India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Fortaleza, Brazil, just before the opening of the BRICS summit there. While the encounter was not particularly path-breaking or unexpected, it established an important rapport between two leaders who will have to work together for some years to come. As my colleague Shannon Tiezzi noted in her report on China Power, the meeting builds on the momentum attained by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during his June trip to New Delhi. What is reassuring about the trajectory of India-China relations (if you are one to believe diplomatic rhetoric) is that the leaders of both nations are approaching the entire gamut of strategic issues between the two countries: the trade deficit, border disputes, multilateral organizations, and investment. The underlying assumption is that sustained progress on these issues will ultimately build trust between India and China — a factor that has been somewhat lacking in recent years.
As far as bilateral diplomacy goes between China and India, appearances right now are as good as they can be. China wasted little time following the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s ascension and the brief dialogue between Modi and Xi in Fortaleza seemingly checked all the boxes. I’ve called China’s overtures towards India since the BJP’s victory an attempt at a “reset” in relations (yes, referring to the failed U.S. initiative towards Russia circa 2009). Nothing witnessed in Fortaleza challenges this, really. If anything, the biggest addition to China’s warm overture toward India is Xi’s invitation for India to attend the APEC Summit for the first time and even potentially ascend to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China further invited India to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Beijing’s reasons for pursuing the reset with India at this time are in part a product of its diplomatic troubles to the east. At the same time, China genuinely does see an opportunity to deepen its relationship with India as it makes a political transition into an era where the erstwhile opposition Hindu nationalists are in near-complete control of the country’s executive and legislative. Should India’s relations with China grow warmer at this point, New Delhi is less likely to cozy up to the United States and Russia (or at least such is the logic for Beijing). However, despite the warmth of the Fortaleza encounter, New Delhi has not entirely abandoned its strategic distrust of Beijing. Modi’s recent trip to Bhutan and the Indian central governments’ novel plans to actively develop the borderlands of Arunachal Pradesh highlight just two recent BJP actions that suggest the era of China paranoia is far from over in India.
What is most interesting about diplomacy between India and China since Modi’s ascent is China’s emphasis on a form of Asian solidarity between the two countries. Xi, echoing Wang’s comments about Modi injecting a “new vitality into an ancient civilization,” mentioned a common goal between the two countries of “national rejuvenation.” This is certainly in line with China’s post-1949 national foreign policy narrative, but it appears that China is making a bet that India’s new Hindu nationalist leaders will see some value in courting China as an Asian partner.
That Wang emphasized Modi’s personal leadership during his visit to New Delhi further emphasizes that Beijing’s interest in India is particularly piqued by the BJP. According to Xinhua, Xi also recommended that “the two countries should join hands in setting global rules, so as to raise the voice of developing countries.” This sort of rhetoric, while it never left China’s diplomatic playbook toward India, hearkens back to the 1950s and the rapport between Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai. China’s decision to host a state celebration of the 60th anniversary of its Five Principles (also developed by Nehru and Zhou) highlights a renewed interest in the past in Beijing. We need a few more data points yet to determine whether this is mere diplomatic window-dressing or a genuine ideological tilt for Chinese policy toward India under Xi.
For the moment, relations between India and China continue to remain at a crossroads. Wang’s trip to New Delhi and the Fortaleza encounter represent the start of a new chapter in bilateral ties.