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01 May, 2018

India, China change tack

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India and China, currently the main engines of global economic growth, re-tuned their relationship last week shifting the emphasis from confrontation and competition to strategic cooperation and developmental partnership.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping announced the re-set after a hectic two-day meet, officially labelled as informal, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. 

The two leaders talked mostly with no one in attendance except interpreters.

The summit-level meet without the usual formalities was designed to dispel mutual suspicions, build trust and break the stalemate in the relations resulting from last year’s 73-day face-off between the armies of the two countries at Doklam, close to the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction.

Ahead of the meet, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said in a commentary that on the world stage the two countries had more than enough reasons to work closely and with a combined population of 2.6 billion they had a huge potential to tap.

Much of India’s 3,500-kilometre-long border with China is undemarcated. The two countries fought a short but bitter war over the disputed border when Mao Zedong was at the helm in China and Jawaharlal Nehru in India. Talks to resolve the dispute have been going on for decades since then with little progress so far. 

Xi told Modi the issues that divided the two countries were of a limited and temporary nature but their relationship was extensive and ongoing. They were major drivers of world economic growing and good relations between them would help global stability.

Both Xi and Modi agreed that the two countries could handle their differences peacefully.

Modi was so pleased with the success of the informal meet that he offered to host Xi at a second one next year. The India-China informal summit may well become an annual event.

The Wuhan meeting was the fourth between Modi and Xi in four years, not counting the interactions at international events where they came together. It is not surprising that nothing tangible emerged from the tête-à-tête After all, it was an informal affair

“Our leaders have a certain comfort level, they have a certain comfort in being able to communicate frankly, candidly, and we are confident that as we move ahead we will be able to ensure that the mechanisms that are in place work to build on the convergences,” Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told the Indian media.

These words echoed the sentiments that prevailed when Nehru and Zhou Enlai proclaimed the Panch Shila, or five principles of co-existence six decades ago. Modi reinforced the mood by floating five principles of his own. 

How the turnaround came about has not been fully explained by either side. India appears to have set the ball rolling in March when it asked officials to stay away from the Tibetan exiles’ celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in this country. Modi later telephoned Xi to congratulate him on his re-election as President.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited China in April. The scheduling of the informal meet immediately after these contacts, without waiting until June when Modi and Xi will come together at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit underscores the importance both sides attach to improvement of bilateral relations.

Some analysts have attributed the Sino-Indian re-set to the realisation by both sides that the confrontationist course had landed them in a no-win situation and that the path of cooperation would benefit both.

There may be no immediate change in India’s coolness towards China’s Road and Belt initiative and China’s negative attitude towards India’s membership of the UN Security Council and Nuclear Supplies Group but if the new resolve holds on both sides the hoped-for Asian Century may yield beneficial results not only for the two countries but for the entire world.

An immediate gain from the talks was the two leaders’ decision to issue “strategic guidance” to their armies to strengthen communications to build trust and enhance predictability and effectiveness in management of border affairs: in short, to avoid a repetition of Doklam.

They also agreed to undertake a joint economic project in Afghanistan.

China is obviously keen to carry Pakistan, its long-time all-weather friend, into the new phase with it. Last December it had hosted a trilateral meeting of Foreign Ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has invited both India and Pakistan to join the multi-nation counter-terrorism military exercise to be held in Russia in September.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 1, 2018

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