Sino-Indian Relations: Wuhan Spirit Under Growing Strain – OpEd
By Observer Research Foundation
The already tenuous effort by both sides to manage their ties has been further complicated by contemporary developments
By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Last week, in his typically dramatic fashion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India was changing its relationship with the State of Jammu and Kashmir, withdrawing the provisions of Article 370 of the Indian constitution that gave the state special rights in the Indian Union. The move included also splitting the state into two, making Ladakh, the eastern part of the state that abuts Tibet, a separate “Union Territory” that will be administered directly from New Delhi.
The decision appears to have wide popular support in India (outside of the State of Jammu and Kashmir), though the manner in which it has been implemented has been severely criticized. In particular, elected local leaders of the state have been detained, telecommunication facilities in the state have been completely cut off and the population itself has been subjected to repeated curfews and other restrictions. Some of these restrictions are now being slowly lifted though as of this writing, political leaders have not been released.
While the internal situation itself is troubling, there are potentially international ramifications to this move. One casualty could be the “Wuhan Spirit,” which refers to the informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping that reset the India-China relationship after the Doklam crisis in 2017.
India’s move was immediately opposed by Pakistan, with the Pakistani foreign minister flying to Beijing to seek China’s support. The Chinese statement of that meeting did not appear to indicate much change in China’s position. Indeed, it was fairly neutral. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted “China is seriously concerned about the latest escalation of tensions in Kashmir” and that “unilateral actions that will complicate the situation should not be taken.” The foreign minister also noted that “Pakistan and India are both China’s friendly neighbors” and called “on the two sides to proceed from their national development and peace in South Asia, properly resolve historical grievances, get rid of the zero-sum mindset, avoid unilateral action and seek a new path to peaceful coexistence.”
This was far less than what Pakistan had appeared to have hoped for and was only obliquely critical of the Indian actions. In fact, China’s position appeared to be quite confused. While one spokesperson had identified the issue on August 6 as one between India and Pakistan and one that was an issue “left from the past,” another reportedly criticized India giving special status to Ladakh, stating that it “challenged China’s sovereign interests.”
The Chinese position appears to have solidified in the next few days, by the time India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reached Beijing on a pre-arranged visit on August 12. Though the Chinese statement of that meeting noted a number of areas of cooperation between the two sides in the evolving global political and trading systems, China’s position had also settled on the harsher of the two statements from August 6. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Jaishankar “the Chinese side’s principled position” on what was characterized as India’s unilateral move on the Kashmir issue.
Another statement issued on the same date titled, “Wang Yi States Clear Position on the Kashmir Issue” was even harsher. It noted that “the constitutional amendment of the Indian side will change the current situation in Kashmir and give rise to tensions in the region.” This statement went well beyond stating China’s worries about India-Pakistan tensions. As the statement said, “the Indian side’s measures also challenge the sovereign rights and interests of the Chinese side and go against the agreements between the two countries on safeguarding peace and stability in border areas, about which the Chinese side is seriously concerned.” The statement went on to say that “Such practice of the Indian side is neither valid in relation to the Chinese side nor will it change the status quo that the Chinese side exercises sovereignty and effective administrative jurisdiction over the territory.” In brief, China’s position went from calling on both India and Pakistan to resolve historical grievances and get rid of zero-sum mindsets to not only blaming India directly for creating tensions, but also questioning the sovereign rights and interests of China.
The Indian side does appear to have pushed back. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement on the meeting between Jaishankar and Wang Yi not only reiterated that this was an internal matter, but also noted that “There was no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. India was not raising any additional territorial claims. The Chinese concerns in this regard were therefore misplaced.” When the Chinese foreign minister referred to the rising tensions between India and Pakistan, the MEA statement noted that the Foreign Minister Jaishankar stated that “Where India Pakistan relations are concerned, Chinese side should base its assessment on realities.”
There is little doubt that both sides are trying hard to maintain the Wuhan Spirit: indeed, Jaishankar’s visit itself was meant to prepare the ground for a second informal summit between Modi and Xi to be held in October in India. But there is also little doubt that the Article 370 issue has created a fresh bone of contention between India and China.
Things have possibly gotten worse because China has also pushed for a discussion on India’s actions in the UN Security Council. The discussion was originally sought by Pakistan but it was rejected by the Polish Permanent Representative, who is currently chairing the UN Security Council. But China put its shoulders behind Pakistan’s request and forced a discussion in the UN Security Council, though it was a closed-door “informal consultations” rather than an open one which China had originally wanted. It appears that during the consultations, the United States and France strongly supported the Indian position that the issue was an internal matter while China was of the opinion that what India had done was a unilateral action that should not have been undertaken.
India is unlikely to take kindly China’s behavior. It is clear that both India and China want to maintain the Wuhan Spirit especially given the multiple tensions and uncertainties that both countries face internationally and domestically. But there is also little doubt that though the Wuhan spirit may continue, it is under serious strain.
This commentary originally appeared in The Diplomat.