the developmental projects and the construction of the Trans-Himalayan rail and roadway connecting Lhasa — capital of Tibet — to Kathmandu. The corridor would then reach Lambani on the India–Nepal border. The import and exports through this route will reduce goods flowing into Nepal from India. This new development is critical as India will not be able to put psychological pressure on Nepal as it has done earlier by obstructing the flow of goods to Nepal. Further, Nepal’s ruling communist party has organised a training camp on ‘Xi thought’ reflecting its growing co-operation with China due to their shared ideology.
Coming back to India–China ties, the issue of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) that had put relations under strain, failed to figure in the summit. President Xi had expressed strong reservations about Delhi taking away J&K’s special status. Even before visiting India, China said that “it is watching the situation in Kashmir and will back Pakistan’s core interest”. The fact that both the leaders failed to prioritise the contentious J&K issue casts doubts on their future diplomatic engagements and the credibility of continuing informal talks. FATF has allowed Pakistan four months’ time to temporarily evade from getting blacklisted by the global terror watchdog. As China holds the current presidency of FATF, the move may affect India–China ties, especially when combating terrorism was the core topic of the summit.
Mona Thakkar is a Research Intern at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.