Modi & Xi At Mamallapuram: How India Can Increase Diplomatic Clout

Both India and China still have a lot to gain and a much more to lose in allowing their relations to deteriorate. 

4 min read
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Beijing’s decision to drop references to the role of the United Nations in resolving the Kashmir dispute may have saved the upcoming Mamallapuram informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping. This is, perhaps, the best indicator of just how fragile the reset — promised by the first informal summit that was held in Wuhan in April 2018 — has been.

On Tuesday, when observers were getting alarmed over the lack of a formal announcement on the dates of the Mamallapuram summit, which was supposed to be held that very week, the Chinese side probably did the needful, when its spokesperson reverted to China’s position, that Kashmir was an issue best resolved through dialogue between the two sides.

Clearly, a year down the line, the lustre of the Wuhan process  seems to have faded, even before it set in.


Has the ‘Lustre’ of Wuhan Faded?

Following Wuhan, the Indian press release had mooted it as a “positive factor for stability amidst current global uncertainties”. It was driven by the need to promote “strategic communications”— high-level interactions with the view of removing mistrust, and reduce the danger of miscalculation in the wake of the Doklam incident. Before the meeting and after it, we saw a surge in the frequency of high-level ministerial and official visits between India and China, and meetings between ministers and leaders of the two countries.

Among the important achievements was the strategic guidance to the two forces to maintain peace and tranquility on the border. This has broadly ensured peace on the LAC and also given a fillip to military exchanges between the two sides. Though India and China were not able to do a joint project in Afghanistan, they did manage a joint training programme for Afghan diplomats. And in May, China did come forward to lift its hold on the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the UN’s 1267 Committee.

In the past year, the two sides have held their 6th Strategic Economic Dialogue and the 9th Finance Dialogue, and they have continued to cooperate in multilateral mechanisms like the Russia-India-China trilateral, BRICS, SCO and the G20.

Yet, the climate of relations in which the Mamallapuram meeting takes place, is more complex and difficult than at the time of Wuhan.

New Delhi Will Deal With China By Displaying Resilience

Prime Minister Modi goes into the meeting with an even larger mandate than in 2014. The Indian economy may have weakened, but the global climate against China has turned far more adverse than it was in April 2018.

New Delhi seems to have decided that the best way to deal with China is by displaying its resilience.

Just how this will play out remains to be seen. The first move here was the action in Jammu & Kashmir which China objected to, and took the initiative to organise a UN Security Council meet on the issue, the first since 1971.  Subsequently, in its joint statement following his visit to Islamabad and in his UNGA speech, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi kept up the criticism, and referred to the need to take into account the UN position on the issue.

The result was the cancellation  of Wang Yi’s visit to New Delhi on 9-10 September for another round of Special Representatives talks with his Indian counterpart, NSA Ajit Doval — allegedly because of “scheduling issues” from the Indian side. The Wang-Doval meeting had also been aimed at laying the grounds for the Mamallapuram meet.

Two Indian military exercises, one held on September 17 in eastern Ladakh on the border with China and another which began on October 3 to test mobilization and assault tactics in Arunachal Pradesh were the unmistakable signal of India’s decision to signal its tough posture.


What India & China Are Likely to Focus On At Mamallapuram

Finally, at the sidelines of the UNGA in New York, foreign ministers of India, Australia, US and Japan met under the Qualdrilateral Dialogue framework. This upgradation of the Quad, which formerly consisted of officials at the level of Joint Secretary could be consequential. Three of the four members of the Quad are military allies of the United States, and the grouping is seen as a means to work out a military containment of China.

Whether or not Modi and Xi can reverse this slide is something that will be keenly watched.

Both countries are likely to focus on trade and economic issues in Mamallapuram, but the overhang of the growing political dissonance in their relationship cannot and should not be discounted.

Both are likely to arrive at the meeting with a wish list, with issues big and small to discuss. As in Wuhan, some of the fairly trivial ones relating to trade barriers can be dealt with. There is a lot of pressure on India to go ahead with the RCEP, while New Delhi is seeking to redress the issue of the USD 60 billion trade deficit in China’s favour.


Cooperation with China Will Enhance India’s Diplomatic Clout in Washington

However, the political issues are more tricky. What we may see is an effort to push the issue of joint projects in third-world countries in a bigger way. In the past year, China and Japan agreed to cooperate in 50 infrastructure projects, without their coming under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative. A similar formulation could be used for cooperation between India and China in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal and even Sri Lanka.

Notwithstanding the run-up to the summit, both India and China still have a lot to gain and a much more to lose in allowing their relations to deteriorate. 

Cooperation with China, whether at the BRICS or SCO level, enhances India’s diplomatic clout in Washington DC. Likewise, bonhomie between the US and India ensures that Beijing behaves well. But if you push either envelope too far, you run the risk of the other partner feeling that it’s simply not worth the effort — and letting go. In that case, India is the loser. In many ways, both need each other and stand to gain a great deal through cooperation.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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