Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to India after having met with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in Beijing for the China-Pakistan Business Forum. Therefore, Kashmir, CPEC and terrorism could be tricky subjects at the summit.
From October 11-13, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will sit down with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping for the second informal bilateral summit between India and China since Wuhan in April 2018.
The venue is the historic temple-town of Mamallapuram (better known as Mahabalipuram). As with most locations, this one was no arbitrary choice. Wuhan, it might be remembered, was picked by Xi to demonstrate China’s economic might. Mamallapuram has been chosen to underscore India’s historical soft power. During the Pallava dynasty, this was the scene where the first security pact of sorts was signed between India and China. The context: Tibet, which had then emerged as a very definite threat to China.
Neither India nor China have officially announced the dates for the summit, nor, indeed, have any but the most necessary details been divulged. A week before the summit, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui arrived in India to meet —an extremely low-key meeting —with Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale to lay the groundwork for Xi. The idea of Mamallapuram is to follow up on the decisions taken at Wuhan.
However, a lot has changed between April 2018 and October 2019. For one, relations between China and the United States have plummeted sharply. For another, domestic matters within China have garnered Beijing global criticism —from its much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to radical extremism in Xinjiang to unrest in Tibet and Hong Kong.
India, on the other hand, has seen ties with the US reach new heights, with the latest example being the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, on September 22. India has also been strengthening ties with Russia —once close to China. Along with Russia, Japan and Australia, the ‘Quadrilateral’ has revived as a strategic concept, to begin shifts in regional equations in East Asia, which Beijing has long considered its backyard.
Relations between India and China have faced several setbacks since Wuhan. Border issues, for one, remain a matter of concern, particularly at Doklam. Initiatives focusing on joint collaboration on economic projects in Afghanistan have wavered.
More recently, September saw the reopening of the Advance Landing Ground (ALG) at Vijoynagar in Arunachal Pradesh for the use of military aircraft. Simultaneously, an ‘all arms integrated’ exercise, codenamed Changthang Prahar was held by India, in a ‘super high altitude’ area near Chushul in eastern Ladakh. Featuring tanks, artillery guns, drones, helicopters and troops, as well as para-drops, there is little doubt that it would have been viewed with immense suspicion by Beijing.
On October 5, the major combat exercise codenamed Him Vijay kicked off in Northeast India, in the precise location that China terms ‘South Tibet’. India maintains that the exercise was carried out 100 km away from the Line of Control, and that it had been planned months in advance. China, however, is not taking it so lightly, with Luo warning that the defence exercise could well undermine the aims of the summit at Mamallapuram.
To add to India’s worries, China has reacted strongly to the dilution of Article 370 in Kashmir. The most recent statement came from China’s ambassador to Islamabad, Yao Jing, who asserted that Beijing will “stand by Pakistan for regional peace and stability.” Two days after India protested strongly, and after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Beijing on October 8, China’s position shifted yet again, with foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang insisting that Kashmir is a bilateral concern between India and Pakistan.
The military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh and China’s statements on Kashmir briefly threw the status of the summit into uncertainty, with reports that Xi might well delay his visit altogether.
Though officials have confirmed that the summit is going to go ahead, it is clear that this will be no Wuhan. Xi comes to India having met with Khan in Beijing for the China-Pakistan Business Forum. Despite clarifications, Pakistan’s shadow — encompassing Kashmir, CPEC and terrorism — will loom large over Mamallapuram.
It was hoped that, after Wuhan, the two countries could take discussions on the boundary dispute to the next stage at the second edition of their informal summits. This remains unlikely. The border is still a simmering issue, with Indian media reporting that a deal on Doklam is close to being struck between China and Bhutan. Bhutan has not officially released a statement on the report, but it would make for uncomfortable background noise at the summit. The abrogation of Article 370 — more specifically the creation of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory — remains yet another elephant in the room.
On the other hand, focusing on areas where cooperation is far likelier is a better bet. This would mean that negotiations to reduce the bloated bilateral trade deficit are likely to proceed apace. In the same vein, both China and India would expect to focus on trade deals, cooperation in terrorism, connectivity projects (such as the BCIM), discussions on the Indo-Pacific strategic concept and possibly, trust-building military exercises.
Can four 5-hour-long meetings at Mamallapuram yield both optics and substance? That remains to be seen. Given the shadow-boxing on both sides, it would make sense for both New Delhi and Beijing to try and improve strategic communications and ensure bilateral relations remain on an even keel for now, rather than striving to achieve the impossible.
(This is the second article in a multi-part series analysing India-China ties in the background of the Modi-Xi informal summit.)Narayani Basu is an author and journalist, with an interest in Chinese foreign policy. Views are personal. The Great Diwali Discount!
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