India, China bonhomie good, but will it last?

There is no denying that the BRICS summit hosted by China has had some positive strands for India. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s threat not to attend the summit that led the Chinese to back off and agree to a mutual withdrawal of troops from the Doklam trijunction. Had the Doklam impasse not ended and if India had gone ahead with its threat, the summit would have been a non-starter since the charter of BRICS requires all five heads of state to attend to make the meeting possible.

That would have been a big blow to Chinese President Xi Jinping whose report card would come in for close scrutiny at next month’s plenary of the Communist Party of China. The plenary is, among other things, expected to deliberate on a second term for Xi, which now appears certain. The icing on the BRICS cake for India was the joint declaration at the summit which, for the first time named the Pakistan-based Jaish eMohammed (JeM) and Laskhar e-Taiba (LeT) as terror outfits. That there was perceptible bonhomie between Modi and Xi in terms of body language and on key issues was also noticeable.

While there were positive signals, the Chinese can be quite dicey, so the proof of the pudding would lie in its eating. Much of the Indian euphoria would abate if China continues to stonewall actions against Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar of the JeM. Also, the Doklam issue has only been swept under the carpet and could be revived. Yet, at their first substantive bilateral meeting after the Doklam standoff the two sides reaffirmed that maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas was a pre-requisite for ties to move forward. Foreign secretary S Jaishankar told newsmen later that the two leaders felt that there should be closer communication between the defence and security personnel of India and China.

Modi and Xi Jinping stood by the understanding reached earlier this year at Astana between them to not allow differences to become disputes. Whether all this seeming goodwill will actually result in better understanding between India and China and whether the Chinese unstinted support for Pakistan would get watered down would be interesting to watch but it is best for India not to get carried away by the pleasant Chinese demeanour at the BRICS summit. China’s assertion at the summit that it is willing to work with India on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel), formulated by the two countries in 1954 to improve political mutual trust, promote mutually beneficial cooperation, and push Sino-India ties along the right track was music to Indian ears.

All said and done, just like the last big flare-up in Depsang in 2013, which lasted 21 days, led to the resultant Border Defence and Cooperation Agreement, if Doklam were to lead to a new mechanism with specific military-to-military confidence building measures, it would be a big plus for Sino-Indian peace. It is hardly surprising that Modi’s interactions with the other three BRICS members—Brazil, Russia and South Africa—were overshadowed by Sino-Indian interactions.

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