Indian Prime Minister Modi's China Summit Explained

Indian Prime Minister Modi's China Summit Explained
Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

The informal summit meeting between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping arrested a decline in bilateral ties but should serve as a floor for a more comprehensive framework to resolve disputes.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Wuhan in China on April 27-28 for an informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping aiming to reset the relationship between India and China.

Aside from an opportunity for quaint images of the two leaders taking in various sights, the upshot of the meeting was that since the two counties represent 40 percent of the world’s population and act as the import engine for global growth, they are central pillars for promoting a multipolar and globalized world. Moreover, tarmac was laid to ensure that in the short-term, there should be no further flare-ups of tensions on the China-India border.

Such political posturing by Modi and Xi is encouraging, not least because their relationship had recently languished at a particular low ebb. due to a confluence of seemingly irresolvable issues.

These include the 73-day military stare-down and territorial dispute in the Doklam region between the two sides in 2017, China’s deepening footprint in South Asian countries, particularly Sri Lanka, and its influence in the Indian Ocean, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor running through the part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, India’s refusal to join Xi’s Belt Road Initiative, the Modi government’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh last year, and China’s opposition to India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplier Group, as well as its United Nations veto on the designation of Pakistan-based Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands as they visit the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei province, China April 27, 2018.

In light of these disputes, New Delhi and Beijing were on track for a potentially all-encompassing crisis if they did not effectively use diplomatic tools to cool the temperature.

Thus, when the Doklam standoff was brought to a peaceful end last August, the two sides stepped up efforts to reverse the downward trend in ties, kicking off with Modi visiting China to attend the 9th BRICS Summit in September, at which a proposal emerged for an informal meeting between top political leaders from both sides.

Soon after his visit to China in March, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale penned a letter to the Cabinet Secretary saying that the participation of senior leaders and dignitaries at a high-profile event commemorating the Dalai Lama’s 60 years of exile should be downplayed, indicating a shift in India's approach. The Modi government moved the venue of the program from New Delhi to Dharamshala in a bid to address China’s concerns about India’s position on the Tibet issue.

A series of high-level exchanges, including a visit to China by Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Dova, then took place from April 12 to 13, capped by top economic officials from the region attending a strategic economic dialogue in Beijing on April 13. After meeting Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Nepal’s foreign minister, his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi floated the idea of a trilateral economic corridor with India and Nepal as part of a trade initiative.

Indian External Affairs Minister Shushma Swaraj and Indian Defence Minister Srishita Ram also traveled to China, where Wang and Swaraj agreed to allow a religious pilgrimage – the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, taken by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists – to resume through the Natha Lu route in northeast India’s Sikkim state, 10 months after it was stopped following the Doklam stand-off.

These high-profile exchanges provided a framework for Modi to infuse new trust into the relationship – while also enjoying a boating jaunt on Wuhan's East Lake.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale subsequently told reporters that the two sides had agreed to improve communication between their militaries to maintain peace at the border, "with the two leaders endorsing the work of special representatives in their efforts to find a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement."

Xi and Modi also underscored that in the meantime it is important to maintain peace and tranquility in all areas of the India-China border region, and arranged to undertake a joint India-China economic project in Afghanistan.

Underlying aims

For India, China’s deepening engagement in South Asia has emerged as a major cause of concern, and a warming relationship acts as a hedge against India’s South Asian neighbors playing the China card against New Delhi.

In particular, Modi wants to ensure that the expanding relationship between Beijing and Islamabad does not threaten India’s security.

Another reason for the Modi government’s rapprochement with China lies in the fact that since the next general election is just one year away, Modi wants to put to bed China’s assertive posturing on the border.

For China, Trump’s containment policy towards Beijing and a trade war between the U.S. and China necessitated improving ties with India in a bid to develop a collective front against the protectionist approach of this U.S. administration.

Beijing is also concerned about the strengthening security cooperation between India and the U.S., as well as the revival of the quadrilateral security group consisting of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

Notwithstanding these compelling factors, the success of Modi’s outreach depends on the extent that the two sides can develop a comprehensive and continual mechanism to address the mutual concerns and disagreements outlined above.

While this visit marked a step towards fostering such a holistic working relationship, New Delhi and Beijing have a long road to travel to reduce the trust deficit and resolve all their outstanding disputes.

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Editor: David Green