By: Liu Zongyi Source: India-seminar Published: 2020-04-23
ON 11-12 October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Chennai and Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu at the invitation of Prime Minister Modi of India. The two leaders held their second informal summit there. Prior to that, the international community had not been optimistic about this meeting. The western and Indian media had continuously harped on the differences and disputes between China and India, throwing cold water on the meeting, in an attempt to see its cancellation or postponement, and even hoping to see the relationship between China and India break yet again.
However, contrary to the expectations of western media reports and some people in India who did not want to see any progress in China-India relations, the informal meeting between the two leaders took place as scheduled, and was a success. The leaders continued to carry forward the spirit of the Wuhan informal summit, focusing on the overall international situation and on bilateral relations. They did not discuss some specific bilateral issues; rather, they devised a new direction and path for bilateral relations, which would be of vital and lasting importance. Moreover, the two leaders agreed that the next informal summit would be held in China. This showed their great foresight and strategic thinking on China-India relations, keeping in mind global and regional developments.
If the Wuhan informal summit had some temporary arrangements in mind, the success of the Chennai informal summit marked the institutionalization of regular meetings between the top leaders of China and India, which is of great significance in at least three aspects: first of all, the informal summit mechanism between the leaders has become the ultimate guarantor for China-India relations. It is significant that China-India relations are controlled by the top leaders of both countries. Even on occasions when there are some serious problems causing discord, the leaders are there to see that bilateral relations do not derail and lead to military conflicts.
The Donglang stand-off brought China-India relations to a low ebb, while the Wuhan informal summit helped restore calm in bilateral relations. However, prior to the informal summit in Chennai, there were tensions between China and India because of India’s unilateral change in Kashmir’s legal status, the boundary confrontation at Pangong lake, and the question of trade deficit. These contentious issues made many people think that the Chennai informal summit would be difficult to hold in these circumstances. The informal summit was finally held successfully, and President Xi Jinping was warmly welcomed in Chennai and Mamallapuram. This demonstrated that informal meetings have become the ultimate guarantor for the development of Sino-Indian relations.
Second, the Wuhan and Chennai informal summits point the way for China-India relations, which are now driven by the top leaders. During the Wuhan informal summit, the two leaders exchanged views fully and reached important consensus on the international situation, China-India relations and bilateral cooperation in various fields. They made clear the general trend of the world and the historical positions of China and India, further established the important guiding principles for bilateral relations, and outlined a blueprint for China-India comprehensive cooperation. PM Modi reiterated that India would adhere to ‘strategic autonomy’. In the Chennai informal summit, the two leaders held the rudder and steered the course of China-India relations, mapped out a hundred-year plan for relations from a strategic and long-term perspective, injected a strong endogenous impetus into bilateral relations, and worked together to achieve the rejuvenation of two great civilizations. The two leaders not only talked about the issues related to trust building, such as looking correctly at each other’s development and properly handling differences, but also pointed the way of cooperation in military, economy and trade, people to people exchanges and other specific fields, marking the ‘key points’ for the next-step cooperation in international and regional affairs.
Finally, the establishment of the informal meeting mechanism between the top leaders of China and India shows that China really treats India as a power on an equal footing. Earlier, many Indian friends thought that China despised India and did not regard her as a major power. There is no basis for this view in the future. President Xi Jinping’s warm reception of PM Modi in Wuhan not only showed respect for India, but also support for PM Modi, who would usher in the second general election. President Xi Jinping ironed out difficulties and participated in the second informal meeting at Chennai, which also showed political support for PM Modi. After his re-election, Prime Minister Modi made great efforts to create an atmosphere of India’s rise as a great power, and strengthen the authority of the central government over local governments. For this purpose, Prime Minister Modi held a huge party of 50,000 people when he visited the United States. President Xi’s visit to Chennai also demonstrated great support for Prime Minister Modi, which confirmed President Xi’s statement that China and India should ‘light up’ each other.
How to view the China-India relations: the main reason that China and India set up the informal meeting mechanism in Wuhan is because of the Donglang stand-off, which was an embodiment of contradictions between both.
1. Contradictions between China and India: China and India are rising almost simultaneously. Their bilateral relationship is of critical significance to regional and world peace, stability and development, but this relationship is very complicated. As two members of the BRICS group and the G20, China and India share extensive common interests on issues such as reform of the international financial system, climate change, and international trade negotiation. China and India have also cooperated on a myriad regional issues like Afghanistan and a crackdown on terrorism. China is one of India’s largest trading partners, and their economic collaboration will inject vigour and impetus to the Indian economy.
Admittedly, there are many unsolved questions between China and India, among which the border dispute is the biggest obstacle to the bilateral relationship, and this problem will recur and affect the development of bilateral relations. Except for the boundary problem, China-Pakistan relations, the Dalai Lama issue, trade deficit and water resources issue also hinder the promotion of China-India relations. In the past year, trade has become a major issue in Sino-Indian relations. Indian officials have talked about this problem frequently in bilateral meetings and international fora.
Besides, with the intensifying of China’s economic activity in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, especially in recent years, the advancement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India’s strategic suspicions of China have accentuated. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar believes that China’s rise is the largest variable driving the global and regional order. For China’s economic and commercial activities in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, as well as the escort behaviour of the Chinese naval fleet related to it, and even scientific investigation, the Indian side considers it a threat. The strategic elites in India believe that the deterioration of China-India relations is due to China’s behaviour. They believe that the contradiction between China and India is a structural one. What concerns Indian strategists even more is that the power gap between China and India continues to expand. These problems show that India has a deep-seated distrust of China.
Objectively speaking, there are some problems in the mentality of some people in India. At the same time, China has not seriously factored in Indian interests. The Donglang stand-off was a response to China’s policies in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. This phenomenon does provide an opportunity for some western countries to create divisions in Sino-India relations.
2. Why was the China-India informal meeting mechanism established? The Donglang stand-off brought China and India to the brink of war which neither China or India wanted. China has never regarded India as its rival, nor wanted to create an enemy; for India, turning itself into an enemy of China is not likely to get any tangible benefits from other countries, especially when the policies of the Trump Administration in the US are uncertain. What is certain is that the relationship between India and China will enter a stalemate, and India would no longer enjoy the international status of being a swing state.
In addition, on many global and regional issues, India wants support from China. President Trump deviated from multilateralism, opposed free trade and destroyed the global trading system. India hopes to work with China to promote globalization and a free trade system, and strengthen cooperation in climate change, SCO, BRICS, the New Development Bank and AIIB. In 2017, the bilateral trade between China and India reached US $84.5 billion. Good relations with China are crucial for India’s economy. India also particularly wants Chinese investment to help develop its infrastructure and manufacturing sectors. Facing the pressure of general elections and an economic downturn, the Modi government believed it was necessary to improve relations with China. This was the background to the first informal meeting in Wuhan.
After Modi’s successful re-election by overwhelming advantage and before the second informal meeting, there were some problems in China-India relations. On the one hand, it was closely related to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India; on the other, it related to the Sino-US trade war and geopolitical competition between China and the United States. The Indians believed that faced with huge pressure from the United States, China must have good relations with neighbouring countries, including India, in order to focus on dealing with the United States. Therefore, India hoped to use this situation to realize some diplomatic goals, ask China to support its domestic and foreign policies, accept some of India’s demands (sometimes excessive), further improve India’s international status, and boost India’s national morale in the midst of an economic downturn. India unilaterally changed the legal status of Indian controlled Kashmir, making Kashmir and Ladakh union territories, which violates China’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty; in the Pangong lake area, the Indian side provoked a confrontation with the Chinese army; India even raised the bilateral trade balance issue to new political heights.
However, Prime Minister Modi was sure to understand President Xi Jinping’s analysis of global trends and the historical position of China and India during the Wuhan informal summit. The dialogue between the top leaders of China and India was one between the two great eastern civilizations with thousands of years of history, and a dialogue between the two Asian emerging powers. To realize the rejuvenation of Asian civilizations represented by China and India, is a common task for the two countries. China would like to regard China-India relations from the perspective of building an Asian Community of Shared Future and even a Community of Shared Future for Mankind. Both China and India recognize that the two countries cannot fall into a paradigm set by the West according to the logic of geopolitical confrontation. This became one of the preconditions for the success of the second Chennai informal meeting.
At the same time, Prime Minister Modi hoped that the Chennai informal meeting would be a success. Like the huge party of 50,000 people in the United States, the informal meetings between the top leaders of China and India is also symbolic of India’s rise as a great power. As the economic problem had become PM Modi’s big challenge in his second term, India wanted to attract large Chinese investment. Therefore, in the pre-meeting consultations, the two sides agreed to take care of each other’s major concerns. The two leaders did not let past historical differences come in the way of progress in bilateral relations. Instead, they agreed to strengthen communications and deepen mutual understanding through exchanges between institutions, people to people exchanges, from the height of national development strategy and profound global changes, to manage and control differences and finally overcome them.
During the Wuhan informal meeting, President Xi Jinping proposed the idea of ‘China-India Plus’, demonstrating China’s willingness to take care of India’s interests in developing economic cooperation with South Asian and India Ocean countries. At the Chennai meeting, China was mindful of India’s concerns about the trade imbalance issue, repeatedly stressed by the Indian side, expressing that China would like to see India’s economic development by taking all possible measures to reduce the trade deficit. Therefore, China agreed to open up its market to India’s advantageous products and industries, establish a high-level economic and trade dialogue mechanism, enhance alignment of the two countries’ economic development strategies, and to seek building a partnership in the manufacturing industry.
Prospects of China-India relations: the Chennai informal meeting between the top leaders of China and India pointed at the direction for the development of bilateral relations. But both sides must be clear that although the development of China-India relations has got an ultimate guarantee, it is still fragile. The further development of China-India relations needs to overcome obstacles, enlarge the consensus and move incrementally.
The factors that hinder the development of China-India relations are obvious. First of all, the bilateral relationship between China and India is one driven by the top leaders. The healthy development of bilateral relations requires the support and understanding of all sectors of society in both countries, not only from the cultural and economic circles, but also the strategic circles. Only with the support of all sections of society, especially the strategic community, can the consensus reached by top leaders be implemented. But many of the elites in India’s diplomatic and strategic circles have a mindset rooted in the past decades – the concept of spheres of influence, democratic values and cold war thinking, as well as a diplomatic style that does not hesitate to link some isolated issues with the overall situation of bilateral relations – which may hinder the implementation of the consensus.
Second, India’s strategic elites believe that the development of China-India relations should rid itself of the constraints of third-party factors, that is, China should not put China-India relations under the framework of Sino-US relations. But in reality, India’s strategic and diplomatic circles use third-party factors to exert pressure on China at the moment of profound global changes. The behaviour of India’s strategic and diplomatic elites is hard to change. It will no doubt introduce uncertainty in the relationship.
Finally, the rise of Hindu nationalism in Indian society is a hindrance to the development of Sino-Indian relations. Whether clamouring to overtake China or calling for boycott of Chinese goods, this nationalistic sentiment is not conducive to good bilateral relations. At the same time, the policies of religious nationalism adopted by the Indian government tend to produce negative spillover effects, damage the interests of neighbouring countries, including China, and undermine regional peace and stability.
Faced with great uncertainty in the world and profound changes unseen in a century, China and India should jointly carry forward the Wuhan spirit and work towards peace and prosperity in the world and Asia, rather than further complicate the global and regional situation.
First, faced with increasingly fierce geopolitical competition in the Asia-Pacific region as the United States proposes a militarized ‘India-Pacific’ strategy, and promotes the construction of regional military groups, China and India have a responsibility to work together to maintain regional peace and stability, which is necessary for the two countries to achieve further development. The Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean are international commons, not a sphere of influence of some countries. Peace and tranquility in the oceans should be safeguarded by all. It is necessary for China and India to have further dialogue on maritime order and maritime security, negotiate to establish a regional security framework that is open, inclusive, democratic and equal. This framework can include major powers beyond the region, such as Britain, France, Germany and other European countries. But it is not acceptable that some regional countries jointly formulate a set of rules with countries outside the region to impose on other countries in the region.
Second, faced with trade protectionism, anti-globalization and geopolitical competition hindering regional economic cooperation, China and India should jointly promote the establishment of an open economic pattern and a new framework for regional economic cooperation. India has lost a valuable opportunity by not joining RCEP. China’s economic activities in South Asia and the Indian Ocean are warmly welcomed. The countries in this region are eager to get foreign investment to develop their infrastructure and economic and social affairs. All countries in the world should cooperate in building the BRI. India’s SAGAR can be synergized with China’s BRI and related European plans.
Finally, faced with ethnic and religious conflicts, territorial disputes, and climate change, water resources crisis, and other non-traditional security threats, China and India as two ancient civilizations, should set an example for the world. The two countries should enhance mutual understanding through people to people exchanges and dialogue between civilizations. China and India should learn, on one hand, the historical lessons of western countries, including Germany and France, and on the other hand, learn the spirit of mutual compromise between Germany and France after World War II. The two countries should show real sincerity and resolve the territorial disputes through negotiation and compromise with each other; they should adapt to each other. China seriously considers India’s feelings and demands, but is it necessary to accept all India’s demands unconditionally? To get along well with each other, both China and India need to master the ‘extent’ on dealing with issues involving bilateral relations.
The author is a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China
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