The second informal summit between Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram comes in the backdrop of the ongoing US-China trade war and Washington’s strategy to contain Beijing’s not-so-peaceful global ascendancy.
Beijing is naturally looking for strong partners in the region, who also have considerable influence in the non-aligned world capitals. And, India best suits its purpose. There is also a genuine concern in China that the country needs to do much more than just line-up goodwill visits to India.
There is a general consensus on both sides, New Delhi and Beijing, that confrontation between the two economies would be counterproductive, affecting their growth.
The summit, which comes more than a year after the Wuhan meeting in April 2018, is therefore likely to lay the foundation for a long-term engagement between two ancient civilisations based on mutual understanding of security concerns and pave the way for lasting cooperation.
In the last few years, China has been pursuing a strategic agenda to use Pakistan to seek an entry into the Indian Ocean region so that it can develop a viable sea route to the resource-rich Africa and Central Asia. India has strongly, and very legitimately, opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, because it crosses PoK.
Beijing has also registered a strong protest against Indian Army’s Him-Vijay military exercise in Arunachal Pradesh. In a meeting with foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, Chinese vice foreign minister Luo Zhaohui expressed China’s displeasure – Beijing considers Arunachal as ‘southern Tibet’.
These pinpricks, however, did not jeopardise Modi and Xi’s second informal summit. At the same time, it would be foolhardy to assume that both the leaders would immediately get down to inking a dozen trade pacts during the summit.
India’s bargaining power
The Wuhan summit took place more than seven months after the armies of the two nuclear powers threw gravel at each other and were on the brink of a major military escalation in Doklam. At Wuhan, both Xi and Modi displayed exemplary understanding and effectively managed the de-escalation process.
The second summit, this time in the temple town of Mamallapuram, has also faced its share of roadblocks and hurdles. The annual meeting of special representatives from India and China on the border issue, scheduled last month, has been delayed. Incidentally, during the last border meeting in November 2018, the Chinese were reportedly unhappy and claimed that New Delhi was slow to react to their suggestions.
According to some in the Chinese diplomatic community, the Modi government’s inaction on the border issue is a result of New Delhi’s slow but sure movement towards the emerging Indo-Pacific architecture, which Beijing views as a new security arrangement. Some of them have written about ‘massive changes’ in India’s internal and external environment and New Delhi’s ‘great power’ aspirations. The Chinese call it Gaokaidizou (高开低走).
The ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Texas was keenly followed in Beijing. The Indo-Pacific initiative of the US and New Delhi’s active participation in Quad (comprising US, Japan, India, Australia) are seen as providing a big push to India’s bargaining power against China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put his best diplomatic foot forward in convincing Beijing about New Delhi’s commitment to uphold the principle of continued engagement without compromising on India’s national interests, its regional priorities and welfare of the domestic industry.
China is bound to frown upon India’s defence cooperation with countries like the US and Japan and its strategic naval and military exercises, viewing them as an immediate threat to its influence in the region. But India strongly believes in pursuing the policy of strategic autonomy.
At the informal summit, Modi needs to allay the apprehensions of his guest and convince him about India’s legitimate right to engage with the US and other multilateral forums – without hurting friendly relations with Beijing.
The choice of the venue for the summit is significant. Mamallapuram, a Unesco heritage site, was once a thriving port city in the Pallava dynasty and shared close links with China. At a time when trade, commerce and industry determine the cumulative power of a country, India-China relations have entered a critical phase of cooperative engagement, which will have far-reaching consequences for both the countries as well as the region.
There are regional and global issues that need urgent attention and viable local solutions. The two popular leaders will have to seriously work towards assuring their constituencies that it is imperative to keep the region free of crises so that they can ensure bilateral peace and progress.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.