Much of the attention in India in the lead-up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arrival in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu on Friday for an informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused on the Pakistan question.
To some extent, this is understandable. China’s siding with Pakistan over India’s decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status — regardless of Pakistan doing the same, if not worse, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir much earlier — is the latest irritant in an already complicated relationship.
Indeed, China is largely responsible for this re-hyphenation. Particularly since it’s wholehearted backing of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through PoK since 2013 under Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the usually cautious calibration in how China approached relations with India and Pakistan has appeared to have undergone a shift.
For one, China is now appearing to go out of its way to accommodate Pakistani sensitivities. Hosting Prime Minister Imran Khan one day before Xi was to travel to India — which was in all likelihood a visit driven more by Pakistani insecurity than a China-initiated snub — is a case in point. Xi pointedly mentioned Kashmir in his talks with Khan, saying China was paying “close attention” to the situation and “supports Pakistan to safeguard its own legitimate rights and hopes that the relevant parties can solve their disputes through peaceful dialogue”.
This is similar to the decades-long hyphenation that shaped relations with the United States. The near-obsession on the Pakistan factor — which also manifested itself during Modi’s recent US visit, evident in the barrage of questions on Pakistan that Indian reporters threw at President Donald Trump despite far weightier bilateral issues at stake — is also unfortunate. This is not to say Pakistan-sourced terrorism that claims Indian lives is unimportant, but that ultimately neither the US nor China will fight India’s battles to ensure the safety and security of its citizens.
The Pakistan obsession that is now creeping into Modi-Xi summit is unfortunate because it ends up obscuring graver challenges in India’s relations with China. The relationship has assumed a broader scope than the India-China-Pakistan triangle that continues to dominate attention.
Wuhan, an under-appreciated success
First things first: it needs spelling out, as obvious as it should be, that the Mamallapuram summit has nothing to do with either Pakistan or Kashmir. Modi and Xi are not even likely to discuss either, if we go by what officials in Delhi and Beijing are saying, and if we remember how the first informal summit in Wuhan in April 2018 played out.
Chinese officials have gone on record to say Kashmir is not likely to be a major topic of discussion, and the talks will focus on the broader picture of ties.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui, who was until recently the envoy in India (and, unsurprisingly, like the current envoy Sun Weidong a former envoy to Pakistan, which appears to be a prerequisite for the India post), told reporters that the talks would likely focus as much on the global as the bilateral. As he put it, Modi and Xi will discuss three broad areas: “Their shared vision for the reform of the international system; Their shared responsibility and role in regional affairs; They will provide guidance to the growth of bilateral ties and exchanges and cooperation.”
In short, this will be a continuation of the conversation in Wuhan. Gautam Bambawale, who was India’s envoy in China at the time of the Wuhan summit, recently made the point that the summit had under-appreciated outcomes.
As much as the “informal” tag has expectedly led to some amount of cynicism and criticism that a “no agenda” visit was a complete waste of time, recent events suggest otherwise.
Consider the border dispute. One takeaway from Wuhan was a clear message to both militaries to keep the peace. The 18 months since the Wuhan summit have been among the most peaceful along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in years, barring minor incidents, which are entirely expected considering that the LAC is undemarcated with major overlapping claims in several areas.
The other under-appreciated outcome of Wuhan was the restoration of some predictability in relations following the Doklam crisis of 2017. Wuhan sent a signal to the Chinese system that it was okay to do business with India again. To be fair, concrete outcomes, particularly on trade, have been slow to materialise, although there has been recent, if limited, progress on pharmaceuticals.
Cracks in China’s ascendancy
What’s also worth keeping in mind is the broader context to the two summits.
Leaving aside the debate about the merits or otherwise of the Article 370 move, it is easy to forget now that before the attention on Kashmir — it has kept Delhi on the defensive whether it admits or not, during the US trip and now before the China summit — it was China that was entirely on the defensive.
The economy is under strain, the trade war with the US has shown no signs of easing, and the Hong Kong and Xinjiang problems are gaining ever more attention. The sheen of inevitability of China’s ascendancy is showing cracks.
Even if the idea for an informal summit came from Modi, the eagerness with which China responded was telling. Xi travelling to Wuhan in April 2018, meeting with a foreign leader outside of Beijing for the first time and spending more time in one visit with Modi than he has done for any leader from any country, was not an unimportant gesture, particularly considering how averse the Chinese system generally is to breaking protocol.
With Modi re-elected with an even larger mandate, China would see the opportunity to at least try and keep the peace with India — notwithstanding the recent brouhaha over Kashmir — even as it comes under renewed pressure elsewhere.
The strategic affairs writer C. Raja Mohan recently wrote of an “illusion of parity” in how India looks at China. The reality is that the power gap is only widening – and not in India’s favour.
As Xi comes calling, even as he faces an ever-growing list of problems, there are certainly opportunities on offer for India. But only if we choose to see them.
The author is a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong University and was previously China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu. Views are personal.