In a major diplomatic breakthrough, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping are meeting over Friday and Saturday for an informal summit in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The informal summit, as it is being dubbed by both sides will set the tone and tenor of India-China relations in the next decade. It will also give a much needed political thrust to the ties between Asia’s two most populous countries.
The thaw follows months of public bickering between India and China as well as a military stand-off which stretched over 73-days. All through 2016 to 2017, ties were at an unprecedented low. China took an anti-India position, whether it was membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or stopping UN sanctions against Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar. Delhi reciprocated by playing the Tibet card. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Arunachal for a week in April last year and hold prayers at the Tawang monastery. The Dalai Lama has always been regarded by China as an enemy, a dangerous separatist in a monk’s robes. Despite China’s loud protests, Delhi gave the green signal for the visit. China had repeatedly warned against the visit, and later said it had affected ties with India. China claims the entire Arunachal as its territory and regards the Tawang monastery as a part of South Tibet.
Again, Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibetan government in exile visited the Pangong lake in Ladakh and unfurled a Tibetan flag there. The lake lies between India and China and the Line of Actual Control passes through it. Sangay’s office later retracted and said the flag was already there. Another version has it that Sangay put up a prayer flag. This was when the Doklam crisis was still on. So, it is not that Delhi did not provoke. It also fitted into the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar’s narrative of Modi being a strong PM, and not one to take things lying down.
What brought about this change of mood and desire for talks? Nobody in government is willing to pin point the reasons. But foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, who was ambassador to China before taking over in Delhi, is said to have played an important role. He worked hard to diffuse the Doklam crisis and possibly India did a reality check of the neighbourhood.
India’s neighbours with the exception of Bhutan, have all welcomed Xi Belt and Road initiative with open arms. Who would not? After all everyone needs infrastructure – linking roads, bridges, ports especially when it comes with the infusion of funds. India itself needs all this. But it has a problem about the centre piece of OBOR which involves over $50 billion on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Some of the schemes run through POK, which India has always claimed as its own. So, opposition is centred round the question of sovereignty. Delhi boycotted the mega summit called by President Xi last May. Though India stayed away, the rest of the world, including the US and Western powers, sent in representatives. India’s neighbours signed up one by one : Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh. India can sulk but cannot stop all these nations from wanting much needed infrastructure projects. So, Chinese presence in the neighbourhood is a reality that India has to accept. As former NSA Shivshankar Menon said a few years back, India and China will continue to “circle each other’s periphery’’. Neither country can stop that and should be taken as a fact of modern strategic thinking. Getting angry or lecturing smaller neighbours about debt traps serves no purpose.
India’s decision to ask government ministers and NDA leaders not to attend the thank you India program announced by the Tibetan Government in Exile, was an olive branch extended to China. Beijing’s dislike for the Dalia Lama is well known and shifting the venue of the major ceremony to Dharamshala also kept the publicity blitz low on the event. China was obviously mollified. The pragmatic Chinese also wanted talks with Indian leaders to ensure peace and stability in Asia, crucial for undertaking the transformation of the region. China would definitely be delighted. In short both India and China felt the time has come for a course correction in the relation.
Today’s talks will give an opportunity to Modi and Xi to have a free wheeling conversation on the current flux in the international order. Irritants in India-China ties will all be on the table, but the two will not get into specifics according to sources. The effort is to understand each other’s strategic vision and ensure this does not impinge negatively on the other. It will also help to open a direct line of communication between the two leaders. The Wuhan meeting will give a much needed political thrust to ties from the highest quarters in Delhi and Beijing. Xi and Modi are trying to press the refresh button whether they succeed in managing this complex relationship remains to be seen. But, it is a good first step at course correction for both countries.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.