Finally, Xi Jinping is in India for the second informal India-China summit scheduled at Chennai (Mamallapuram). Doubts about the summit taking place sullied the environment with far too much speculation about the reasons why China appeared reluctant to go through with implementing the decision taken at the Wuhan summit in April 2018.
Ever since his visit to India in 2014, the Sino-Indian relationship has grown in content, but not necessarily in understanding.
Strategic competition, rather than strategic cooperation, has formed the backdrop, despite utterances by the Chinese President that “China and India are opportunities, not a threat, to one another”.
It is at a very interesting juncture that the Chinese President has arrived in India. Those who caused a hyped — that India’s mountain strike corps exercising in Arunachal Pradesh being in sync with the dates of the visit would become an obstacle to the visit — should realise that certain optics invariably make up this relationship. Both sides probably communicated their message as exactly they wished to, but the visit was not affected.
‘Slippages’ Since Wuhan: Can India-China Negativity be Set Aside?
The Wuhan summit took place in April 2018 with the backdrop of the Doklam standoff, which either side could have perceived as having ended in its favour. The fact that they could meet, appreciate each other’s stands and institute a fresh approach in diplomacy through adoption of the concept of informal summits, was in itself the major aspect of what has come to be called the ‘Wuhan spirit’.
The intervening period (from Wuhan to Mamallapuram) may have seen relatively stable borders between the two countries, but the political and diplomatic environment may compete with Doklam for honours in negativity.
Can this negativity be set aside while focus is paid to bilateral aspects such as trade, CBMs and border protocols, counting Chennai as another milestone in overcoming challenges to trust and confidence building? Many feel that there have been slippages since Wuhan, which perhaps has led to cracks which need papering over.
Among the major issues engaging minds of observers is how far the Pakistani obsession with Jammu & Kashmir has created compulsions for China to go along with it.
In action China has gone half way by raising it at the UN Security Council, and supporting Pakistan’s stance at the UN General Assembly. However, China has also continued to harp on ambiguity, swinging from support to Pakistan, to calls for resolving J&K through bilateralism between India and Pakistan, and lending weight to the UN resolutions. It is clear that China needs Pakistan, and cannot afford to dilute a relationship which offers overwhelming strategic advantage, notwithstanding Pakistan’s pitiable economic condition.
In fact it is the latter that China is fully exploiting to its advantage.
What India Must Raise: Stance on J&K, Early Demarcation of LAC
The major strategic arm of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remains the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While economic gains may not have accrued, the potential in terms of its strategic output remains extremely high.
It provides its continental outreach into the West Indian Ocean, vast strategic waters where China’s capability and strength will always be under challenge, and on which the sustenance of its economy will largely be dependent. China’s other interest remains PoK, especially the Gilgit Baltistan zone, both for connectivity and for keeping any other powers far away from the vulnerable Xinjiang area which is slowly emerging as its Achilles’ Heel.
The region adjoining Gilgit Baltistan will remain restive, and strategically very relevant due to Afghanistan and the yet unharnessed potential of the Central Asian Republics.
India must not shy away from raising the J&K issue in the talks, and reinforcing its traditional stance without any compromise.
It must reiterate its (relatively) soft pedaling despite grave provocations from Pakistan. On Ladakh, we need to be circumspect that changing the administrative structure is only for the purpose of better governance and delivery to those people isolated by geography.
The need for early demarcation of a Line of Actual Control (LAC), to prevent patrol clashes with the Chinese army must be raised so as to remain on record and memory.
China Must be Made to Realise that India’s Policy is of Multilateralism
Much is being written about the mismatch of comprehensive national power between the two nations, due to the relative state of economy and modernisation of the armed forces. The way to approach this issue is that China too cannot afford to have an inimical India in competition and in perpetual state of suspicion about its intent.
Engagement while remaining competitive is necessary, so that triggers such as Doklam are better handled in the future.
China has to be made to realise that India’s policy is one of multilateralism, based upon mutual interests identified to maximise benefits. In this regard, its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a full member, is as significant as its participation in the Quadrilateral of Nations. China fully realises that its rise has unnerved nations, but there are nations such as India which will continue to compete positively and not compromise on core interests.
Key Aspect of Mamallapuram Summit: To Define ‘Wuhan Spirit’
While it is has been stated that the ‘Wuhan spirit’ is all about promoting bonhomie in the relationship through avoidance of tricky issues, this understanding may not be appreciative of the fact that avoidance of some of the negatives — which bedevil the mutual relationship — may create an artificiality which will not allow it to prosper. It would always run the risk of breakdown, the moment a negative issue flares beyond the established normal. Thus, a progressive inclusion of challenges must be done without expectation of immediate results.
One of the important aspects of the Mamallapuram summit will therefore be the defining of the ‘Wuhan spirit’, which should emerge both informally and formally.
Mamallapuram Summit: Chance to Remove All Sino-Indian Negativity
The US-India-China equation is one of the issues which will need constant revisiting, to make China realise that nations do things for their security which are not necessarily aimed at other nations; that there are aspects of the relationship with the US which primarily look at the advantage which can accrue to the people of India in multiple domains.
Lastly, there is a demand for retributive inclusion by India, of issues such as the Chinese atrocities on the Uyghur, the future of Tibet after Dalai Lama, and also Hong Kong.
It is in response to China supporting Pakistan on J&K, after the abrogation of Article 370. All this smacks of political and diplomatic immaturity, and will cause more harm than good. Nations follow strategies to ensure advantage to themselves, and not to score temporary brownie points.
The Mamallapuram summit must be looked upon as an opportunity to once again pull back from the path of negativity in the Sino-Indian relationship. That will surely help maintain better cordiality and balance in some tough times that are expected ahead.
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(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)