Narendra Modi in China: When Dragon and Elephant Dance …

The two-day “informal” summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 27-28 was “nothing but extraordinary,” remarked Xi as he greeted the visiting Modi. Despite its “informal” format, the summit in the central Chinese city of Wuhan had reportedly achieved “broad consensus” through “in-depth exchanges of ideas regarding issues of global, long-term and strategic importance,” according to the Global Times in Beijing.

Informal but Important

Much of their nine-hour talks in two days covered the developmental strategies and governing methods of the two largest countries in the world.  Xi briefed Modi on China’s approaches to urbanization, urban-rural relations, and China’s current focus on quality of life through the “supply-side” of economics, meaning structural changes for producers to meet specific needs of China’s consumers. It remains to be seen how Xi’s “new era for building socialism of Chinese characteristics” and Modi’s “new India” would converge.

For Xi, mutual trust was the key for the stability and development of bilateral relations. Sino-India relationship was of strategic importance, given the two large Asian countries are not only the most rapidly developing markets, but also the main forces for global multipolarity and economic globalization. “The two agreed on the need to strengthen strategic communication through greater consultation on all matters of common interest,” said Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale after the summit.

Beyond bilateral ties, the two sides agreed on building an open, multi-polar and an open global economic order. Peaceful and stable India-China ties would be positive for global governance.

US Factor

It would be naive to expect that all the cumulative problems between the two largest Asian countries would evaporate with one summit. This informal meeting took place, however, against a backdrop of heightened US pressure on China, particularly US’ Indo-Pacific strategy with a visible Indian role in containing an ever rising China. The two-day summit apparently improved mutual trust so much that Modi’s invitation to Xi for the second one in India was immediately accepted. Any improvement of relations with India would reduce the likelihood of a C-shaped encirclement of China by the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. For his part, Modi said India pursued an independent foreign policy, globalization, multilateralism and democratization of international relations. These concepts run counter to Trump’s unilateralism and America-firstism. And Beijing would like to see that India live up to its declared independent posture in world affairs.

Bilateral Challenges and Opportunities

Beyond geopolitics, India and China have plenty of issues between themselves. The Tibet issue, though being managed, has not gone away. India still lives in the shadow of its 1962 war with China. The Kashmir issue and the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) remain irritants for India. The informal summit, nonetheless, represents a first step for the two giants to move toward a more pragmatic relationship after years of mutual suspicion.

One of the concrete results of the informal summit was a “strategic guidance to their…militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs,” according to the Indian media. The commitment to confidence building between the two militaries was both timely and vital given the 73-day standoff in June–August 2017 in the Doklam border area (dong lang洞朗in Chinese).  Now the two sides have made sure that their 3,488-km joint border would not see a repeat of the face-off that sent ties plummeting.

For India, China’s declared foreign economic policies provide India with specific benefits, while the US factor remains uncertain. It happened that trade with China increased steadily since 2014. In 2017, bilateral trade grew 20% to $84.4 billion, and India’s exports to China jumped 40%. Meanwhile, China’s investment in India increased by 40% as major Chinese appliance and electronics companies continue to invest in India. All these developments require the two sides to synchronize with one another in an ever changing world in which more than a third of the population (2.6 billion) are Chinese and Indian. The benefit from cooperation is for sure while the cost for confrontation is also guaranteed. Xi and Modi seem to have chosen the former.

Dragon-Elephant Dance = Bear’s Dream?

With the dimming of the American dream after decades of interventionism and the advent of Xi’s “China dream,” the coming together of the two Asian giants may well be Russia’s “dream” regarding Eurasia as an independent entity outside the West-dominated liberal international order. For decades after Primakov’s conception of the Russia-India-China (RIC) trio (1995) to balance the unipolar world, the Indo-China side of the triangle has been a weak link. Russia’s effort to include India in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was even viewed as an instrument to balance an ever rising China both within the SCO and beyond. The Xi-Modi summit constitutes the first step towards a more equitable Eurasian league in facing a fluid and unpredictable international environment. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.