by Ananth Krishnan

India’s relations with China seem to lurch from talk of crisis to expectations of a grand reset. From talk of imminent war during the 72-day Doklam stand-off last year — at least among sections of the media — now the Narendra Modi government is being seen as trying to attempt a “reset” to turn the page.

Two recent developments have fuelled such talk. First, in March, the ministry of external affairs issued a “classified circular advisory advising all ministries/departments of Union government as well as state governments not to accept any invitation or to participate in the proposed commemorative events” organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala in April. This was seen as a shift in the government’s stand on Tibet, and by some as kowtowing to Chinese sensitivities.

Second, officials in Delhi have pointedly played down Chinese infrastructure construction on the Doklam plateau that abuts India, Bhutan and China, and was the scene of last year’s stand-off. China has beefed up its presence and built barracks on the plateau, although a few kilometres away from the site of last year’s stand-off which was barely a few hundred meters from the Indian border.

Yet, it may well be reading too much into both developments and somewhat premature to talk of a reset. On Tibet, it has been Delhi’s policy for years that senior officials do not attend events involving the government-in-exile or leaders of the Tibetan community. Perhaps, the only recent exception was Minister of State Kiren Rijiju accompanying the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, but that, officials stressed including to their Beijing counterparts, was not as a representative of the centre but as an Arunachal representative. So the circular appears more of a reminder of what’s been followed in the past ahead of April’s anniversary events, rather than a new line.

Doklam also appears far from resolved or settled, and the prospect of a flare-up cannot be ruled out. That was hinted by India’s envoy to China, Gautam Bambawale in an interview last week to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. While arguing there was “no change taking place today” in any “sensitive area” in the Doklam plateau and Chinese barracks were “well behind the sensitive area”, he added that “if anyone changes the status quo, it will lead to a situation like what happened in Doklam.” If the road-building resumed at the “sensitive area”, in other words, we would be back to where we were last August.

Bambawale also suggested any compromise on the Belt and Road Initiative remains unlikely, saying India’s view was that “one of the norms is the project should not violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country. Unfortunately, there is this thing called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is called a flagship project of Belt and Road Initiative, which violates India’s sovereignty and territory integrity. Therefore, we oppose it.”

As tempting as it is to see the relationship in black-and-white of crises and resets, the reality is grey: one of a complex relationship of areas of both discord and concord. That balance is unlikely to change, talk of resets notwithstanding, and managing these difficulties is what both sides appear to be attempting, if only because it suits the interests of both Delhi and Beijing, at least for the moment.