Disputes and Dances: India hosts Summit to Build Bridges with China

While the international community had all its eyes fixed on the Turkish advances along its Syrian borders as well as President Trump’s impulsive tweets, across the ocean, leaders of the world’s two biggest countries – China and India – were trying to mend bridges. 

In a theatrical affair full of symbolisms, India’s Narendra Modi hosted his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for an informal summit in Mahabalipuram, a small town next to Chennai, with historical connections to China. This was the second in the series, with the last being held in April earlier this year with the invitation for a third extended and accepted as well. 

The buildup to the summit was far from positive, as Jinping was coming a day after hosting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan – who recently went on a tirade at the United Nations General Assembly against India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – with Beijing endorsing Islamabad’s stance on Kashmir. 

However, matters remained cordial at least on their surface value as the Chinese President received a warm welcome in Tamil style by the state’s governor and chief minister and to some Bharatnatyam dance. In a two-day event, the two sides discussed a host of issues ranging from trade and cultural exchanges to terrorism and border disputes, but issued separate statements. 

India, which has long been irked by its highly negative trade balance (worth $53 billion last year) with China, yet again raised this issue with the two countries announcing to establish a High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue mechanism, to be led by their respective finance ministers. This would aim at boosting trade volumes, thinning New Delhi’s trade deficit, and increasing investment in agreed sectors. 

While the topic of Kashmir was not expected to feature, the neighbours did discuss terrorism and countering its financing where India was expected to try to convince Beijing to withdraw its support for Pakistan in its upcoming review by the Financial Action Task Force a day later. Islamabad earlier this year had narrowly avoided the blacklist with support from Turkey as its all-weather friend China abstained from the vote. 

This time, though, Beijing reportedly supported Islamabad which escaped the blacklisting for at least another few months, raising questions over what exactly the summit managed to yield in the short-term for New Delhi. 

On the longstanding issue of border disputes, which brought the two countries to a military standoff in 2017, an statement issued from India said the two leaders “have welcomed the work of the Special Representatives and urged them to continue their efforts to arrive at a mutually-agreed framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement based on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles that were agreed by the two sides in 2005. They reiterated their understanding that efforts will continue to be made to ensure peace and tranquillity in the border areas, and that both sides will continue to work on additional Confidence Building Measures in pursuit of this objective.”

Beyond the optics and lofty talks of Wuhan spirit and Chennai connect were the respective statements from the two foreign ministries that noted the need for security and other cooperation as well as people-to-people exchanges. There were hardly any concrete agreements. Just plain press release talk.

And that is surprising to no one. While India and China have hardly ever been friends, the rivalry has lately picked pace thanks to the former’s rapid growth and emergence as an economic power. That has helped New Delhi develop a closer relationship with the United States which sees in it the best possible buffer to contain Beijing. 

Therefore, the more India turns westward and abandons its decades-old policy of non-alignment – as it increasingly has under the leadership of Narendra Modi – the more China sees a threat to its regional hegemony. Doesn’t come off as a surprise then that despite all advances at cooperation, Beijing has consistently opposed New Delhi’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group or a permanent seat at the Security Council. Hence, this policy of constant mistrust is going to stay so long as the geopolitical interests of the two states remain in contrast to each other.