The recent meeting between PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram, which ever you would like to call it), have raised hopes that relations between India and China are progressively on the mend after bilateral ties had hit a rough patch. Earlier, after India’s abrogation of Article 370, Beijing, in a show of solidarity with Pakistan, pushed the UN Security Council to hold informal discussions on Kashmir and stressed that the issue be resolved as per the UN charter, drawing sharp reaction from India.
The Mahabalipuram meeting, between the Indian PM and Chinese President, on 11 and 12 October, were part of the second similar informal summit between the two Asian giants. The two leaders had earlier met at the Wuhan Summit in 2018. The present Summit, like the earlier one, was termed as ‘informal’ in that it did not have a pre-decided agenda and concluded without any joint statement. The subjects discussed depended on the personal chemistry between Xi and Modi. The PM sent across a message of friendship and informality by dressing in a white shirt and ‘veshti’ with an ‘angavastram’ thrown over his left shoulder. He also graciously, acted as a tour guide, accompanying his guest to the famous monuments of Mamallapuram which was followed by a cultural programme,
There was a closed door, private meeting, on 11 October between the two leaders which lasted for over an hour at the Taj Fisherman Cove Hotel. Both the leaders spent informal time over dinner and discussed a range of issues, including terrorism, radicalisation, investment, trade and their nation's visions.
Following the previous evening's relaxed atmosphere Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held more formal talks on 12 October.
To understand the genesis of the problems confronting the two countries and their, blow hot blow cold, relationship, it is essential to have an understanding of the historical past.
The Boundary Dispute
The main source of tension between the two countries is their shared and disputed border. After their 1962 ingress into India in Ladakh and NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) the Chinese withdrew from captured territory but never dropped their territorial claims . They however retained Aksai Chin through which they had clandestinely built a strategic road to Xinjian. A large portion of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) has been ceded to them by Pakistan.
India and China have boundary disputes in three sectors - Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh), Middle (Uttarakhand) and Western (Jammu and Kashmir). China stakes claim on Arunachal Pradesh saying it was South Tibet, a region that it occupied in late 1940s and early 1950s. In the middle sector, China claims certain areas in Uttarakhand while in Western sector the main dispute is over Chinese possession of Aksai Chin.
The question of border security has undergone some changes between India and China in recent times. Post-1962, India adopted a strategy where it focused on strengthening defence of the border should Chinese forces cross the borders again. This led to a conscious decision of not carrying out infrastructure development in the border regions, of Arunachal Pradesh in particular. The border security approach has changed in the past 10 years or so. It has become more visible in the past four-five years. India has increased pace of infrastructure development in border regions and also raised a specialised Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal.
India and China began addressing their boundary dispute under an agreed mechanism in 1980s and several rounds of talks have taken place. But the boundary question has not gone beyond the level of exchange of maps of certain areas of the border and conveying differing interpretations of the same. Both sides meet, and agree to disagree.
Chinese Support to Pakistan
The relationship between China and Pakistan blossomed when Pakistan felicitated the thaw in American China détente by arranging a secret visit of US Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger to China, which culminated in President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Pakistan remains the principal anchor for China’s India policy. Pakistan is also a pivotal factor in domestic consolidation for China where domestic prosperity is hinged upon the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of Xi’s ambitious BRI that passes through PoK.
India supported the entry of China into the World Trade Organization, which the latter used craftily to tilt the balance of trade between the two countries heavily in favour of China which has become India’s principal trading partner. There has been $80 billion bilateral trade with India’s export only $13 billion, leaving a hefty $67 billion trade deficit.
The inability of Indian goods to find a way into the market in China is because of lack of their global competitiveness. To rectify the imbalance it was agreed to set up a high level political mechanism to find ways to enhance India’s access to Chinese Markets.
China’s ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’ (OBOR) or ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI)
An ambitious Chinese plan is to link Asia and Africa with Europe through a network of several communication corridors that would reshape the geo-economics and geo-politics of the whole region, linking of Chinese economy with Europe through the Eurasian landmass. It also seeks to integrate the underdeveloped periphery regions of China with the economies of the surrounding countries with massive infrastructure connectivity projects. CPEC was thus constituted which essentially connected the Kashgar Special Economic Zone (SEZ), that was created in 2010, with the Gwadar deep-sea port of Pakistan developed by China since 2002. China has critical need of Pakistan for the success of BRI. This explains Xi’s latest exhortation on Pak ties where he said, ‘no matter how the international and regional situation changes, the friendship between China and Pakistan has always been unbreakable and rock-solid.
India’s stand on this project has remained ambiguous. It never fully rejected or endorsed it. India is principally opposed to the China Pakistan Eco Corridor which passes through Pak Occupied Kashmir. The project presents both threats and opportunities. The BRI will enable China to dominate the region and establish a China Centric system that will marginalise India. If India plays its cards carefully it can get land access to the Central Asian Republics.
In all likelihood, the Wuhan and Mallapuram spirit of cordiality, will remain just that in view of the centrality of Pakistan in Chinese foreign policy. The talks are unlikely to consolidate into anything concrete and could well collapse due to China’s territorial and economic domination, in case India does not match up to Chinese economic and military power.
These informal meetings are an essential part of diplomacy and help in better understanding and foster cordiality between leaders. Earlier, in a similar fashion, Dr Manmohan Singh had established a personal rapport with President Bush which enabled India to clinch the Nuclear Arms deal with America. In China’s case progress will be slow and steady. Xi’s ‘‘Hundred Years’ Plan’’ for cementing relations appeared far too distant in this rapidly evolving world. It must be understood that the Chinese are pretty hard-nosed and seldom take impetuous, hasty decisions.