Following the Doklam stand-off between India and China in mid-2017, the Wuhan ‘informal summit’ between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping the following April was seen as some sort of a tension-busting exercise and hosannas were sung to a new kind of diplomacy with talk of a ‘reset’ in the relationship. In the run-up to the second informal summit to be held at Chennai tomorrow, however, the shallowness of the exercise is now evident especially in the security and political realms.
Even if one were to ignore the fact that it was not until yesterday that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs finally confirmed that the summit was even on, the level of mutual suspicion today appears to be no less than was the case following Doklam. In the meantime, the Chinese have handed India a Pyrrhic victory in supporting the sanctioning of the terrorist, Masood Azhar, at the UN and even this with great reluctance but it also promptly found an excuse to get back in the Pakistani corner by loudly and repeatedly criticizing New Delhi for effecting a change in the status of the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
On Doklam, itself, the Committee on External Affairs of the 16th Lok Sabha in a report released late last year noted that ‘[t]hough the Government has categorically denied any Chinese activities near the actual face-off site, an ambivalent view has been expressed while confirming such activities for other areas in the Doklam plateau’. It also expressed concerns about ‘[r]eports suggesting that significant road-building towards the Indian border has already occurred’. The government’s references to its ‘limited objective/purpose’ in the Doklam stand-off masks the reality that it is unable to do much about Chinese transgressions on Bhutanese territory that also potentially affect Indian security interests over the long term. Talk of the Chennai summit resulting in fresh CBMs between the Indian and Chinese militaries should not be taken seriously as these are likely to be incremental if at all and aimed at keeping up appearances.
One agenda point for the summit is the ‘deepening India-China Closer Development Partnership’ but if the present economic relationship is anything to go by, there is very little likely to happen on this front either. India’s persistent trade deficit with China stood at nearly US$58 billion out of a total trade of around US$95 billion in 2018. Chinese investments remain low at US$8 billion but Indian projects under execution by Chinese companies were estimated to be as high as US$63 billion or as the Lok Sabha Committee put it, ‘basically China is engaged in project exports in India, without bringing its own capital for investment’.
At the same time, the Chinese have not been above threatening the Indian side against cutting its telecom equipment supplier Huawei out of 5G trials. It is quite possible that such Indian companies as Sun Pharmaceutical Industries that recently announced plans for the Chinese market including a tie-up with a local partner and others like it will get caught in the cross-fire. One only has to look at how the Chinese have forced American entities such the hotel chain Marriott or the basketball league, NBA, to toe China’s political line under threat of cutting them out of the Chinese market.
The Chinese side has tried to deflect attention from problems in the economic relationship by talking of people-to-people ties but if Beijing were really serious about this, it could both enhance people-to-people ties and address the economic imbalances by encouraging its tour operators to direct larger numbers of China’s vast numbers of outbound tourists to India – in just the first half of 2019, Chinese tourists abroad spent US$127.5 billion.
China uses tourist outflows as a political and economic tool and so if it does not do so despite keen Indian interest in receiving more Chinese tourists, and considerable interest among the latter themselves, then it speaks to a degree of apathy in Beijing at the very least, if not outright discrimination against the Indian market.
Meanwhile, the Modi government does not appear to be waiting on Chinese largesse or goodwill either. It timed a number of key events close to the proposed dates for the second informal summit – the reorganization of Jammu & Kashmir, the Modi-Trump bhai-bhai bash in Houston and, a series of military exercises in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
The most charitable explanation for the informal summits between India and China is that these are merely holding exercise for the two sides – to maintain the impression that all is well in the relationship while each concentrates on other priorities – for China, the trade war with the US, and for the Indian government, anything and everything to do with Pakistan. Unfortunately, for India, the Modi government’s obsession with Pakistan also allows Beijing to tie it down at little to no cost to itself.
Meanwhile, structural problems between nations are unlikely to be resolved by two leaders having ‘informal’ dialogues or meetings without agendas. The boundary dispute remains intractable – neither of the two strongmen – Modi in India and Xi in China – appears courageous enough to seek resolution because that would mean telling their people that the size of their country would have to shrink. Also, despite the rhetoric, China does not respect either India’s position as a regional power in Asia or as a peer civilisation – hence its unwillingness to dehyphenate India from Pakistan in practice or to support either India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council or of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The informal summit is another opportunity for the two countries to come up with a roadmap and timeline for delivering on these issues. Instead expect much sound and more dissimulation.
A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Informal dialogues cannot resolve structural problems between India and China’, Moneycontrol, 11 October 2019.