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On India-China ties, Modi and Xi have the will. Do they have a way?

October 23, 2019 Ananth Krishnan, 2019 AsiaGlobal Fellow

On India-China ties, Modi and Xi have the will. Do they have a way?

  • The two leaders have pressed ahead with their ‘informal summits’ despite little prospect of progress on long-standing trade and territorial disputes
  • Building confidence is the key, the thinking goes, even if it means sweeping some things under the carpet

As the dust settles on the “informal summit” at the weekend between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping, attention turns from the impressive seaside optics created in Mamallapuram to the actual takeaways. What did the two-day meeting on the seashore achieve? The verdict among India’s community of political strategists appears somewhat divided. Just as with the first informal summit at Wuhan in April last year, when Modi travelled to China barely eight months after one of the worst border crises in recent India-China history, the event near Chennai has been derided by some as all style and no substance.

It has been suggested that these summits – which come without the formal joint statements and agreements usually accompanying state visits – are merely an attempt to brush under the carpet the many very real problems between the neighbours. Kapil Sibal of India’s opposition Congress party, for instance, derided Modi and instead asked him to “show Xi his 56-inch chest” by telling the Chinese leader “to vacate 5,000km of land in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”.

India and China are, regardless, pushing ahead with this new mechanism of exchanges. Xi invited Modi to visit China in 2020 for a third summit that would hold added significance as the year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. The two leaders agreed an ambitious plan to mark the occasion by holding 70 events in India and China, with several high-level visits in the works.

One of the criticisms of the two informal summits has been that both sides have not made headway in resolving some of their key outstanding differences, from the unresolved boundary dispute on the Doklam plateau near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, to the trade deficit, and more recently, China’s increasingly apparent support for Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute.

But resolving these intractable issues – many of which have a long and complicated history – was never the intention behind the summit. The idea was not for Xi and Modi to go through a list of the issues and check them off one by one, the prospect of which was, in any case, rather remote.

The objective was more about trying to find some broad common ground in their respective outlooks on the future of their relationship. By doing so, the hope was to manage or contain these differences, while ensuring some degree of predictability in relations and pushing ahead in other areas.

And here there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic about where India-China relations are headed.

Firstly, that Xi has laid out a clear direction for the relationship will certainly filter down the Chinese system and send a positive signal, whether to Chinese companies or to provincial governments that do business with India. This carries some value in of itself. Xi suggested to Modi, according to official remarks released later by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that both countries “map out a 100-year plan to rejuvenate ties” so that “differences should not dim the overall situation of bilateral cooperation”. He also called for “timely and effective strategic communication” to address problems and ensure that differences that could not be resolved would be managed properly.

“Differences should not turn into disputes”, is the current mantra for India-China relations. Its genesis was in the Modi-Xi meeting in Astana in June 2017, which was when Modi proposed starting an informal summit mechanism. Days later, the border stand-off at Doklam would unexpectedly dominate relations for 72 days. But so keen were both sides to go through with Modi’s idea that they decided, regardless of Doklam, to go ahead with the summit in Wuhan when they met in Xiamen that August at a meeting of BRICS countries.

Walking the walk will, however, require outcomes to instil confidence in the relationship. And this is the second reason why the Chennai summit took one step farther than Wuhan did. Perhaps the main takeaway from Mamallapuram was an agreement to set up a new economic and trade dialogue mechanism, to be headed by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua.

One of the big disappointments since Wuhan has been the lack of a follow through on China’s commitment to take concrete steps to open the door on a range of non-tariff barriers preventing the entry of Indian IT and pharmaceuticals into the China market as well as Indian agriculture exports, in order to address a massive trade imbalance. A recent agreement on pharmaceuticals is one small step forward, but companies remain sceptical that this will translate into policy changes on the ground.

The third possible takeaway is on the boundary question. While the slow-moving negotiations to settle the border dispute appear to have made no tangible progress since an agreement struck in 2005 on political parameters and guiding principles, the 18 months since Wuhan have been among the most peaceful on the border in years, with no major incident of the kind we saw in 2014, 2015 or 2017.

This is perhaps one of the underappreciated outcomes of the Wuhan meeting. In Chennai, Modi and Xi agreed the need to take this forward with more confidence-building measures.

How much of use that will be remains to be seen. While China is reportedly keen to introduce a code of conduct, the fact remains that India and China already have long-established systems and protocols in place to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border, dating back to 1993. Rather than introduce new ones, both sides would be better off fulfilling what they have already committed to, including clarifying the as yet undemarcated Line of Actual Control. The lack of clarity has been the main reason for stand-off incidents, and progress has stalled because China has been dragging its feet. There will always remain the likelihood of an unexpected border incident once again plunging the relationship into uncertainty.

None of the many problems the India-China relationship faces are likely to go away any time soon. Ties will always constitute a mix of cooperation and competition. And as interests expand, the areas where they are cooperating and competing are only ever increasing.

Yet the broader takeaway from Chennai is that if the political will to manage these problems remains, it could free up other new areas for the relationship, for instance, to take more ambitious steps on Chinese investments in India or on joint connectivity projects in third countries.

It is to Modi’s credit that he has been able to keep this engagement with Xi going forward regardless of his government being less risk-averse in deepening security relations with the United States and Japan – part of what his government calls a shift from being non-aligned to “multi-aligned”, with different partners on different issues.

The latest example of his appetite for risk was the abolition of the constitution’s Article 370, thereby ending the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which angered Pakistan and drew a strong response from China. Yet Xi came calling nonetheless, and despite some overeager Indian media reporting, the Chennai summit was never in doubt.

The road ahead for India and China is, as always, long and fraught. The pitfalls are numerous. But from Wuhan to Chennai, they are at least moving in the right direction, one careful step by one careful step.


This article first appeared in SCMP on October 18, 2019.

The views expressed in the reports featured are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute’s editorial policy.

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