There is a lesson to be learnt from the Wuhan summit: wishes are not horses. Those who thought that with Narendra Modi as prime minister, New Delhi would look Beijing in the eye as an equal, now realise that this promise was, just like various other things, a jumla.
After four years of ups and downs, including a period in which the armies of the two countries faced off in a region contested by China and Bhutan, India has taken a step back and wants to reconstruct its relationship with Beijing on the basis of pragmatism, recognising that even while India has issues with China on its border and in its relationship with Pakistan, a policy that emphasises confrontation over constructive engagement will not work, especially given the asymmetry of military and economic power between the two countries.
The recent summit in Wuhan saw some wonderful optics that come with Modi visits everywhere. Xi played up to it by giving Modi the feeling that he was special. This was billed as a meeting where there wouldn’t be a formal outcome, but there were delegation-level discussions—and their respective press releases outline the direction that the two leaders want to give to the relationship.
Given the careful preparations for the visit, which began in the wake of the BRICS summit in Xiamen last September and saw a flurry of meetings between officials at the level of the NSA, foreign secretary, various ministers and their Chinese counterparts thereafter, it would be highly unusual if some of the outcomes had not been negotiated in advance by the two sides.
The Indians have plainly front-loaded some of them. We visibly backed away from the Dalai Lama after embracing him in the last couple of years. Instead of what his bhakts would have preferred, Modi has assured the Chinese that there will be no Indian military intervention in the Maldives. Third, after having initiated and embraced a quasi naval alliance with the US, Japan and Australia, New Delhi has excluded Canberra from the latest iteration of the Malabar exercise. What the Chinese put on the table is not yet clear. Hopefully, they agreed to concessions on Doklam, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). If we have not worked out something in exchange for our actions, more fools we.
Neither side is expected to back off from what each considers its vital interests. But the aim of the Wuhan exercise is to work out ways in which they can give and take in other areas.
In 2013, candidate Modi was critical of the UPA’s handling of the border and criticised it for its weakness in dealing with China in the Depsang face off. At the same time, he looked up to China as a country that India could do business with to advance its own economic prospects.
But Prime Minister Modi’s policies took many twists and turns. In 2014, he received President Xi Jinping in India, feting him at the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad and in New Delhi. But right through the visit, there was a serious, if inexplicable, standoff between the PLA and the Indian army in Chumur.
In May 2015, when Modi went to China, he directly broached the idea of a border settlement with Xi in his one-on-one meeting with him in Xian. Xi was taken aback since the subject was not on the agenda. Modi persisted, but got nowhere with the protocol-conscious Chinese. Speaking at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University later, Modi said that to realise the “extraordinary potential” of the Sino-Indian partnership, “we must try to settle the boundary question quickly.” In the interim, there was a need for the two sides to clarify the location of the Line of Actual Control that marks the border.
He also pitched India’s candidature for the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to the Chinese. But while Modi’s focus on the border was correct, Indian diplomacy got needlessly entangled with China on the issues of the NSG and Masood Azhar, both prestige issues, rather than subjects of substance.
The Chinese had other ideas, and they shocked the Indians by saying that the dispute on the border was only in the east where they were waiting for New Delhi to make concessions. They also began to publicly back Pakistan’s candidature for the NSG. But tin-eared Modi didn’t get the message. In June 2016, on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Tashkent, he demanded and got a one-on-one meeting with Xi, but instead of focusing on the real issues, he hectored him on the need to support India’s NSG membership. The bemused Chinese did not. And then came 2017, which was, of course, the year of Doklam.
It’s 2018 now, and it is Modi who has had to reconsider his approach. Given the record of the past three years, one positive development is that his current style is considerably more refined and sophisticated than it was, and he is not shying away from course corrections.
The Chinese should not mistake this for a sign of Indian weakness. If anything, New Delhi has reverted to its traditional stance of dealing with Beijing through realist lenses. And these tell India that there is a growing economic and military asymmetry between the two countries which cannot but impact their geopolitical interactions in South Asia and Indian Ocean Region. Instead of trying to tackle China head on, there is a need for subtlety, skilful diplomacy and getting your economic act together. For the present and near future, this requires a mental shift in India’s posture and a retrenchment and reorientation of its policies which, if done, will actually strengthen its position.
India is uncommonly gifted by geography and possesses heft that comes from its size, population and economic potential. Its loud opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative does not bode well for Beijing. In the longer term, New Delhi has the capacity to seriously disrupt Chinese goals in the IOR, especially if it teams up with the US and Japan—and the Chinese know this.
The IOR is the most important external region for China. No matter how Beijing games it, and no matter how many bases and carrier groups it has, New Delhi has advantages that cannot easily be neutralised.
A history of the relationship between the two countries makes it obvious that the one key element that is lacking between them is trust. Both of them recognise this and feel that “strategic communications”—high-level meetings like that in Wuhan—will help. They certainly will. But, equally important is to recognise that they have real problems— the disputed border and the use of third parties to offset the other (read Pakistan in the case of China and US for India).
For both countries, though, there is an entire alternative framework that is also available. But this is provided they can reset the relations in the manner articulated in Wuhan. Besides peace on the border and strategic and decisional autonomy, the two sides could build a balanced and stable relationship. With their sprawling, surging economies, there are a range of complementarities which could generate synergy to transform them and their vast neighbourhood. Both have connectivity projects in Iran, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal, and linking these could have a transformational impact. And we are not even speaking of Pakistan, which is a separate and more difficult category here.
But at the end of the day, all this may be nothing but a short-term daydream intended to get Modi through to his re-election and stave off the American pressure on Xi. But the logic of this reset will not go away. Look at it any way and you will see that a zero-sum model of relationship only leads to, at best, a cul-de-sac, and at worst to a full-blown disaster.
(The writer is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)