INDIA and China have a historically hostile relationship, so too much should not be expected from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘informal’ summit with President Xi Jinping at Wuhan last week. No one should be under an illusion that a tree of friendship has been planted and we have only to wait patiently for the fruits. There have been many ‘summits’ before between Indian prime ministers and Chinese presidents, and yet the start of making of a long-distance road has eluded. Expectations are raised of course when leaders of the two nations meet. When Rajiv Gandhi met Deng Xiaoping, hopes were aroused about the two countries moving ahead, keeping their unresolved disputes aside. Similarly when Modi first met Jinping, people expected the bilateral relationship was going to improve. But then last year, the two militaries locked horns at the Doklam plateau on the Himalayas on the India-Bhutan-China borders on dispute over the ownership of the land through which the Chinese army was building a road. India opposed the road construction. The Doklam plateau is a vantage place as it overlooks the thin but vital Siliguri corridor (‘Chicken Neck’) that connects Northeastern states to the rest of India. India could have allowed China to take hold of Doklam much to its peril. The standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies continued for more than two and half months. The issue is not yet resolved. There is only status quo.
Every now and then China raises objections to some activity in Arunachal Pradesh, claiming a large part of it as Chinese territory. Beijing expressed resentment over the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. While China keeps making claims over a large part of Arunachal Pradesh, when it comes to India’s territorial claims in Kashmir, Beijing does not respect Delhi’s concerns. China has not accepted India’s objections to the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. China claims Pakistan’s permission to be enough for construction through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, ignoring the fact that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is claimed by India as a part of Jammu and Kashmir on the basis of historical documents. China loves to cite historical documents and evidence to support its territorial claims against India, but when India bases its territorial claims on historical documents – in the case of Kashmir, the document of accession to India by the Maharaja of Kashmir who owned the whole territory of Kashmir split into two parts owing to occupation of a part by Pakistan – Beijing does not accept them. China has been constructing roads and setting up military vantage points around India’s northern periphery. China has been unconditionally backing Pakistan despite the global denunciation of Islamabad for fostering terror groups. Whenever the world condemns Islamabad for promoting terrorist organizations, Beijing comes out with the defence that Pakistan should not be blamed as it has suffered no less from terrorism.
And yet, a dialogue always helps. It is only through dialogue that disputes can be resolved. What Doklam showed was that at least neither India nor China wants to solve a dispute using their militaries. Perhaps both the countries have realized that a war would cripple their economies. One thing that seems to be clear is that both countries want to focus on their economic growth. That is why despite hundreds of bilateral disputes and the historical hostility the two nations are willing to engage in a dialogue to see how one can benefit economically from the other. It is interesting to note that though disputes continue in other areas, the two nations have not allowed their trade and commercial relationship to be adversely influenced by them. Issues of ‘dumping’ and smuggling of Chinese goods do arise, but these are legal issues and do not affect the overall framework of bilateral economic exchange to which both countries have remained committed. In short, though China and India are at the top of the list of emerging economies and are in competition with each other, they have not followed a restrictive policy toward each other in trade and commerce.
However, summit meetings between leaders of India and China are not only about each country trying to get the best deal from the other to take their economy ahead of one another. It is also about regional and global power equations. China’s position as the deciding strategic force in East Asia has got eroded with the two Koreas choosing to meet on their own to commit to denuclearization. The US is playing the ‘big brother’ role, rather than China, in Korea. We hope that, in such a humbling moment for China, Modi has got some good deals out of Jinping.