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Rajiv to Vajpayee: India-China relations have been ‘reset’ with limited success by past PMs

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On specific issues of boundary settlement and trade, the ball was tossed back to the existing mechanisms between India and China.

The 27-28 April Modi-Xi informal summit in Wuhan was projected as setting a new tone for the relationship, and arriving at overarching understandings for subsequent conduct.

But it did not result in any specific agreements on critical issues of boundary settlement or trade imbalances.

The two leaders agreeing to such a summit was itself a reflection of difficulties that had intensified over the past couple of years. China had blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in 2016. It had repeatedly prevented the listing of Pakistan based Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad as a global terrorist. India had stayed away from the Belt and Road Forum in 2017, convened to show international acceptance of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. The extended military standoff at Doklam over the summer of 2017 was accompanied by shrill Chinese official rhetoric recalling India’s setbacks in the 1962 conflict.

There have been periodic attempts to “reset” the India-China relationship. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 was the first at that level since 1962. The extended handshake with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his pointedly welcoming his “young friend” were to be the new optics as the two countries agreed to “develop their relations actively in other fields” while working on settlement of the boundary.

Our nuclear tests in 1998, citing China-related security concerns among the justifications, and Chinese anti-India activism, including at the UN, on the issue, brought a dip in the equation. In the post-9/11 world, another attempt at reset was made by Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit in June 2003. A declaration was issued on “principles for relations and comprehensive cooperation”, where it was asserted that “differences should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations”. They agreed to “multipolarity at the international level” and assessed, inter alia, that the common interests outweigh differences, they were not a threat to each other, and neither side shall use or threaten to use force.

Prime Minister Modi had attempted to use his personalised diplomacy to give a new heft through a lavish welcome to Xi in Gujarat during his September 2014 visit. This was marred by a Chinese incursion in Chumar, Ladakh.

These repeated attempts and setbacks reflect the advantages, but also the continuing challenges.

After the Wuhan visit, the briefing by Indian officials gave sufficient indication of the main purpose. It was stated that there was an understanding to maintain peace and tranquility in all areas along the border; strategic guidance was given to the two militaries to enhance communication, to build trust and understanding, information-sharing arrangements, and earnestly implement agreed confidence building measures, and strengthen existing institutional mechanisms.

Beyond this, the comments were in nature of generalities: Overarching issues of bilateral and global importance were discussed, respective visions and priorities of national development in the current and future global context were elaborated, and it was agreed that a peaceful, stable and balanced relationship was a factor of stability amid global uncertainty.

On boundary settlement and trade, the ball was tossed back to the existing mechanisms for discussion on these issues. In response to a specific question on the Belt and Road Initiative, the Indian foreign secretary only reiterated the reference to the respective efforts for national and regional developments. One important outcome is the indication that the two countries would work on a joint project in Afghanistan. However, the real significance would depend on the specifics of the project, and how China seeks to allay Pakistan’s reaction.

Despite the limited outcome, both countries clearly saw advantage in projecting new optics.

Multipolarity enables India to enhance space for its strategic autonomy, even as it sustains its relations with Russia and enhances it with the US, Europe, and Japan. A more nuanced Chinese position on terrorism and India-Pakistan issues would add to uncertainty in Pakistan’s calculations. A more balanced trade and investment relationship would enable us to derive advantage from surplus Chinese capital and growing technological prowess while safeguarding national security concerns.

China would also benefit from less-overt adversarial Indian positions, as it seeks to expand its global footprint, an objective it has now publicly set for itself. The principles of lack of transparency, debt unsustainability etc, based on which India had opposed the Belt and Road Initiative, were also later cited by the US, the EU and Japan.

A less negative tone at the top also helps when attempts are made at lower levels to deal with differences as they arise. Xi’s enhanced authority in China at this stage would influence the impact of any “strategic guidance” sent out in that system.

Other countries have also resorted to meetings to develop broad understandings while specifics are developed subsequently. Henry Kissinger’s path-breaking meetings with Chinese leaders in 1971 devoted considerable space to exchanges on philosophical and overall perspectives on global issues. President Obama had invited Xi to an informal summit in California in 2013 to develop broad overarching understandings.

These exercises also have limits, set by objective factors and competing interests. The US-China equation continues to be marked by strategic competition and trade rivalry. Historic agreements or understandings reached, such as between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993, or between the US and post-Soviet Russia after 1991, have not always stood the test of time.

The informal Modi-Xi summit was clearly useful for potentially enabling subsequent interactions in a less adversarial atmosphere. However, only time will tell if it will have enduring impact.

Arun K. Singh is former Indian ambassador to the US.

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