Wuhan Prescription to Fractured India-China Relations: Can There Be Real Progress From Optimistic Optics?
Since the 1962 War, it was the 73-day Doklam stand-off in 2017 that significantly changed the status-quo between India and China at the disputed boundary. Over six decades to the War, but the two countries managed to maintain the peace and stability at the border until the Doklam episode that changed the systemic dynamics. To suggest, rather than a confrontation, Doklam acted as a test case of each other’s resolve- further extending the scope of the protracted boundary dispute. Though there exists no quick fix solution to India and China’s border dilemma, what is interesting to note is the steadfast diplomatic exchanges between the two countries to quell the risks of unwarranted consequences. This damage settlement process has added a new dimension to the fractured ties. Wherein, taking a significant departure, the first ever “Informal Summit”[i] between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan on April 27-28, has set a new high against the ebbing low in the relations. Rather than making any concrete agreement, the Summit acted more of a course correction measure.
What prompts such a measure? It remains indisputable that for India and China the biggest dilemma exists in the form of the growing perception gap that significantly contributes to the ‘trust deficit’. The very outcome of this spiraling ‘mutual suspicion’ was the Doklam stand-off. Identifying this gap, the Summit’s agenda reflected the need to ‘deepening mutual understanding and fostering friendly feelings’. In view of this, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested the need for the two countries to be : first, “good neighbours and good friends” and regard each other as “an active factor in the comparison and change of global power and take each side as a cooperative partner for realizing own dream of development”; second, the growing strength of the two countries represents an “irresistible trend and offers important opportunities to each other”; and third, the countries should pursue “independent foreign policies”, and “correctly analyse and view each other’s intentions with a positive, open and inclusive attitude”.[ii]
Given this perspective, an important step forward of the Wuhan Summit has been the adoption of a strategic and long-term perspective in acknowledging the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India-China border region. Owing to this objective, both sides issued “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs”.[iii] Furthermore, the two sides also “directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms to prevent incidents in border regions”.[iv] Following up on this agenda, a steadfast measure came with the Indian and Chinese militaries agreement on facilitating the long pending proposal of setting up a hotline between their respective headquarters.[v] To note, the idea of the hotline was first suggested by the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). In addition, on May 1, the armies of the two countries also held a Border Personnel Meeting in Chusul in Ladakh[vi]– further following up on the Wuhan spirit.
This attitude to look beyond the diplomatic gaps provides a significant step forward in the undergoing course-correction process. What makes it so is the fact that misperceptions are mainly born at the military level and a timely check can always balance out the cropping perception gap of ‘assuming the worst’. Undoubtedly, it is the spiralling ‘security dilemma’ that regulates the ‘action-reaction’ behaviour between India and China. Given there is no quick fix to this anathema, a timely notice of the problem is imperative in quelling future risks. In this regard, the ‘informal summit’ provided a step forward in toning down the temperament of the fractured ties, more specifically, lowered down the upped ante on either side.
In this context, the challenge remains in terms of maintaining this interest towards making constructive engagements. This helps clarify as to why the current dynamics in India-China ties is far from shaping a ‘reset’. Although the Summit did provide a temporary fix to the fragility, the relation still remains hostage to the critical gaps in the understanding over issues such as: the unresolved boundary question, the CPEC dilemma, India’s reluctance to join the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s reluctance to acknowledge Masood Azhar and, Beijing’s opposition to New Delhi’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership. These weaklings if not addressed, widen the scope of greater challenges and uncalled adversarial risks. Thereby, what looms large is the uncertainty over the feasibility of the Wuhan prescription, that is, ‘how far and how long’ will the optimistic optics help in making real progress in the fragile ties.
[i] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2018), “India-China Informal Summit at Wuhan”, 28 April 2018, URL: http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29853/IndiaChina_Informal_Summit_at_Wuhan(Accessed 7 May 2018).
[ii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2018), “Xi Jinping Holds Informal Meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in Wuhan”, 28 April 2018, URL:http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1556559.shtml (Accessed 7 May 2018).
[iii] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2018).
[v] “Hotline Between Indian, Chinese Military Headquarters Soon Says Report”, Dailyhunt, 02 May 2018, URL:https://m.dailyhunt.in/news/india/english/dailyaddaa-epaper-dailyadd/hotline+between+indian+chinese+military+headquarters+soon+says+report-newsid-86956055(Accessed 08 May 2018).
[vi] “India, China hold border personnel meet at Chusul in Ladakh”, The Times of India, 01 May 2018, URL:https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-china-hold-border-personnel-meet-at-chusul-in-ladakh/articleshow/63990171.cms (Accessed 09 May 2018).