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Can Modi-Xi Retain Statesmanship And Build Bilateral Trust In Their Next Terms?

The events in 2020 have collapsed the quarter century process of building mutual trust between the two countries.

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The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 20th Congress will rubber-stamp its approval of another term for Xi Jinping as General Secretary and he will be re-elected President for a third term in March by the National People’s Congress.

Here in India, Narendra Modi is widely expected to be reappointed as Prime Minister for the third term in 2024 when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) is expected to win the next general election.

Both men are expected to be leaders of their respective countries in the foreseeable future. It is difficult to forecast the nature of their relationship in the future. But if the past is any guide, it will be complicated, especially after the 2020 events that have led to the collapse of the quarter-century process of building mutual trust between the two countries.

Modi and Xi have interacted with each other as leaders of their countries since 2014. Till the Galwan incident of 2020, Modi and Xi had had met as many as 18 times in the six-year period in multilateral and bilateral formats. These meetings have had their highs and lows, though truth be told, many of them were humdrum and routine encounters.
Snapshot
  • Till the Galwan incident of 2020, Modi and Xi have had met as many as 18 times in the six-year period in multilateral and bilateral formats

  • Modi’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister in 2014 had triggered a narrative of a major reset in the relations between the two Asian countries which now had strong nationalistic leaders.

  • The Indian PM was only holding the Chinese to their commitment made in written agreements in 1993, 1996 and 2005 that the two sides would clarify the points of differences on the LAC.

  • In 2017, India and China got into a serious standoff at Doklam. Though the issue related to Chinese actions on Bhutanese territory, they had a vital bearing on Indian security.

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Modi-Jinping’s Oscillating Ties

But they have not met since Beijing’s 2020 actions in eastern Ladakh that led to the Galwan clash. Their last meeting was at the Chennai summit of 2019. Though both attended the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) at Samarkand in mid-September 2022, there is no record of them shaking hands or even greeting each other. 

Modi’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister in 2014 had triggered a narrative of a major reset in the relations between the two Asian countries which now had strong nationalistic leaders. There was talk of massive Chinese investment coming into India, given Modi’s orientation as a leader focusing on economic growth and his multiple visits to China as the chief minister of Gujarat.

From the outset, Modi style was to develop a personal connect with global leaders including Xi. A month and a half after becoming Prime Minister, Modi had his first meeting with Xi at the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Brazil.
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Xi’s Ambiguous Stand on LAC 

A few months later, Modi hosted Xi in India and did so in a new style. The visit began with an informal phase when Xi landed first at Ahmedabad on Modi’s birthday on 17 September. Modi personally escorted Xi to various cultural and historical sites and hosted a private banquet that evening. Official talks, which included discussions on the border took place the next day in New Delhi where he also delivered a public speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs(ICWA).

In actual fact, the visit had been overtaken by the events unfolding in Chumar in south-eastern Ladakh where, for reasons only they know best, the Chinese decided to do some muscle-flexing which resulted in a well-publicised standoff between the Indian and Chinese forces.

Modi immediately raised the issue with Xi but got little response. At a joint press conference in New Delhi on 18 September, with Xi looking on, Modi directly referred to the issue when he said “I raised our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border.… While our border related agreements and confidence-building measures have worked well, I also suggested that the clarification on the Line of Actual Control(LAC) would greatly contribute to our efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity and requested President Xi to resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC. We should also seek an early settlement of the boundary question.”

The Chinese would have been miffed at this direct approach but all Xi did was to repeat the usual nostrum that the border had yet to be demarcated and there could be incidents that would be worked out through existing mechanisms. In his public speech he repeated the old Chinese formulation that the problem was “left over from history” and would be resolved peacefully. XI departed with the two sides still in a stand-off mode, one that was only terminated  a week later through mutual withdrawals in Chumar.
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Modi's China Visit Bordered On Trade and Investment 

In May 2015, Modi paid a return visit to China. In the style of the Xi visit, the Chinese hosted him first at the ancient capital of Xi'an, which also happened to be the location of Hieun Tsang’s monastery.

This was also meant to be the ceremonial part of the visit. But Modi took the bull by the horns and engaged Xi Jinping on the border issue immediately. He lectured the Chinese leader on the importance of clarifying the LAC as a means of keeping peace along it, just as he had done in Ahmedabad. 

Xi ignored the Modi move, and left it to Premier Li Keqiang to tell his Indian guest that his proposal was not too useful. But Modi persisted. He took the occasion of his public speech at the Tsinghua University to return to the subject.

He said the two sides needed to settle the boundary issue quickly and that while existing mechanisms did keep peace “a shadow of uncertainty always hangs over the sensitive areas of the border region.” This was because “neither side knows where the Line of Actual Control is in these areas.” For this reason, he said, “I have proposed the process of clarifying it.”

Modi was correct in his assessment of the border issue. The disputes over some parts of the LAC  were a standing invitation for trouble. The Indian PM was only  holding the Chinese to their commitment made in written agreements in 1993, 1996 and 2005 that the two sides would clarify the points of differences on the LAC. He was correct, too, in the point he made about the importance of resolving the border issue as a prelude to closer trade and investment ties between the two countries.
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Where he was wrong was, in not being able to understand that even as the Chinese spoke of the need to resolve the border issue, they had no intention of doing so in terms of equality. They wanted a settlement on their terms and an unsettled border allowed them to string India along.

What Sino-Indian Summits Signalled for Border Security

In 2017, India and China got into a serious standoff at Doklam. Though the issue related to Chinese actions on Bhutanese territory, they had a vital bearing on Indian security. After a two-month standoff, the issue was settled. Shortly thereafter, the two leaders met at the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Xiamen where they decided to introduce a system of closer Sino-Indian interaction by promoting “strategic communication.”

As part of this, they also decided upon a system of informal summits, the first of which was held in Wuhan in April 2018. Preparing for the summit, India also signaled that it would no longer play the 'Tibet card' by advising officials to stay away from events marking the 60 years of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India.

The outcome of the summit was a generalised effort by the two sides to enhance their relationship by more ministerial meetings, better border management and emphasising (on the part of India) that its policies were based on its strategic autonomy.
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After Doklam, Galwan, Can India-China Get on Equal Footing?

Following the general elections that returned Modi to power, the two sides had another informal summit, this time in Chennai, in October 2019. Again, there was no specific outcome associated with the summit. But it did introduce a level of stability and predictability in the interaction between the two sides. By the end of 2019, it appeared that they had overcome the Doklam hiccup and were developing significant convergence on a range of issues from trade to their disputed border.

But as we know, this was an illusion which came apart in the summer of 2020 on banks of an icy river in the heights of Galwan. But the shift had occurred in the wake of Doklam and the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). China not only doubled down on consolidating itself in Doklam and beginning a massive build-up of its forces in Tibet. In some ways, the events in 2020 were a culmination of this.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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