Amidst speculation whether the visit to India of Chinese President Xi Jinping will actually happen, if there is one word to describe the relationship between the two countries, that would be “complexity”.
The latest media reports quoting Chinese officials say that the visit will happen and the confirmation will come through any moment. As it stands, Xi is scheduled to visit India for an informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the heritage beach town of Mamallapuram, near Chennai, for two days starting October 11.
It is tempting to bring in Pakistan and weave an interpretation of New Delhi’s relationship with Beijing around the hostility that marks India’s relationship with its western neighbour. But that would not be doing justice to the depth of India’s engagement with China and vice-versa.
For, the simple fact is that both cannot do without each other. China was India’s second largest trading partner in FY 2019 and that says it all. In fact, India has been having it good with China on trade. India’s trade deficit dropped by $10 billion in fiscal 2018-19, down to $53 billion from $63 billion a year earlier, according to official figures.
India’s total trade with China was to the extent of $87,069.14 million, according to official figures quoted in the Financial Express. Now, these are huge numbers and will never be compromised just because there is an occasional verbal pow-wow between the two giant neighbours. This brings in the element of complexity in their relationship.
Anyone well-versed in realpolitik will know that nations ultimately look to see what they gain in a relationship and both the Indian and Chinese leadership over the last several decades have demonstrated this in a variety of ways, except for one aberration when the two went to war in 1962 over the border dispute.
Among the issues that are likely to figure is the improving Indian relationship with the United States. In particular, India’s reluctance under pressure from Washington to allow 5G trials in the country by the Chinese behemoth Huawei. Xi will try to persuade India not to block Huawei, as that will directly affect the Chinese.
The other prickly point is Kashmir. India has been cagey about China’s public pronouncements on Kashmir, and has even objected to Beijing’s reference at the United Nations to the current situation in that state. While China has always made it clear that it is with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, if carefully scrutinised, Beijing has never made any moves against India on Kashmir other than issuing statements now and then, appearing to back Islamabad.
In the UN Security Council, even if Beijing backed Pakistan on resolutions involving Kashmir, it could be that it would have known that these moves end up getting vetoed by any of the other permanent members. So it turns out to be a case of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.
At the same time, whatever the extent and intensity of ties that China may have with India, it will continue to back Pakistan as it politically balances the power equation in South Asia. Moreover, China has tangibly benefited from its relationship with Pakistan by getting access to a part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the guise of an economic corridor across the Karakoram highway to eventually run right through Pakistan.
India has objected to China’s activities across the border in the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir as New Delhi considers the entire region of Kashmir as its own. For all practical purposes, the objection is on paper.
Similarly, though India and China fought a war over the dispute between their border, that has been relegated to the back-burner. Occasionally, the issue does come up, but both governments know that it is an issue that may take a long time to resolve, if it does at all.
There are other points of differences as well. The presence of a huge Tibetan population in exile in India for nearly seven decades and a government in exile at Dharamsala is something that Beijing has accepted as a given. Though unhappy with India’s backing of Tibetan exiles who are either demanding autonomy or complete independence, the Chinese leadership other than an occasional objection has not allowed it to come in the way of a practical relationship with India.
It is in this context that the forthcoming visit to India needs to be seen. The Wuhan engagement close on the heels of the Doklam tensions between the two where Modi and Xi met led to a visible decrease in mutual acrimony. Since then, Doklam has never again come up and the relationship has continued as if it never happened. Reports say that Chinese troops continue to remain in the vicinity of Doklam, the reason why India in the first place sent its troops to that border, hoping to push the Chinese back.
The one major development since the two leaders met at Wuhan has been that Modi returned to power in the May 2019 elections with a larger majority and scrapped the special status (guaranteed under the Indian Constitution) to Kashmir. India has since insisted that it is an internal issue and no other country has the locus standi to comment on it.
China, after appearing to keep quiet, spoke out publicly on Kashmir and said it hoped that the fundamental rights of Kashmiris are protected and that India should work with its neighbour to work out a solution to the decades old dispute. This irked India which protested against the statement.
When the two leaders meet later this week, there are high chances that Kashmir will figure in their talks, but it may not reflect in the official announcement if Xi makes some unpalatable statements on the issue privately during his conversation with Modi.
Rather than any exciting outcome to emerge from the forthcoming talks between Modi and Xi it would be more pragmatic to see the Mamallapuram as a continuation of the long-standing engagement between the two countries and a smoothening of a few rough edges like Huawei and Kashmir that have cropped up recently.