The Indian Prime Minister is scheduled to visit Chinese premier Xi Jinping during the last week of April. This sudden visit comes as a surprise as the two leaders were supposed to meet in the first week of June for the convening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional security bloc headed by China. India and China have a history of conflict, and disagree on a number of issues. However, their relationship has improved in recent months.
India and China have a long history of cultural exchange and trade. There are records of Chinese travellers in India through medieval times. While India was under British rule for over a century, China was also adversely affected by British Imperialism, particularly in trade. The British played a huge role in the spread of opium and the resulting instability in China. China went to war against Britain in the two Opium Wars in the mid-19th Century. The British Empire colonised the island of Hong Kong in 1842.
India’s contemporary relationship with China began in 1950. Between 1960 and 1987, India and China were involved in three major military conflicts: the Sino-Indian war of 1962 centred in Aksai Chin, the Chola incident in 1967 over Sikkim, and the 1987 military skirmish in Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. The tension between the two nations began to thaw with Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to China in 1988. This was the first visit to China, by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years.
A bilateral relationship has since been established, however, the two countries have never completely resolved their border problems and there is a general sense of mistrust. India and China still have border disputes in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Kashmir. The two countries are geopolitical rivals as both vie for influence in South Asia. China has improved its ties with several of India’s neighbours, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Meanwhile, India has joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with the US, Japan and Australia. Furthermore, India and China have a conflicting stance on the Dalai Lama, to whom India has provided shelter. India has refused to participate in China’s Belt and Road project, since part of the Pakistan-China belt runs through disputed territory in Kashmir. China is also a long-term ally to India’s rival, Pakistan.
The Doklam standoff
In June 2017, a skirmish broke out between Indian and Chinese troops at the Doklam plateau. Indian soldiers had intervened in the construction work being conducted by China in the region. The area is a disputed territory between Bhutan (an Indian ally) and China. Both sides increased their military presence in the region. India argued that China’s actions in Doklam posed a security threat for the nation. China called on India to withdraw its troops but the latter did not acquiesce.
The stand-off was called off almost three months later in August. Despite aggressive rhetoric from China, both nations agreed to the stand-off through diplomatic channels. The Indian side has announced that this decision was taken after an agreement of mutual disengagement of troops. China, on the other hand, has portrayed this as a victory for its region by announcing that India had agreed to withdraw troops. Another scuffle between Indian and Chinese troops broke out in August 2017. Former Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon has predicted that there are likely to be more stand-offs between India and China.
In recent months, the Indian government has made strides towards improving relations with China. Prime Minister Modi personally called Chinese President Xi Jinping to congratulate him on his re-election earlier this year. The two heads of state reportedly agreed to improve relations during this phone call, and the two world leaders agreed to consult each other on regional and international issues.
In March, India cancelled a Tibetan rally marking 60 years of Tibetans’ exile in India. The event included an interfaith prayer led by the Dalai Lama. According to Indian media reports, the event was cancelled after Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale sent a note to government officials not to attend the event. The note was leaked to the media. Shortly after, China removed its objection to placing Pakistan on a grey list for terror financing. Some observed that this may have been a quid pro quo gesture. Only last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for Indian cooperation with China in Nepal, suggesting a trilateral corridor.
In a recent meeting between India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang, it was announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping will meet in the last week of April. The meet will be a one-on-one informal summit. The summit “will be an important occasion for them to exchange views on bilateral and international matters… with the objective of enhancing mutual communication at the level of leaders,” Swaraj said. Swaraj also emphasised the importance of developing Indo-China relations for the emergence of an “Asian century.”
Wang noted a positive turn in the India-China relationship. He said that the meeting between the two heads of state would involve “communications of a strategic nature concerning big changes happening in the world.” “They will also exchange views on overall, long-term and strategic matters concerning the future of China-India relations,” he added.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang pointed out the “rampant unilateralism as well as the rising protectionism” in the world today. He added that the two leaders will exchange views on “overarching long term strategic issues” and “latest trends of the world”. “We believe that the two countries will continue to uphold globalisation so that it will be more inclusive. So we have lot of shared interests, concerns and propositions,” he said.
Analyst Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, with Information System for Developing Countries noted that “as long as there is a political understanding between the top leaders” on the Line of Actual Control, the two nations will be able to control border conflict. Liu Zongyi, with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies added, “As Modi has said, not a single bullet has been fired on the Sino-Indian border in the last 40 years despite simmering disputes.”
Modi and Xi will also later meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao in June. The SCO is a security bloc headed by China. Other members include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan were granted membership last year.
Critics have maintained that the relationship between India and China is still mired with strategic distrust and suspicion. In April this year, China reiterated its policy on Arunachal Pradesh. “China’s position on the Sino-Indian boundary issue is consistent and clear. The Chinese government has never acknowledged the so-called Arunachal Pradesh,” Foreign Affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang said.
Ahead of the high level meeting between them, China was also quick to reassure its ally Pakistan that their relations are firm. “Our iron friendship with Pakistan will never rust and be tempered into steel,” Wang told Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif.
However, the question still remains: why has Xi Jinping decided to engage with India? We believe that this visit may be the result of a number of factors. China’s current trade spat with the United States may have left it looking to deepen its economic ties with other nations. If the United States manages to potentially renegotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership, China may have to cede some geopolitical influence in the Asia-Pacific. Additionally, China’s keystone OBOR may be facing setbacks. It has been reported that 27 out of 28 EU ambassadors to China have signed a report criticizing China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Finally, US and North Korea are heading towards a summit that may end in a nuclear agreement that excludes China.
Our assessment is that the upcoming meeting may have to do with the changing geopolitics in Asia and beyond. Both nations could stand to benefit from such a personal, high level visit. It has been speculated that the visit may be intended to “reset” ties following the Doklam standoff. Officials on both sides have also hinted at strengthening trade ties due to increasing US protectionism.
India has made gestures of goodwill towards China in recent months. Amidst the rapidly changing geopolitical scenario in Asia, China could be looking to India as a potential ally. The stars might now favour a better relationship with China. Are the two Asian powers ready to explore a new relationship beyond border disputes?