Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit last year. Photo: AFP

Recent developments suggest a convergence of Indian and Chinese interests, marking a turning point for the two countries’ bilateral relationship after the 73-day standoff at Doklam last year.

Two simultaneous developments took place in July – in Bhutan and in Africa – in the run-up to the 10th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In Bhutan, just before the term of the country’s current National Assembly was to expire, a high-level delegation led by China’s new Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited the capital city Thimphu on July 22-24. Accompanying him was China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui.

Kong and his delegation held high-level meetings with Bhutan’s heads of state including reigning monarch King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, among others. The visit took place less than a year after the Doklam standoff involving India, China and Bhutan cooled down, and in the run-up to Bhutan’s National Assembly election scheduled for October.

An outreach effort may be on the way, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reportedly scheduled to visit Bhutan after October, while Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe might visit India later this year.

While the Chinese delegation was visiting Bhutan, Modi embarked on July 23 on a three-nation Africa visit, to Rwanda, Uganda and finally to South Africa to attend the July 26 BRICS Summit.

In Uganda, Modi announced 18 new Indian embassies across Africa and outlined 10 principles that he said would guide India’s engagement with Africa – offering alternatives to China’s engagement on the continent. Modi’s Rwanda visit came a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the country after a stopover in Senegal on his way to the BRICS Summit.

Crossroads in Africa and Bhutan

Modi’s and Xi’s visits to the African countries were not surprising, as the symbolism involved is high: Rwanda, where both leaders visited, is the 2018 chair of the African Union; Senegal is the chair of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development; Uganda’s relevance for India lies in its Indian diaspora base and significant historical relations.

Moreover, all these developments took place not only in the run-up to the 10th BRICS Summit but also in the backdrop of a recent period in which the Chinese media have been taking a relatively less aggressive stance vis-a-vis India. Yet even as Xi focused on extending his legacy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in Senegal and Rwanda, Modi highlighted India as an alternative to China in African countries.

On the other hand, in Bhutan, Kong was engaging the country’s leadership on the BRI and border demarcation. His visit was significant for various reasons but stood out particularly because it took place without the usual prior announcement.

However, Kong had visited India twice in 2018; Lieutenant-General Liu Xiaowu, the deputy commander of the Western Theater Command based out of Chengdu in Sichuan province and in charge of Tibet and Xinjiang, visited India in July; and Bhutanese Prime Minister Tobgay also visited in July. It was also reported that Bhutan had kept India “in the loop” regarding Kong’s Bhutan visit.

Border demarcation issue

Interestingly, the governments of Bhutan and China issued press statements that wildly varied in length. The press release issued by Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was brief and generic, didn’t divulge much save for the names of the dignitaries Kong met, and stated that they “discussed matters of mutual interest.”

Conversely, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a detailed statement on the visit, outlining China’s priorities and the interactions held in Bhutan. The statement said Kong had conveyed that “the two sides should continue to push forward the border negotiations, abide by the principled consensus reached, jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas, and create positive conditions for the final settlement of the border issue.”

In his regular press briefing on July 24, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated that “the two sides exchanged in-depth views on the China-Bhutan relations and border issues and reached common understandings.”

Given the context of the border-demarcation issue over which the military standoff took place last year, India’s absence at a high-level meeting between China and Bhutan (which don’t share formal diplomatic relations) on this very issue was conspicuous.

Changing relations

Intriguingly, Kong’s Bhutan visit came a month after Ambassador Luo had suggested trilateral cooperation among India, China and Pakistan under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). But New Delhi clarified that it had not received such a suggestion from Beijing, and that “matters related to India-Pakistan relations are purely bilateral in nature and have no scope for involvement of any third country.”

New Delhi has also not endorsed the BRI, and along with India, Bhutan is the only other South Asian country that skipped the 2017 Belt and Road Summit in Beijing. Nonetheless, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s July 24 press release, Bhutan conveyed that it “welcomes the positive outcomes of the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping,” and that it “stands ready to maintain communication with the Chinese side on bilateral relations and the boundary issue.”

In April, Modi and Xi had met for an unprecedented informal summit in Wuhan, China. Shortly thereafter, India and China (among others) highlighted their preference for a multilateral world order at the June SCO summit. More recently, it was reported that in the BRICS Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting, “The parties agreed to further strengthen macroeconomic policy coordination under the G20 framework, jointly oppose trade protectionism, and promote a strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth of the global economy.”

These developments hint at a crossroads for Indian and Chinese interests. A rush for outreach, as seen currently, is not unusual in international affairs, but tensions in the New Delhi-Beijing bilateral relationship had to be creatively managed via a summit like Wuhan.

Thus in the backdrop of constructive engagement and competition between India and China on multiple global issues, Kong’s discussions on border demarcation and the BRI-related objectives in Bhutan merit interest. The upcoming year appears all set to be a busy and interesting one for New Delhi and Beijing.

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Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy is a New Delhi-based foreign and security policy analyst. She is the deputy director at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi, where she also coordinates the Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)

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