The optics are perfect. Mamallapuram heritage city; India and China can trace ancient roots to trade here. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi donned a traditional veshti to greet the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, who arrived in Western attire. Handshakes and smiles abound.
This is the third direct meeting of the two leaders after their last meeting on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Gujarat and the Wuhan meet in China. Though both the leaders have “bumped into” each other on at least 10 occasions over the past three years, including at the Russia-China-India Forum, the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) meet, the BRICS meet and the G-20 meet. All such informal meets follow a series of foreign secretary-level dialogue, which started in 1988, and the empowered special representatives’ meets, which began from 2003.
So, all good. Still there is no great news. No major breakthrough is expected from an informal summit, that too one without an agenda and where neither side had confirmed attendance just four days before the meeting day. It is important to make some concrete progress with every global engagement of this kind.
IRRITANTS TO PROGRESS
What are the irritants between India and China and where can some progress be made? Or, will this summit end up with loads of optics and no concrete outcome—like the ‘Howdy Modi’ meet of Modi and United States President Donald Trump?
First, India and China have an asymmetric trade relationship, with a trade deficit of around $54 billion. India has been raising this issue without any progress made until the Wuhan informal meet. India has been calling for a more level playing field in exports of its products and services without trade barriers. And it has been asking for more investment by China in India. On both fronts, India has not had much luck.
The emerging US-China trade war makes India an attractive trading proposition for China, but merely importing Chinese goods into Indian markets will only raise the trade deficit. China’s economy is five times larger than India’s economy ($14 trillion against India’s $2.8 trillion). Hence, it can afford to ignore us. But it is in India’s interest to steadily bring down the trade deficit from $53 billion a year to $10-12 billion a year over five years.
Second, India has an illusion of strategic parity with China, which is highly misplaced. Not only is China’s economy stronger, it also has much stronger and far more organised armed forces. It produces most of its own arms and ammunition, while India is the largest global importer of arms and ammunition. On the other side, China hyphenates India and Pakistan in one go and undermines India’s economic, military, democratic, social, cultural, technological and educational superiority over Pakistan. This must end from both sides.
Third, taking the second point further, both nations must look at de-escalation of border skirmishes across the Himalayan range, especially in Arunachal Pradesh and Trans-Karakoram range. They must create a high-level mechanism and undertake military confidence-building measures for border management and avoid another Doklam-type near-conflict situation. Though Doklam is in Bhutan, which is an Indian protectorate, it today has permanent structures built by the Chinese much to the chagrin of India.
Fourth, China and India celebrate the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, which were established by Maoist China in 1950 and Nehru’s India. This can be perfect opportunity for both nations—both the fastest-growing economic-military-technological powers of the world and ancient civilisations—to come closer. Track-2 people-to-people relations and cultural ties can take a leap this year through mutual visits, film festivals, literature-sharing, an India Fest in China and Festival of China in India, academic-bureaucratic-entrepreneurial visits to each other, and so on.
Fifth, the two rising Asian powers in an age often called the Asian Century, must present some consensus and convergence of views before the world in order to gain respect, say, on issues such as the Middle Eastern regional crisis, climate change and ecological degradation, preservation of ancient art and heritage, tackling global terror, etc. A China keen to tie India to the sub-continent and India that ignores China on many world fora will not serve the interests of either country.
WHERE ARE WE, REALLY?
Modi, during his 2014 poll campaign, repeatedly talked about showing “laal aankhein” (angry red eyes) to China if he was voted to power. But he meekly withdrew in Doklam and does not mention Aksai Chin (though talk about relooking Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir is quite frequent these days).
Modi has met Xi eleven times after coming to power, but there has not been one deal, agreement or treaty till date that is worth the name. Also, in the past, India’s caution on the China-front has led it to be careful in its relations with the US and the West in general. In recent times, India has accepted Huawei’s 5G trials and rollout in India in spite of allegations that the Chinese telecom major is working on behalf of Chinese espionage agencies. India, as often seen, over-estimates its leverage with China in its triangular relations with US and China.
Xi is known to concentrate powers in his own hands and has ensured that he is virtually the top Chinese leader until death. He is now keen to expand the Chinese sphere of influence across South and Southeast Asia. That is what the Belt and Road Initiative, which will create high-end infrastructure in the region and thus expand Chinese trade and military interests is about, and this India opposes.
Xi also confronts a possibly negative economic fallout of a looming trade war with the US. Hence China needs India more than ever before. As an emerging superpower next only to the US in the size of its economy, military prowess and technological development, China needs a friendly India for sure. But then, all measures in the last six years by China vis-a-vis India, in spite of eleven meetings between their top leaders, have been detrimental to Indian interests. This includes China’s vocal support to Pakistan and attempt to take the latest Kashmir imbroglio to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Xi asking for solution to the Kashmir problem in compliance with the UN resolution is not to India’s liking. Also, China has actively opposed India’s candidature as a permanent member of the UNSC and India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
Any major breakthrough with China is well-neigh impossible. So, start small. Make the 70th anniversary (referred to above) a major occasion for Track-2 diplomacy and building cultural bonds. Make small military confidence-building measures along the border. Allow Chinese investors into India (many are interested and face bureaucratic hurdles). Ensure their ease of business. Promote each other’s culture, heritage, art, philosophy, cuisine and cinema. Try increasing Indian exports to China. Explore Chinese support for building high-end public infrastructure in India. Let trouble spots such as Kashmir or the South China Sea remain out of the discussion for the moment. Build consensus on common challenges before the world. Present a strong face of Asia in the global context.
Let the hype and hoopla of the form not overshadow the substance of relationship between India and China in uncertain times.
The author is Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata-based Adamas University. The views are personal.