By Dr Subhash Kapila
The China-India Informal Summit between Indian PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan, China on April 27-28 201 8 was high on hopes and media hype. Competing geopolitical ambitions, perspectives and politic narratives of China and India cannot be subsumed in hopes only.
China-India relations could emerge as a global game-changer only when Chinese President Xi Jinping seizes a Nixonian-type moment by spinning China’s India policy on its head to put China on a more accommodative and respectful mode in its policy approaches to India. China has to come up with a dramatic geopolitical outreach to India completely divorced from existing policy templates.
Awaiting the above, China and India have to operate within the confines of their respective geopolitical compulsions. It is China that has to shed dramatically its past Pakistan-centric geopolitical baggage and that of encircling India and encroaching into India’s traditional areas of influence.
“Asia in the 21st Century is destined to witness an intense geopolitical power struggle involving the two strategically competing Asian giants China and India on ascendant trajectories to add more power to their “Emerged Powers’ status, and attempting to stake out their spheres of influence on the vast Asian landmass and maritime expanses”. This was the opening sentence of my Book: ‘China-India Military Confrontation: 21st Century Perspectives’ published in early 2016. The same hold s true today with greeter intensity.
Later on, it was asserted that “In the 21st Century China-India military confrontation having transcended from a mere territorial dispute to a powerful geopolitical rivalry, the scope of the power tussle from a China-India context is likely to get widened with addition of and intertwining of Asian security dynamics and global security dynamics.” This is already in evidence and we witness India emerging as the lynch-pin of the Indo Pacific Security architecture along with the United States and Japan.
The Dokalam Military Standoff in 2017was the apex point of three years of incessant military standoffs which became more pronounced since 2013—the year in which President Xi Jinping assumed power. The Dokalam Military Standoff marked a turning point for both China and India. India for the first time audaciously and for months stood upto China’s military provocations and military brinkmanship. For China it may have been a wake-up call that India no longer under PM Modi’s leadership was going to yield to China’s coercive strategies.
The regular readers of my Papers on China would recall that for months I have been highlighting that China despite its massive military buildup had equally massive strategic vulnerabilities. Also, that China in 2018 could be said to be virtually isolated geopolitically by rising regional and global checkmating moves.
China’s increasing tensions with the United States both on security and trade issues complicates China’s manoeuvrability in the Asian strategic space and also at the global level.
The Wuhan Summit’s timing of occurrence therefore needs to be contextually viewed in the above perspective framework for better analysis of the impelling motives which moved China for a political reachout to India. It needs to be pointed out that much before the present flurry of visits by Indian dignitaries to China in 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister and also the Chinese State Councillor had visited India post-Dokalam in late 2017 presumably paving the way for the Wuhan Summit. India responded positively.
China has termed the Wuhan Summit as historic as then Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi’s famous three minute handshake with Deng Xiao Peng in Beijing in 1988. However there is a vital difference. In 1988, PM Rajiv Gandhi visited China when India was geopolitically on a weak wicket.
In 2018, when PM Modi visited China for the Wuhan Summit, the geopolitical situation is strongly in favour of India besides India’s economic growth rates outstripping China’s. PM Modi went to Wuhan as the leader of India as an ‘Emerged Power’ acknowledged by the global community.
So as India settles down more intensely to carry out a post-mortem of the Wuhan Summit it becomes pertinent to ask whether India’s so-called ‘Reset of India’s China Policy’ is really a tectonic shift in India’s long range perspectives and assessments on China? Similarly, what significance can one attach to China’s sudden change of tack in reaching out to India for an informal summit of leaders of China and India? The answers lie somewhere in between the above two questions.
Dialogues between adversarial nations like China and India, whether formal or informal, are always welcome in terms of conflict–prevention and conflict-resolution. However, with the baggage of decades of conflictual relationship that both China and India carry between themselves, the dialogue process however well-meaning will stretch out for decades, if not waylaid along the way by earlier conflictual hangovers
This Paper will not analyse whether China conceded any deliverables or not and why not. Ample analyses are available in the media. However, one point that needs to be pointed out is that the Wuhan Summit was not about China’s earnestness or eagerness to resolve the boundary dispute that bedevils relations between China and India. The Indian media in the lead followed by international media trumpeted that the Wuhan Summit will reduce border tensions.
That remains to be seen whether Chinese President’s directives to his PLA are honoured by them and no more Dokalam-type provocations take place.
The Wuhan Summit was at best an opportunity for the Chinese President and Indian PM Modi to gauge the respective stands and perspectives on regional and global issues without the straitjacket of formal summits. The Wuhan Summit seems to be long on geoeconomics but short on geopolitics.
The Wuhan Summit did not witness any dramatic off er as such by China to India or any ‘game changers’ which could alter the existing state of conflictual face-offs on India’s borders with China Occupied Tibet. The onus for such initiatives rest with China.
Moving to the vital question of what motivated China and India to go in for an informal Summit with no agenda it needs to be pointed out that while there may not have been an agenda for discussion, there were certainly impelling geopolitical motives.
In case of China, the geopolitical motive was to wean away India from its growing strategic proximity and security-centric linkages to the United States in the Indo Pacific security template. China also wishes to drive a wedge in the US-India Strategic Partnership which has altered the balance of power in Indo Pacific.
India’s objectives in going to Wuhan Summit were basically driven by an earnest hope that such a Summit would contribute to China adopting a more comprehensive approach in respecting India’s strategic sensitivities ranging from Pakistani terrorists being shielded in the UN by China, the genuine honouring of Border Tranquillity Agreements existing, China ending its opposition to India’s membership of NSG and opening of Chines markets to India. It remains to be seen as to how far China moves ahead in the coming months in this direction.
Concluding, one need to point out that since the China-India Military Confrontation is a reality which cannot be wished away because it has acquired serious and enhanced geopolitical contours a lot would depend on the prevailing geopolitical environment in Asia and at the global level. It cannot be a simple bilateral exercise divorced from the foregoing. China could change the course if it adopts the Nixonian dramatic moment of turning on its head the US China-policy. Does Chinese President have it in him to spin China’s India-policy on its head and give positive directions?