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Will India-China relationship take a different turn with Modi meeting Xi in Xiamen?

The Xiamen bilateral meeting between Modi and Xi was a much-needed one to restore normalcy in the relationship after the two and a half months long Doklam standoff tension. Photograph: (DNA)

Delhi, India Sep 05, 2017, 11.49 AM (IST) Jagannath P. Panda

Rather than the Xiamen BRICS summit making to the recent headlines, it was the much-needed meeting between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping which captured more eyes. If the two and half month long Doklam border tension made Modi’s visit to China significant, it was Modi’s ingenious articulation on India-China relations while promoting India’s developmental narratives during the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen that was really impressive.

The Modi-Xi meeting promised for a stable and forward-looking India-China relationship.
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To begin with, the Modi-Xi meeting promised for a stable and forward-looking India-China relationship. The moot point of the Xiamen meeting was to offer a forward-looking narrative to India-China relations that have been on the downside due to the Doklam border tension. As India’s Foreign Secretary Jaishankar briefed, after the bilateral meeting between the two leaders, Modi was candid in telling Xi Jinping that “differences between India, China should not become disputes”. On China’s part, it was reported, Xi Jinping urged Prime Minister Modi to put the bilateral relationship on the “right track”. Xi was reported saying that China would be seeking India’s partnership under the five principles of ‘Panchsheel’.

Stressing on “peace and tranquillity” as a pre-requisite for confidence-building in border areas, both leaders agreed that they can’t afford to “let India-China relations change” at a time when the world is changing. The move was to push ahead the relationship under a “forwarding framework” that was agreed between the two leaders during the Astana meeting this year. These statements appearing from Xiamen certainly indicate that there is a fresh approach to rebuild the relationship after the Doklam border tension. Still one needs to see whether these statements would be confined to their rhetoric best or would these really be translating into any action, resulting in a more nuanced relationship that would be 'forwarding' in nature. 

The effort to rebuild India-China relations in Xiamen is certainly a welcome step. The intent to have a ‘forwarding relationship’ complements their official ‘developmental partnership’ which was framed during Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2015. The essence of this ‘developmental partnership’ was to forge a closer economic partnership, enhancing the decade-old Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. Therefore, the Xiamen meeting between Modi and Xi holds a strategic significance in the overall context of current India-China relationship.

It needs to be however asked: Will the Xiamen meeting between Modi and Xi really reconstruct the relationship? 

Both India and China need to note that they both must employ a pragmatic approach so that the relationship can be reconstructed even though tensions surrounding classical boundary disputes may come to haunt the relationship from time to time.
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Xiamen meeting between Modi and Xi was a brief one. A thorough discussion to rebuild the relationship and any concrete outcome from this short meeting was hence unexpected. Both India and China need to note that they both must employ a pragmatic approach so that the relationship can be reconstructed even though tensions surrounding classical boundary disputes may come to haunt the relationship from time to time.

This stated 'forwarding' partnership, however, can be built under an intensive economic cooperation and multilateral engagement. The effort should be made to expedite trade and economic engagement, which used to be the most stabilising factor in India-China relations over the last one and half decade. Similarly, multi-lateral engagement must be accelerated where forums like BRICS could allow them to rebuild confidence even though the tension re-emerges. In fact, the need of the time is to have an introspection of their past trajectory of engagement wherein both decided to design a ‘developmental partnership’. 

The proposal for a ‘developmental partnership’ was primarily a Chinese suggestion. In fact, China under Xi Jinping today has similar ‘developmental partnerships’ with a number of countries. But it was Narendra Modi who had initially sown the seeds of the partnership between the two countries during his visit to China as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Modi had identified China as an ‘economic hub’ and had ardently backed initially for a greater China-India economic engagement.

The proposal for a ‘developmental partnership’ was primarily a Chinese suggestion.
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As Prime Minister, Modi had elevated this by suggesting a ‘bilaterally global’ proposition and importantly by defining the relationship as ‘Inch (India and China) towards Miles (Millennium of Exceptional Synergy). It brought the developmental course to the forefront where the central label of India-China engagement was to establish sectoral engagement where domestic constituencies were supposed to play stronger roles through ‘sister-city’ and ‘sister-provincial’ engagements. In fact, the fundamentals of the sectoral engagement were crafted to expedite cooperation in areas, such as industrial parks, railways, credit and leasing, infrastructural development, skill development, etc.

Notably, under his ‘make in India’ campaign, Modi had offered an open invitation to the Chinese companies to invest, collaborate and create conditions for sustainable foreign direct investment, skill development and for an export-led development model that could be the basis of a ‘developmental partnership’. The intent for Modi was to engage with China on a wider spectrum of areas where India can have an equipoise advantage as an economic partner.

In fact, Modi’s diction on economic engagement was not only to enhance the ‘developmental partnership’ but to enhance it further within a spectrum of ‘sustainable partnership’ that will be comprehensive and wide-ranging. This inventive way of rephrasing China-India relations on Modi’s part witnessed a serious setback during Xi Jinping’s India visit when the troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China entered India’s Chumar region in Ladakh, triggering a border standoff on the Western sector of China-India boundary in 2014. This indeed tested Modi's pulse: how to diffuse the tension while readying to receive Xi as a ‘state guest’.

The intent for Modi was to engage with China on a wider spectrum of areas where India can have an equipoise advantage as an economic partner.
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Modi successfully managed to persuade Xi to order the PLA to return to Chinese territory while affirming that ‘even such small incidents can impact the biggest of relationships’.

The urge to promote a ‘developmental partnership’ has not died down on Modi’s part. A similar trait is noticed in Modi’s speech at the Xiamen BRICS summit that unveils his original intent to cooperate with China as a partner. Modi’s BRICS plenary session speech was a memo on how China along with other emerging powers must view India’s national developmental path more intently.

There were many shades to Modi’s BRICS plenary speech, but the most notable one was how India is fast emerging as an open economy through its biggest ever reform of Goods and Services Tax (GST) that unites India as a unified single market. Modi pitched for India’s proposition for a BRICS credit rating agency to pawn western rating assessments keeping in view that how India’s stable and impressive GDP growth should be noted across the world without any prejudices. The effort behind Modi's speech at BRICS was international: positioning India as a progressive economic power in making. The intent was also to pass the message to the international community that India is on the move and China must take a note of that.

Underneath the intent was to reiterate Modi’s “India first” approach of not only promoting Indian brand of development but also to urge the international community to acknowledge India better. This was a clear signal to China since Modi used the Xiamen BRICS forum to speak about this. Similarly, Modi’s speech at the session on Dialogue for Emerging Markets and Developing Countries in Xiamen called for an “inclusive world”. Modi revealed an Indian approach to global governance by stating that the needs of the poor must be aligned to the global economic mainstream and here both India and China could play a constructive role. Will China really respond to this positive appeal from Narendra Modi? 

The effort behind Modi's speech at BRICS was international: positioning India as a progressive economic power in making.
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Hopes from Beijing in this regard are low though. China may genuinely be aiming to have good relations with India, but the global ambition of China to emerge as a ‘super power’ equal to the American supremacy will restrict the goodwill of Beijing towards India. China under Xi Jinping is fast emerging as a different power where preserving China’s national interests and having a higher stake in any bilateral relationship is the bottom line of China’s foreign relations practice. India’s rise under Modi as a stable power is seen in China today as a competing chapter in China’s foreign relations trajectory in Asia if not beyond. Beijing has become more circumspect to matters relating India and would not like to offer many advantages to India, bilaterally or regionally.

The intent on China’s part is pretty obvious: keep India engaged in neighbouring affairs which will define India’s image as a limited power. In fact, unlike most of China’s contemporary debate on foreign affairs, the debate on India in China remains relatively less known and less perceptible to the outside world. India is debated quite frequently though restrictedly, and unlike in the past, China’s India debate is quite serious today.

The global ambition of China to emerge as a ‘super power’ equal to the American supremacy will restrict the goodwill of Beijing towards India.
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The fundamental notion of this Chinese seriousness is that ‘India is rising, and rising steadily’. Beijing sees India as a ‘potential power’ in making which provokes China’s rise in the region, more than any other powers. This Chinese perception will override any Chinese pragmatic thinking to cooperate with India as a ‘developmental partner’.  

The Xiamen bilateral meeting between Modi and Xi was a much-needed one to restore normalcy in the relationship. However, the effort to rebuild India-China relations is nothing new, rather a past practice that has not really worked. Neither the novelty of the ‘Panchsheel’ framework has worked nor the plethora of agreements that their relationship currently possess hold any cogency to the overall architecture of India-China relations. Since its formulation officially on 29 April 1954, the Panchsheel principles have been a matter of great relevance in international relations discourse. But that has not worked in India-China relations: the historic 1962 India-China war made it permanently a deceptive principle, mainly from the Indian outlook.

Therefore, to India, Xi Jinping’s stress to reframe the current relationship within the principles of Panchsheel will hold little value. On the contrary, India’s resolute foreign policy and national developmental path under Modi have bothered the Chinese most in recent times. India’s resolute stance on the Doklam border tension has challenged the Chinese resilience as a power, one fact that Beijing would not forget easily. Therefore, the Modi-Xi meeting in Xiamen may reinstate India-China relations temporarily, but it would have little lasting significance to change the fundamentals in this relationship.

Jagannath P. Panda

Jagannath Panda Coordinator of the East Asia Centre in IDSA. He is the author of India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World Order

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