Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing on April 22, 2018. Photo: Reuters via Madoka Ikegami/Pool
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing on April 22, 2018. Photo: Reuters via Madoka Ikegami/Pool

The doomsday predictions of an impending India-China confrontation in the Himalayas are petering out. The two countries are earnestly exploring a pathway to lead them to a détente.

This is the most obvious meaning of the announcement by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on Sunday that an informal meeting has been scheduled between President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 27-28 in Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province.

Wang was addressing a joint press conference with India’s visiting External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

By making the formal announcement in the presence of Swaraj, Beijing showed respect and high regard for the low-profile, self-effacing Indian minister who had suggested informal meetings between the two leaders to stabilize Sino-Indian ties and launch relations on a higher trajectory during Wang’s visit to Delhi last December.

The idea of an “informal meeting” is innovative and in the India-China context today it signifies a breakthrough. Xinhua cited Wang as saying that the new format aimed at “strategic communication on the world’s profound changes, and exchange, in an in-depth manner, views on overall, long-term and strategic issues regarding China-India relations.”

Beijing keen to deepen mutual trust

The Chinese side hopes to develop a “big picture” for the relationship from a long-term strategic perspective. The intention is to avoid the past mistake of missing the wood for the trees.

More importantly, Wang underscored that the informal meeting would “help deepen mutual trust between the two leaders, make strategic judgment on world patterns and China-India relations, and guide the two countries to set new goals and open up new prospects for bilateral ties.” He was confident that such a process “not only benefits the two countries and peoples, but will also exert significant and positive influence on regional and world peace and development.”

Wang described China and India as “natural cooperation partners.” He summed up, “The two countries should take the opportunity of the leaders’ meeting to cement strategic trust, deepen substantial cooperation, properly settle disputes and realize common development, therefore contributing to regional and world peace and development.” These are hugely significant remarks underlining China’s expectations. 

Indeed, the new format can be expected to incrementally develop a critical mass of strategic understanding, while being flexible enough to create space for each side to pursue its interests in the international arena. The format presents a novel experience for India, whose diplomacy traditionally moved within structured grooves.

Although Swaraj’s proposal regarding the informal meeting took over four months to germinate on Chinese soil, much has been happening in this period. The turning point was the visit by India’s newly appointed Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale to Beijing in February. Beijing has confidence in Gokhale, a former envoy to China, to bring new thinking into the bilateral relationship. China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou conveyed the dates for the Wuhan meeting to Gokhale during his “return” visit to Delhi in early April.

Suffice to say, the meeting in Wuhan will be anything but an impromptu encounter. Interestingly, Modi is undertaking an overnight trip and will have several hours of talks with Xi.

Both countries disenchanted with the US

The conversation will be imbued with what wang described as “the world’s profound changes.” Both China and India feel disenchanted with the United States – each for its own reasons – and there is no doubt that the two countries are stakeholders in free trade and globalization. And India has no illusions that President Donald Trump has the trade balance with India in his sights, too.

Despite Modi’s best efforts to draw the US into a relationship that would help in his vision to transform India as an emerging power, all he got was a periodic flow of mellifluous rhetoric pandering to Indian vanities. Modi, a down-to-earth politician with native Indian wisdom, knows that it is empty vessels that make big noise.

The US has been largely focused on penetrating the Indian market for its exports – military exports, in particular. Equally, India understands that there is no such thing as a “Thucydides trap” threatening US-China relations and Washington’s strategy is to negotiate more effectively with China – be it under Barack Obama or Trump.

In the Asian scenario too, Modi places great store in India’s relations with Russia and Iran and will not be stopped on his track by Trump’s policies. Trump placed India on a high pedestal in his so-called South Asia strategy in relation to the Afghan war, but Delhi harbors profound misgivings regarding the war itself and the lack of transparency in the US approach.

A significant outcome of the Wuhan meeting could well be that India and China work together to strengthen regional security. The Wuhan meeting will be taking place just six weeks before the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao (which Modi is due to attend).

Modi keen for big Chinese investments

The strategic communication aims to harmonize the two countries’ South Asian policies. The effort will be to avoid treading on each other’s toes while pursuing legitimate interests. The bottom line is that Modi is keen to draw big-time Chinese investments into the Indian economy. And on its part, China sees the Indian economy as the last frontier.

But mutual confidence is needed. Nepal becomes a test case with Beijing repeatedly signaling interest in a trans-Himalayan economic corridor to India. Meanwhile, Delhi has visibly toned down its skepticism regarding China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Delhi has reached this point after a long four-year path of confronting China – a tortuous sojourn that eventually proved futile, counter-productive and unsustainable. Modi’s own instincts would have been to create a foreign-policy legacy by transforming India’s relationship with China, and ironically, Beijing also probably saw in him initially a rare forceful Indian leader with whom it could do business.

But Modi ran into strong headwinds from powerful quarters within India, which viewed China’s rise through a prism of envy, suspicion and fear, mixed with an irrational sense of rivalry and paranoia, which was of course steadily fuelled by western think tanks and media. These forces (and affiliated interest groups) still remain very much at large. But, if any Indian leader has the grit and tenacity to put them on a tight leash, only Modi could do that. The Chinese most likely realize that too.

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