- Kartik Bommakanti 14 October 2019
As was the case with Wuhan Summit in April 2018, the Mamallapuram Summit was no different – a tactical summit with both sides agreeing to avoid rubbing each other the wrong way. Like Wuhan produced a joint statement. Mamallapuram, like the Wuhan summit held more than year ago the latest was at best a palliative. The underlying structural problems afflicting the Sino-Indian relations. These include, an unresolved boundary dispute, Chinese penetration into Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Maldives, India’s burgeoning trade deficit with China and finally Beijing’s relationship with its “all weather” friend Pakistan remains as steadfast as it was, when the Wuhan Summit occurred. Further, on the issue of 5G spectrum allocation, New Delhi is already under intensive American pressure to reject Chinese involvement and offers, despite its lucrativeness. These structural problems are unlikely to disappear any time soon and their continued irresolution or even significant amelioration will likely precipitate more frustration and angst in New Delhi.
India and China for the last several decades have followed Churchill’s dictum “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”. This generally captures the truth about Sino-Indian relations. Indeed, the two informal summits have been about managing uncertainties. As Henry Kissinger once observed, a key test of leadership is to manage uncertainty. It appears Xi and Modi, if not consciously and deliberately, have taken this observation very seriously.
Informal summitry is a mechanism for coping with uncertainty and managing the eruption of any unexpected fissures in inter-state relations. This aptly captures whatever was on display in Wuhan and Mamallapuram. Although the Chinese economy is five times the Indian economy and China in aggregate terms is a more consequential actor globally, the Xi-led dispensation recognises the importance of engaging India to avoid unanticipated pitfalls in the relationship. Several factors explain China’s continued interest in informal summitry with India. Domestically, Xi faces protests in Hong Kong, unrest in Muslim majority region of Xinjiang and prospects of unrest in a post-Dalai Tibet. That apart, the current trade war between the US and China will and presumably weighs on Beijing to limit the number of frictional relationships in its foreign policy. India is a country with which Beijing has outstanding unresolved issues and it is safe and apposite to conclude that mitigating tensions and ensuring relations remain on an even keel is beneficial for China. Further, managing the international fallout for the range of repressive measures it has put in place to quell internal unrest and dissent, means that Beijing will continue to engage in informal summitry with India.
However, the need for Beijing’s informal summitry with India is ultimately contextual. The prevailing internal and external challenges facing China is the key source of pressure for Beijing consenting to the continuation of informal engagements. Improvement in China’s domestic situation or even significant mitigation on both fronts will ease pressures on it to persist with the current executive-level talks with Modi. Given the vast differential in the level of power between China and India, the former may have few incentives to continue with Wuhan and Mamallapuram-like engagements. In addition, it is unclear and by any reasonable estimate if the cumulative effect of these summits will help resolve any of the problems that plague the Sino-Indian relationship.
For Modi, on the other hand, tensions with China serve his administration no good. The Indian economy is heavily dependent on Chinese imports and amidst slow economic growth; it makes little sense to allow relations to deteriorate or remain locked in a vacuum. New Delhi, however, faces a more daunting challenge in the event these informal summits end. For Beijing, it may simply be a transient phase in which to demonstrate an interest in remaining engaged with India. For Beijing, these informal engagements are merely or potentially serve as a cover for tiding over the problems it faces today. For India, the stakes are likely to be higher because of the structural weaknesses vis-a-vis China. This limits its options and potentially undermines the strength of its negotiating position on core issues that divide the two states. To be sure, there is a view among some experts that if India sees a lack of seriousness on the part of Beijing to overcome or make a good faith effort to engage New Delhi productively at least some of the nettlesome issues such as on trade, it will be compelled to assume or infer the worst from Beijing’s motives. In due course, it could precipitate a resurgence in crisis as was witnessed in Doklam forestalling an improvement in relations and compel India to expand its military capabilities beyond what it is doing currently and additionally forge a closer partnership with the Quad countries consisting of Japan, India, Australia and the United States. We have already witnessed, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) the Quadrilateral dialogue elevated to foreign ministerial level engagement. Taken as a whole, whatever may be the merits of the Wuhan Spirit and Chennai Connect, these are merely engagements laden with symbolism than substance, help defuse tensions temporarily rather than resolve fundamental infirmities in the bilateral relationship.