Sino-Indian Heart-to-Heart Discussion: What it means for South Asia
The media buzzed the past few days about the impending ‘informal meeting’ between China and India which was proposed to be held on April 27 and 28 in the central city of Wuhan in China. The ‘heart-to-heart chat’ between the two leaders of Asia’s largest two rising powers was explained as a new paradigm to explore avenues for corporation and to find ways of addressing contentious issues like border disputes. As the meeting has already begun as of the time this article is written, it is important to see how the new development of relations between two competing powers would affect the rest of the region, especially South Asia, where the small countries often become the pawn of the Sino-Indian chess game.
As soon as the “Wuhan Moment” was announced, it drew immense international attention. China and India are the most populous nations in the world who are competing to become the next global power. They have a complicated relationship; a conflict stemming from border issues and other security concerns, a competition due to attempts of gaining power and influence in each other’s backyards, and a corporation in the international arena in addressing issues of common interest. It’s a relationship that cannot be explained through traditional international theories. The dynamics will have a huge impact on regional and international security, thus everyone is already giving several predictions on the outcome of the meeting.
For some Sino-Indian scholars, the heart-to-heart chat in Wuhan will be an ice-breaker to mend the contentious relationship, which is the result of various incidents for the past two years. Even though Prime Minister Modi and President Xi began their relationship with renewed hope after Modi assumed office in 2014, the relationship spiraled due to distrust and animosity. When China announced the plan for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor as a part of its ambitious One Belt One Road initiative, India opposed the developing of part of the corridor that runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir. As a result, Modi did not attend the OBOR Summit in June 2017. India also took the decisions to ban Indian delegates participating in the summit. In the succeeding month, the two countries had their longest military standoff in Donglong (Doklam) since 1962. The Donglong (Doklam) crisis was resolved following high-level diplomatic talks yet the scar of the wound still remains.
Nevertheless, for others the question remains if this meeting will succeed in overcoming the Sino-Indian conflict and competition. In this regard, Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, one of the prominent Sino-Indian scholars wrote that the risk of this informal meeting is that the expectations are high, yet the actual deliverables are insignificant. As of now, there are numerous areas in which China and India have difficulties in seeing eye-to-eye, and this one-off meeting will not be able to address all the issues that are keeping the two countries from corporating.
The past few months have witnessed both Beijing and New Delhi gradually reconsidering their positions on certain issues. This is a departure from the two countries recent past, where they have battled against each other without wanting to even reconsider the positions. On India’s part, one could observe that they followed a demanding rhetoric rather than a give-and-take relationship. India was demanding Beijing’s support for its membership at the UN Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers Group, and in its efforts to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Masood Azhar, declared a United Nations-designated terrorist. Meanwhile, India was simultaneously openly displaying its opposition to China’s forays into the Indian Ocean by creating the Forum for India-Pacific Cooperation and enhancing its own movement into China’s backyard, particularly to Southeast Asia. However, India has given directives to its government officials not to celebrate 60 years of Tibetan Leader Dalai Lama’s entrance to India and also have informed that it will not militarily intervene in the Maldives where they will have to collide with Chinese interests, thereby signaling a re-positioning of their stance. On the other hand, Beijing has signaled for the first time that the Indian concerns of Pakistan-borne terrorism has not gone unheard, thereby leading to China withdrawing its support for Islamabad in March this year, during the debate over a US sponsored measure to put Pakistan onto the global terrorism-financing watch-list. As a result, it is likely that Islamabad will be added to the ‘grey list’ of the Financial Action Task Force, a global body that fights terrorism financing and money laundering. These new developments showcase that both India and China are considering re-positioning their stances for the greater good of their future relationship. In the context of this backdrop, the Wuhan Moment is considered as a historical moment.
The circumstances have paved the way for Indian scholars to compare the Wuhan Meeting to that of the Gandhi-Deng meeting in 1988, thus making it a historical event. They recall how the Gandhi-Deng meeting set a new tone for the relations after the 1962 war, and predict that the Xi-Modi meeting will also set a similar new paradigm for bilateral relations for the future. The meeting is historical; not only because of its echoing of the meeting in 1962 but will also mark the first time an Indian Prime Minister has visited China thrice in just nine months. Moreover, this heart-to-heart chat, which will span two days in Wuhan, is also the longest informal meeting between the leaders of the two countries.
What would be the outcome?
According to the Indian government, the meeting expects to focus on “bilateral and international matters from an over-arching and long-term perspective with the objective of enhancing mutual communication at the level of leaders”. Similarly, it was reported in Global Times, a prominent Chinese news media outlet, “when the two leaders meet, they will have strategic communication on the most profound and unprecedented changes the world has seen in a century and thoroughly exchange views on the overall, long-term, strategic issues of China-India relations”.
However, it is too ambitious to expect a dramatic breakthrough from the Wuhan Moment. On one hand, there are numerous bilateral issues that are in direct conflict with each other’s national interests that would be hard to solve during this strategic dialogue. Yet, both China and India’s national interest are at stake if the current trend of protectionism - showcased through the US revocation from the Trans-Pacific partnership and climate change proposals - and the current Brexit issues across the pond, continue. In addition, both India and China are defendants of globalization. With regard to this, the current spike in energy prices due to missile strikes on Syria are influencing both economies as they are dependent on the stability of the Middle East for importation of oil With this backdrop, it looks like the two countries have finally realized that they have more to gain than to lose from cooperating with each other.
This can be said especially with regards to China, who seems to be looking at India through a new lens; now seeing a long-term perspective and opportunity by establishing closer ties with New Delhi. India’s economy is growing fast which will provide huge opportunities for future investment and markets for Chinese products. As a trade war with the US is emerging, it is wise for Beijing to diversify its trade potentials to unexplored markets like India and reduce its over-dependency on the US. Thus, China will use this strategic meeting to explore furthering its economic interest in the Indian market. Apart from that the two countries will also explore the opportunities of collaborating in the education and medicine sectors which will benefit them, as both countries have advanced in these sectors over the years. It is also expected that the two leaders will revisit the promise made by President Xi back in September 2014 to provide investment in infrastructure in India.
Impact on South Asia
There is little argument to the fact that this new development between the two Asian giants will have a great impact on the South Asian region. China has made its forays rapidly into small South Asian countries during the past decade with its lucrative investments and no-strings-attached funding policies. This move has been highly criticized by India and New Delhi has in fact openly stated its opposition. Thus, India’s backyard remains one of the sensitive topics constituting the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship.
Throughout these years, the small South Asian countries have both benefited and been harmed by the conflicting and competing relations between their two large neighbours. The small South Asian countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives are seen playing the New Delhi and Beijing cards against each other in furthering their economic interests. Especially when they require assistance on development, they have successfully used the conflicting interests of China and India to secure funding. This has brought multiple financial benefits to the small South Asian nations.
On the other hand, the competitive relationship has resulted in India increasing its pressure on domestic matters in the small South Asian countries. For instance, back in 2010, Bangladesh invited China to expand the Chittagong Port into a deep-water port to which China willingly agreed. Later the deal was broken due to Indian pressure. The same happened with Sonadia port, which as of now has meant that Dhaka has failed to build any deep-water seaport to cater to its growing container traffic. Sri Lanka saw widespread Indian opposition when China built the island nation’s second deep sea port in Hambantota. When the Sri Lankan government signed off the operational rights of the Hambantota Port to China there was similar opposition from New Delhi. Not only that, India is currently bidding for the operational rights of Sri Lanka’s second international airport in Mattala.
Given the change in bilateral relations between India and China following this ‘informal meeting’, the question arises whether the South Asian countries will now have the same room to play them against each other in securing their own interests. Yet, one can hope that this will bring a range of benefits to the region as their cooperation progresses.
This smoothening of the relationship will ease the tension between China and India. As a result, there will be less pressure for the small South Asian countries in their efforts for securing investments for development. In fact, there is possibility that both China and India could jointly invest in the small countries. This will definitely help cooperation and regional integration.
On the other hand, this new development forces the small South Asian countries to find new strategies in their approach in furthering the relationship with China and India, for playing one against the other will not succeed in the long run. As such, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives have to focus on leveraging their strategic significance in the region without having to balance the two major powers, and to find new ways of appealing to them.
It is clear that India and China have finally realized that they are stronger and better being on the same side rather than opposing each other. One meeting will not solve all the problems that have cropped up since diplomatic relations between the two nations began, yet it offers hope for better relations in the future. This new development will change the status quo of the South Asian region to a certain extent, yet, the small South Asian countries have to focus on how to reap the benefits of two giants coming together to build the new Asian century.
Dr. Chulanee Attanayake is the Research Director of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). This article does not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka.