Monday, 4 July, 2022
HomeOpinionIndia and China needed Wuhan, but it will not be enough

India and China needed Wuhan, but it will not be enough

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Wuhan Summit between Xi and Modi was a politically expedient move, driven by national interests.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘informal’ summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wuhan this year, ostensibly to build strategic communications and provide an improved long-term perspective for what had become an increasingly adversarial India-China relationship, underscored by the 73-day standoff at Doklam in 2017, fits a larger Chinese foreign policy strategy. During the past several months, China has focused on improving relations with several neighbours, including India, at a time when China’s relationship with the US has soured and the future appears uncertain.

The Wuhan Summit represented for China a classic case of the hedging strategy described in Walter Andersen’s article: How India, China and US manage their ties will shape future of east Asia. For India, calming the bilateral relationship signalled the importance of China in Prime Minister Modi’s goals to develop India economically and at least partially remove an issue that could be used against the BJP in the upcoming 2019 general elections. It also sent a message that India, while developing closer relations with the US, is not involved in a US effort to contain China.

While there is no evidence that either side made any serious concessions at Wuhan, some broad areas of cooperation did emerge from the summit. Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi agreed there should be better communication and coordination to manage differences along the disputed boundary, as well as enhanced cooperation on fighting terrorism, which is a common threat to both countries.

During a subsequent meeting on the sidelines of the recent G20 Summit in Argentina,the two leaders said there had been a “perceptible improvement” in bilateral ties since the Wuhan “informal” Summit. They asserted that the Wuhan meet was a milestone in China-India ties and called it the “Wuhan Spirit”,indicating a desire on both sides to further build upon it. The public discourse of each about the other has improved considerably since the verbal fist-shaking during the Doklam standoff.

Rather than reverse or reset each side’s foreign policy,however,this apparent improvement of the relationship between China and India was primarily the product of a more fluid geopolitical landscape and it remains unlikely that this meeting will substantially alter the relationship’s trajectory in basic policy terms.

The Wuhan Summit between Xi and Modi was a politically expedient move, which was driven by national interests – the fear of external powers for China and domestic economic and political considerations for India. While the two sides have a wide range of common interests, the fundamental strategic differences between India and China are still as wide as they were before Wuhan.

Conflicting border claims will not be resolved any time soon; India will continue to oppose China’s One Belt One Road project, especially the segment that goes through that part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan. China will continue to oppose India’s developing strategic ties to the US and to Japan. India still faces the reality of the rise of China as an economic and military power in its neighbourhood and to the south in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, it is not at all clear if China accepts the rise of India as a power in these areas. Thus, hedging is a rational choice for both India and China in this asymmetric US-India-China system.


Also read: How India, China and US manage their ties will shape future of east Asia


Hedging

Hedging combines the elements of cooperation,competition and rivalry in order to manage uncertainty and avoid risks. In the triangular hedging system of China-India-US,each party is an autonomous player. Each would react negatively to threats of core interests by one of the members by moving closer to the other(and sometimes to a power outside the triangle)to convince the offending side to back off from its threatening acts. Each side thus gives the other two a stake in the peace and stability in the region. Through the tactic of hedging, these three players can maintain a delicate balance between friend and foe – and the Wuhan Summit is a good example of this balancing.

What seems to inform Wuhan and the subsequent spirit of friendship is the increasingly tense US-China relationship since Donald Trump took office in January 2017. The US views China as an unequivocal economic and military challenge to American primacy and engaged in unfair trading policies. China, for its part, is concerned that the US is engaged in efforts to contain it. Prominent on this score is the apprehension that America’s quadrilateral ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy (involving India, Japan, Australia), known as the Quad, has a strategic anti-China objective. The recent Chinese tactic of seeking to improve relations with India, as well as with Japan and Australia is a result of this.

China’s approach to India represents an effort to build on a wide range of common interests, such as climate change, anti-terrorism,cooperating with each other to develop their respective economies,and support for a multi-polar world. Given this context, China wants to move closer to India to meet the challenges from the US, and more specifically, to reduce the chances of India itself moving even closer to the US strategically. While there are significant differences between India and China, which are unlikely to be resolved any time soon, they are both rising powers with a powerful military that includes nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them at long distances. Any military conflict between them would be catastrophic and threaten their mutual interest in generating domestic economic prosperity,as well as peace in their own region. Their respective governments depend on economic growth to maintain political legitimacy.


Also read: The many ways India must NOT think about China


India walks a fine line

For India, although the US is the country’s most important global partner,and the Trump administration also seeks to lift India’s priority in the region,important disagreements remain on many issues,such as relations with Iran,Afghanistan,and global governance to name three.

New Delhi may consider possibilities of working through Beijing on these issues and hedge against its relationship with the US given the unpredictability of the Trump administration. Perhaps this is why New Delhi is keeping a low profile in the ‘Quad’ – the emerging security group. New Delhi walks a fine line to avoid being caught in the middle of the growing rivalry between China and the US without simultaneously weakening ties with the US.

The reason for Indian caution is its recognition of the need for a functional relationship with China, as demonstrated by the Wuhan Summit. Furthermore,because Modi may face a tough re-election campaign in 2019,keeping Doklam under wraps until at least after that election will be a political imperative. This likely puts an even greater priority on India to maintain a stable India-China relationship.

As India’s former foreign secretary Shyam Saran said,over the past several years,balance has been maintained between the competitive and cooperative components through bilateral summits and multilateral meetings between the two countries. This balance had been eroding as the power gap between them widened. The Wuhan Summit has restored the balance to some extent,but this can only be sustained if India narrows the power gap through more rapid buildup of its economic and military capabilities. In our opinion,this balance can only be sustained if India and China manage the uncertainties and lower the risks in their own relationship. While Wuhan may not have altered the basic strategic trajectory of each country, it signalled that both calculate the need for stable bilateral relations to achieve larger geostrategic goals.

The author is a Phd Student in School of International Relations and Public Affairs,Fudan University,Shanghai,China,he can be reached by xucheng0075@163.com.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Unless Chinese people leave their greed, relations with their neighbours will remain volatile. Why China is not ready to sign a border agreement with India while they did it quickly with Nepal? China should also strive to form Asian Economic Communty.

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