Last month's meeting of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi does not herald a new strategic partnership - but Asia's two largest powers can move forward with clarity. The summit offered no dramatic breakthroughs, but may be a step toward better long-term relations. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Xi Jinping in Wuhan, April 18. Credit: Flick/meaindiaBy Antoine Levesques, IISS Research Associate for South Asia

India’s PM Modi and China’s president Xi have agreed to restate the terms of their bilateral ties following their countries’ most difficult year in a generation. The pledge was announced after an informal summit in China last month, which took place amid fast-changing major power relations in Asia.

The news may herald symbolic and practical gains for Asia’s two largest countries, both of which are nuclear-armed, as well as a net improvement to stability on the continent. For all the two leaders’ personal contributions to building mutual trust, their countries’ respective interests will continue to only partially converge. But the summit sought to set the foundation for both countries to continue prospering without having to worry overly about the other.

‘Informal’ summit breaks new ground

The informal nature of the 27–28 April summit was unprecedented, as was the fact that it had, in India’s words, ‘no agenda’. But the choreography of the event delivered each side’s intended message, as much to onlookers at home and abroad as to the other participant.

Xi has twice bilaterally hosted Modi, the only foreign leader (other than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un) to receive such an invitation. The first meeting took place in Xi’an in 2015 and last month’s in picturesque Wuhan, where Mao Zedong, Xi’s peer in Chinese history books, once lived. The two statesmen were seen taking a lakeside walk, and enjoying a tea ceremony and museum tour given by Xi. Full delegation talks concluded without the need for a joint statement, thanks to the event’s informal status. Instead, China reciprocated India’s statement.

Xi and Modi had last met in September after abruptly ending a ten-week military standoff on their contested, un-demarcated border, the most serious such confrontation since 1987. Although no shots were fired, thousands of troops had been on standby. Rhetoric unseen since the China–India war in 1962 had severely narrowed all-important face-saving options.

That meeting in Xiamen (also in China) triggered a protracted surge of meetings across 30 established bilateral dialogues, particularly those involving the countries’ national security advisers, foreign and defence ministers. Last month’s summit in Wuhan, capping off this period of re-engagement, followed public displays of goodwill by both India and China.

As well as pulling back from the border standoff, the two nations have been brought together by concerns including rising US-led tit-for-tat trade protectionism. China also now looks to India as Asia’s fastest-growing major economy, a market it wants access to (although China’s economy is still four times bigger and the gap increasing – a fact that means Chinese defence spending will continue to vastly outstrip that of India).

The last year has seen the US overtly designate China as a strategic competitor, sharpening apprehensions of competition across the Indo-Pacific, in such a way that could push India closer to the US and away from its immediate neighbour. India also worries that the threat posed by an emerging China–Russia–Pakistan axis may further force it to abandon some of its strategic autonomy from the US. Finally, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal looks set to have a number of negative economic and political implications for India, including possibly upsetting its plans with Afghanistan around Iran’s Chabahar port.

Progress, but no fresh start

The summit did not achieve enough of immediate practical value to qualify as a new start, let alone a ‘reset’. Neither side’s statements contained specific, bold initiatives. Trust-building steps had been agreed in the period before the meeting, including the restoration of an annual bilateral counterterrorism exercise and the sharing of Himalayan water data.

Politically significant, however, was the intention to identify joint economic projects in Afghanistan. The idea is not entirely new, but the decision to actually implement it shows India and China are willing and able to ring-fence new areas of cooperation outside the two countries’ borders. Afghanistan welcomes this step. The two sides also committed to ‘more mature and wise’ border management, through the better implementation of existing measures and possibly new steps such as patrol coordination.

Misplaced comparisons with the 1987–88 cycle of tension and détente had unhelpfully heightened expectations for the summit. Modi’s critics at home raised the stakes before the meeting and denigrated him for underachievement afterwards, sometimes harshly. But China’s ambassador to New Delhi, senior Indian officials and an influential politician had deliberately balanced realistic expectations with celebrations of newfound momentum.

India officially approached the meeting from a ‘strategic and long-term perspective’, while China expected discussion of ‘overall, long-term and strategic issues’. Set in this light, the summit achieved two notable successes.

Clarity and a closer relationship

First, Xi and Modi are putting ever greater faith in each other. Last week they spent at least eight hours in direct conversation together. Wuhan was the pair’s 14th meeting since their first encounter in Brazil in July 2014.

Their gamble is that greater personalisation of their relationship will help, rather than undermine, their bilateral cooperation institutions. Xi’s recent tightening of his grip on China’s Communist Party and government makes the case for speaking to him in person stronger than ever. For New Delhi, this offers a greater guarantee that China will keep to its word. The success of this diplomatic experience with Xi may otherwise be a reason why Modi will be similarly meeting Russia’s president next week.

Over four years, both Xi and Modi have drawn on nationalism as a domestic resource. But unlike Xi, Modi faces a long campaign to retain a strong parliamentary majority from India’s general election, which is set to take place by spring 2019. A seat-wise win this week in the key Karnataka state poll, along with a still weak and nationally divided opposition, make a Modi second term more likely than not. So China’s leader (like many others) is safely betting he can reckon with Modi until 2024. Neither want a ‘Doklam 2.0’ to upset this bet in the next year, in reference to last year’s standoff.

The second success is that India and China have now vented all pent-up acrimony and anxiety. Since September 2014 these feelings have driven an action-reaction-counter-reaction cycle and diplomatic muddle. Better still, both countries have saved face by finding a way to publicly and diplomatically acknowledge the greater number and breadth of their disagreements.

Most importantly, both sides are confident enough to no longer seek to agree to disagree on key issues. In effect, they are officially recognising open-ended differences. Such realistic, eyes-wide-open language is unprecedented in a generation. New tacit understandings are in place regarding what is or is not ‘the status quo’, most importantly on border issues. This matters because India and China are both revisionist powers, but with different goals.

Tensions and unresolved issues remain

Wuhan was never intended to alleviate or address the underlying, sharpening strategic competition between the two neighbours, described to the IISS by one senior Indian official as ‘contestation without confrontation’. Besides their outstanding territorial disputes the two nations openly disagree on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its Pakistan offshoot and Indian Ocean waypoint, as well as India’s bid to join an export controls group or bringing United Nations sanctions against Pakistani terrorists. Both sides acknowledged that terrorism was discussed at Wuhan, but none of the other big issues listed above were touched on.

China’s worries include a re-launched grouping of US, Indian, Australian and Japanese diplomats, which it sees as carrying anti-China and encirclement undertones. Beijing has also taken note of France’s ‘Paris–Delhi–Canberra axis’. During the summit India said new security posts will be built on the disputed border, and the country moved troops there during a recent military exercise. New Delhi is also looking to exert influence in the Indian Ocean before China’s military inroads there make this task harder.

The use or otherwise of a pre-existing high-level military hotline will indicate how willing and able India and China to implement the resolutions made at Wuhan. Since the meeting, China has eased export duties on medicines to lighten the historic trade deficit. Generally, the summit has set China and India up for a good year at least, with implementation a priority.

Xi and Modi now have the latitude to build new mechanisms or repurpose existing ones to better manage their bilateral relations. They next meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s annual summit in June, the first that India will attend as full member. They will meet again at the forthcoming BRICS and G20 meetings too.

Some of the clear-eyed optimism generated by the Wuhan summit will no doubt be on display when Modi addresses the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue next month. Defence ministers from other major powers will study the nuances of his speech to assess how the Wuhan meeting has shaped India–China relations and what this means for Asia’s increasingly networked security.

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