The 21st round of the Special Representative talks between India and China scheduled for this Friday and Saturday come nearly exactly a year after the 20th round held in December 2017. They also follow a series of events that have led to the upscaling of India-China exchanges after the lull caused by and after the Doklam crisis of 2017.
These will be the last talks before India’s next general election in the summer of 2019. This will also be the first time Wang Yi will represent China, after replacing Yang Jiechi as foreign minister.
Since Doklam, various exchanges aimed at improving the relations between the two countries have taken place. The “informal” Wuhan Summit was of course the most significant one. It was an effort to bring the relations back on track and possibly to put an end to the cyclical patterns they seemed to have gotten into.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the Chinese leadership in quick succession twice after Wuhan, at the Qingdao Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Johannesburg meeting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
Soon after that, other developments began to take place.
India and China have started joint training of Afghan diplomats. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fanghe visited India for a dialogue with Home Minister Rajnath Singh in August. The Annual Defense Dialogue between the two countries’ defense secretaries was held in Beijing on November 13. Moreover, the stalled hand-in-hand exercises are likely to resume later this year after being deferred in the wake of the Doklam standoff.
Export of Indian rice to China is set to begin this quarter. Also, China is set to start importing rapeseed meal from India after a gap of six years, after it was banned because of contamination. In addition, pharmaceutical exports from India to China will begin soon. Information-technology exports and partnerships are also likely to increase in the days to come. These have been long-standing demands that according to India would restore faith in China’s sincerity about bilateral relations.
Even then the fundamental issue that stalls India-China relations from qualitative progress has not really changed over the period. China’s continuous backing of Pakistan and refusal to recognize India’s pre-eminence in South Asia irks New Delhi.
However, other significant geopolitical changes form the backdrop of the upcoming talks. The present exchanges come amid drastically altered geopolitical perceptions of both India and China.
China’s trade disputes with the US have altered Indo-Pacific politics to a great extent. The trade restrictions and decoupling process are likely to hurt not only China’s economy, but also that of US allies like Japan and South Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to Beijing also alters many calculations.
Abe’s visit gave an indication that Japan and China have settled the tensions developed since the nationalization of a group of disputed islands. Some have also treated this as Tokyo coming to terms with China’s rise.
The desire to seek a “new trajectory” may also have been pushed by US President Donald Trump’s disruptive policies in the Indo-Pacific region. As Japan also has been hit with US tariffs on its steel and aluminum exports, mutual tariff burdens provided an opportunity for the two to rebuild their relations and expand bilateral investments to counter the effects of the US tariffs.
From China’s perspective, the recast China-Japan relations could also ease its perceptions of Indo-Pacific architecture, which it saw as imminently and potently directed toward itself. This perception would also have spilled over into India-China confidence-building as well.
The Special Representative–level talks between India and China were initially envisaged to be confined to looking for a solution regarding the border dispute. The aim of an early solution regarding the boundary issue is the product of the 2003 and 2005 agreements between the two countries.
Achieving a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution for the India-China boundary question at an early date remains the mandate of the Special Representative talks. The second stated objective is “pending the final resolution of the boundary question, to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas.”
However, many experts privy to the process have hinted that gradually the second objective has largely superseded the former more core one. It would be extremely desirable if the Special Representatives strove to take the process toward the first objective sooner, leaving the rest of the rather routine work to the other appropriate processes.