India and China are locked in a heated border standoff. Image: Facebook

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan on April 27-28. During their informal summit, the leaders met on six occasions; two were with aides, while the other four were with just translators in attendance. The shadow of the 79-day standoff between the armies of the two countries at Doklam last year was expected to fade and a warmer relationship to take wings after the summit.

Such expectations were being driven by both the Indian and the Chinese media well before the meet. The media hype preceding the summit was as high-pitched as it was when the armies of the two countries stood face-to-face in Doklam a few months back.

However, the Chinese media coverage of the summit was in absolute contrast to the reporting witnessed during the standoff at Doklam. At Doklam it was shrill, threatening, derisive of the Indians, and hugely vocal of the Chinese remaining steadfast in their plans of constructing a road in neighboring Bhutan. So aggressive was the Chinese press that it almost painted the Chinese government into a corner, limiting its flexibility in responding to the challenge at the border. This time, however, the Chinese press started its coverage of the summit by painting a very positive picture.

The Indian press meanwhile went its normal diverse ways, with most of it supportive of the necessity for the two countries to ease tensions and focus on economic growth. Some reports derided the Modi government, viewing his journey to Wuhan as an Indian come-down.

A few press reports were perhaps too lofty in their expectations. The summit was going to be a turning point according to these reports, with China and India pressing the reset button in their relationship and accelerating the gradual erosion of US influence. These predictions gathered strength from the April 16 meeting of the fourth Japan-China high-level economic dialogue in Tokyo, after eight years. A new economic axis of Japan, China and India was waiting to be hatched, according to them.

With the dust having settled, the issues that the two leaders addressed in Wuhan, or at least some of them, are out in the open. What followed the media hype is surely an interesting run of events.

Among the more interesting announcements is the probability of the two countries funding projects in Afghanistan together. Pakistan’s reticence to such a collaboration may be expected, but Chinese collaboration with India could serve as an insurance against attacks on the projects in Afghanistan. The projects could also open up similar possibilities of cooperation between the two nations in third countries.

The two leaders accepted that they have overlapping global interests, and the need for strategic communications on such issues. Surely, if the existing institutional channels of communications were objectively used, there would be better understanding between the two

The two leaders also accepted that they have overlapping global interests, and the need for strategic communications on such issues. Surely, if the existing institutional channels of communications were objectively used, there would be better understanding between the two, and if the Indian prime minister’s invitation for a similar informal summit in 2019, which has apparently been accepted by Xi, goes through, the borders along the Himalayan ranges will retain their peaceful serenity, and the Indian Ocean may also not turn stormy too early.

A major decision arrived upon is the issuing of strategic guidelines to their militaries by the two leaders. Though this meet was projected as one meant to address “overarching issues of bilateral and global importance,” surely equally important was building trust between the two countries. Neither side can afford another Doklam or, for that matter, a repeat of previous standoffs like the one at Daulat Beg Oldie for three weeks in 2013, or even Chumar in 2014. Such incidents actuate a slide in the relationship between the two neighbors.

Indians are also fed up with the Chinese “salami slicing” tactics. Every year they push their graziers a couple of hundred meters into Indian territory and then insist on the encroached area being Chinese. It is to be hoped that the strategic guidelines will include strict maintenance of status quo.

There was no mention of a US trade war and sanctions on China that have a bearing on more than US$100 billion worth of Chinese exports. Indians also have over more than $100 billion worth business in the information-technology sector in the US. No concerted stand by the two countries to face the US protectionist measures was announced.

However, the Indian prime minister reminded the world in his speech that in the last 2,000 years, India and China have led the global economy, with a 50% share for 1,600 years. From a historical point of view, the two economies synergizing once again could actually accelerate the global center of gravity’s shift to the east.

The two leaders also addressed the issue of the yawning trade gap between their countries. India exports $12 billion worth, while the Chinese pump in $70 billion – mostly in goods. Obviously, it’s an equation that isn’t sustainable. Specifics are not there in the releases, but Indian business enterprises, especially in the pharmaceutical industry and the agricultural sector, have been awaiting the opening up of the Chinese market for long.

Both countries condemned terrorism in all forms while skirting specifics. Just days before the summit, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had addressed a meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization foreign ministers. In her address the primary focus was on terror. Her resonant speech was expected to trigger a more deliberate response at the Modi-Xi summit.

Other issues that Indians were looking forward to were the situation in Maldives and continuing accretions in Chinese presence. Also of great interest was the Chinese stance at the next Nuclear Suppliers Group Meeting. Would they allow Indian membership to go through?

The Chinese would have similarly wanted to know about what India plans to do with the Tibetan Government in Exile. They would have been keen to know about India’s stance on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping of India, Australia, Japan and the US. Xi would also have engaged Modi on the South China Sea issue. A possible change in India’s stance on the Belt and Road Initiative would also have been a Chinese priority.

The summit has definitely cast the Doklam shadow away. However, how the relationship progresses depends a lot on peace and tranquility along the borders. Neither country will accept adjustments where its core interests lie; it is the focus on greater economic cooperation and continued dialogue that could avert confrontations.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.

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