After the low of last year, when the Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation at Doklam, a welcome sense of pragmatism seems to inform the relations between the two big Asian neighbours. The proposed meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 27 ought to help break the ice and pave the way for a meaningful engagement to try and resolve outstanding differences that have divided the two Asian powers. Having attained a degree of economic and military success, it is as much in China’s interest to not disrupt the journey towards further consolidation with a diversionary event as it is in India’s which is engaged in the catch-up game on the economic front with its bigger northern neighbour.
Both countries have a stake in restoring a healthy working relationship, while trying to resolve contentious issues such as the border dispute and the status of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees residing in India. Given that the US and its western allies are no longer in a position to play the sole arbiter in global affairs, the world is fast becoming multi-polar, with both China and India acquiring an important voice. Together, India and China can be an asset in re-ordering the global equations, considering the sizes of their respective populations, economies and the armed forces. Unfortunately, the two have been at loggerheads over an un-demarcated border. At one stage, it did appear that both countries might settle the border in a spirit of give and take, but this did not happen.
The matter was in limbo till the Doklam confrontation last August spotlighted the danger of a misunderstanding blowing into a major confrontation. Eventually, good sense prevailed with the two sides withdrawing to their original positions. However, the bitterness lingers. The coming summit meeting between the heads of the two governments in the Chinese city of Wuhan on the banks of the Yangtze later this week provides an opportunity to iron out some of the wrinkles. In preparation for such a meeting, India has demonstrably discouraged anti-China activities by the Tibetans settled here while China has refrained from making provocative statements in favour of Pakistan.
Of course, the Chinese support to Pakistan in the UN and outside rankles India and is one of the issues the two leaders are expected to discuss in their informal pow-wow. Besides, the Chinese veto on the Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and its refusal to condemn the Pak-exported terrorists and groups are issues which Modi is certain to take up with Xi. There is also a shared concern against the growing protectionism in the US and other developed nations. Both India and China are at the receiving end of President Trump’s tariffs on their respective exports of steel and aluminum. On his part, the Chinese leader might seek to get Modi to resile on his opposition to his signature Belt and Road project. India is a solitary hold-out, generating additional tension in the already fraught bilateral ties.
Since a war between the two nuclear powers is not even an option of last resort, even if the Chinese economy is five-times bigger and it boasts of a much larger army, the size of their respective populations, and the prevalence of poverty and deprivation among vast sections of the people cries out for a negotiated settlement of all outstanding disputes. Under the circumstances, what the two leaders can hope to achieve in an informal setting in the salubrious surroundings on the banks of the Yangtze river can be path-breaking for resetting Sino-India relations. Of late, the Modi Government has gone out of its way to appear to refresh ties with China. Clearly, the trusted sherpas of the two leaders have been working behind-the-scenes to make the summit possible. Though informal, the two leaders would be armed with their respective briefs and will have their aides on hand to assist them in injecting a measure of pragmatism in the bilateral relations which had soured following the Doklam confrontation. Less tension between the two Asian biggies allows them to devote their energies to urgent tasks of nation-building and improving the lot of their huge populations.