A rapprochement with China is no lesser in India's interest but it has to be realised with mutual understanding and similar responses

by Abhishek Pratap Singh

The foreign policy establishment in New Delhi, especially scholars and experts dealing with China are making for the setting of ‘reset' button between the two countries. Despite differences over issues like India's membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, the CPEC and widening trade deficit with India, the 73-day long Doklam standoff was no less a reflection of ‘low point' in India-China relations. Post-Doklam the timeline witnessed apparent expression from India to put the bilateral relations on track, with more ‘sincere and cultivated efforts', keeping in mind the existing power gap. Despite these efforts, mutual ties slipped down in the last years, thus making way for an 'informal meeting' between the leadership of both countries.

In last couple of months, a number of high-level visits have taken place between both the countries. Leaders of both countries reiterated in their meetings at Astana and Xiamen that differences must not be allowed to become a dispute. In December 2017, Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog Rajiv Kumar visited China to hold bilateral talks with China's leading think-tank, the Development Research Center of the State Council. This followed a missive from Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale who asked functionaries to keep away from ‘Thank You India' events being organised by the Tibetan Government in exile. Later on, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India in March and then Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval too visited China. Much recently, the visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Ministerial summit and subsequently the visit of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman to China are in the same direction. The meeting between the two Defence Ministers discussed the dates of bilateral military exercise ‘hand-in-hand' between the two countries that remained suspended given the standoff last year.

In the given context and present situation of India-China relations, the question of setting the ‘reset button' must be understood with much pragmatism. While some identified the present efforts as ‘corrective measures' to dissuade Chinese concerns over India's strategic proximity to the US, some sensed a political rationale in it on the part of the Government to avoid any kind face-off in the coming months. In both cases, the present efforts make a ‘meaningful case' for India, which has for long attributed maintenance of ‘strategic autonomy' and ‘peaceful borderland' as its key foreign policy objective. It also needs to be seen how much these developments make up for resetting of mutual ties between India and China. For example, the shifting of venue from New Delhi to Dharamshala marking 60-year celebration of Dalai Lama's arrival to India and the last minute presence of senior Cabinet Minister for the event shows the political limitations of this exercise. 

Moreover, on the border issue itself, the scale and quality of transgression by the Chinese has been a concern for India, including Depsang, Chumar, and Doklam. This happened when both the sides were having constant high-level visits; even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met in last years. Certainly, it must also be accepted that despite differences on various issues, both countries have shown interest for cooperation in some sectors. China played a helping hand for India in grey-listing Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force meeting on terror financing. Recently, China and India have initiated discussions to jointly use their leverage in oil price negotiations. In addition, both the countries are having cooperation in global climate change negotiations.

Not necessarily every Chinese plan is to be understood as directed towards India, and is more likely to be driven by domestic, political and economic compulsions. Similarly, India's drive away from long-established ‘strategic reticence' is desired by its more aspirational role in global politics and not against China. Modi's recent visit to China for an ‘informal meeting' with Xi, much before the scheduled SCO summit in Qingdao in June, clearly spells out a clear signal that both countries are concerned about mutual ties. While much of these high-level visits are pre-planned and official, the Wuhan meeting reflects greater urgency and sense for engagement when other established mechanism have not been fruitful in bilateral relations. The two leaders in last 24 hours had six meetings in delegation level and one-to-one talks, discussing issues like trade, strategic military relations, tourism and other regional issues. As reported, both reiterated common threat of terrorism and likely cooperation in economic project on Afghanistan. Sailing in the same boat on the East Lake in Wuhan, both leaders reiterated for peace, prosperity, and development. Impressively, Modi underscored the importance of people-to-people contact between India and China by coining the idea of ‘STRENGTH', which makes for spirituality; tradition, trade, and technology; relationship; entertainment; nature conservation; games; tourism and health.

The key challenge before the ‘reset' exercise between both the leadership is that it should not be seen as an end in itself. As developments suggest no ‘joint statement' is likely to be expected after the Wuhan summit. The pre-preemptive display of expectations would have made the analysis of summit in a ‘zero sum game' mode assessing respective gains. Rather, the summit largely focuses on broader agenda keeping in mind the scope for positive engagements and cooperation in future. Interestingly, the success of resetting mutual ties cannot be attributed to any specific step or objective. The rapprochement with China is no lesser in India's interest but has to be realised with the mutual understanding and similar responses.