Last week, efforts to “reset” India-China relations culminated in an “informal summit’ between Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China. Reports of the summit drew comparisons to earlier such summits between Indian Prime Ministers and Chinese leaders, notably Rajiv Gandhi’s summit with Deng Xiaoping in 1988, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s summit with Hu Jintao in 2003.
However, these comparisons, particularly with the 1988 summit, fall short of India’s objective for a reset leading up to and during the summit. Indeed, the 1988 summit was a crucial moment for both countries, leading to the establishment of a broad framework, or modus vivendi, for engagement between India and China where the two countries would “not to allow the border dispute to hold the rest of the relationship back.” The Wuhan summit, by contrast, did not hold the same ambition.
Rather, the efforts to “reset” relations with China in Wuhan, particularly after a 72-day standoff between the two countries at the Doklam Plateau, aim to “improve optics, restore communication, and identify areas where the countries can cooperate,” according to Tanvi Madan of The Brookings Institution. However, at a time where disagreements between both countries have expanded beyond the border, and their interactions in a shared periphery create friction, India needs to look beyond a simple “reset” and seek a new framework for the India-China relationship.
The Current Modus Vivendi
Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, outlines how the current framework of engagement between India and China was reached. Border disagreements between India and China date back to the establishment of relations between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on New Year’s Day 1950. Disputes over Tibet, and Aksai Chin featured prominently in the relationship despite Indian-led pushes for amicable relations, going so far as the rallying cry of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” (translated into English as “Indians and Chinese are brothers”).
Despite these attempts to establish bonhomie, the border dispute remained a central feature of the relationship, culminating in 1962 when the two countries fought a war over the border. Chinese troops entered India in Ladakh and across the McMahon Line, captured significant parts in, both, Ladakh and modern-day Arunachal Pradesh, and announced its withdrawal to the so-called line of actual control, which currently demarcates the border between India and China. Following the war, however, relations between India and China continued to deteriorate as China grew closer to Pakistan and supported it in two wars fought between India and Pakistan in 1965 and in 1971.
Relations remained tense until 1978, when then-External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, undertook a landmark visit to Beijing, setting the stage for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1979. However, the establishment of a modus vivendi did not take place until Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988, and met with Deng Xiaoping. At that time, both countries agreed that, although the border dispute between the two countries was still the biggest flash point in bilateral relations, they would not let the dispute prevent the two countries from cooperating on other issues.
Moreover, in order to foster cooperation on other issues, the two countries would also establish a mechanism to discuss the border issue. This mechanism was codified under the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993, the India-China Expert Group talks, as well as the Special Representative Mechanism of 2003.
The establishment of such a framework of engagement has been largely successful. As Menon has said, “it’s worked and kept the peace, and if you look at it, it’s actually our most peaceful border of all the borders we have – it’s the least defined but it’s the most peaceful.” Moreover, the framework has also allowed India-China relations to develop in other aspects. For example, bilateral trade between the two countries in 1988 was only $107.96 million. Total trade has now reached a “historic high” of $84.44 billion, as of 2017. India and China have also cooperated in a number of multilateral fora, such as in BRICS, on climate change through the Brazil-India-South Africa-China (BASIC) grouping, and the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral meetings.
The Need For a New Modus Vivendi
Despite strengthening relations between the two countries, however, there is an increasing need for a new framework of engagement. Disagreements between India and China have grown beyond the border dispute to encompass broader concerns over terrorism, connectivity, trade, and nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, a source of friction between India and China since 2016 has been China’s “technical hold” on the designation of Masood Azhar as a “terrorist” under the United Nations Security Council. India holds Azhar responsible for the terrorist attacks on India’s parliament in 2001, on Pathankot air base in 2016. However, over the last two years, China has blocked India’s attempts to designate him a terrorist at the UN. Additional concerns also emerged as China opposed India’s membership to the Nuclear Security Group (NSG) in 2016, which led to additional tension in the relationship.
China’s connectivity projects through the Belt and Road Project, particularly the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Maritime Silk Road, have also chafed against Indian priorities in the region. Indeed, CPEC’s planned route cuts through Indian-claimed and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir, leading India to decry the project as a violation of its territorial integrity. Moreover, India’s engagement with the United States, Japan, and Australia, in backing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and the “Quad” has raised concerns for China as an “anti-China containment policy.”
While India has attempted to “reset” relations leading up to and during the Wuhan summit, these concerns, which have clearly contributed to the tensions in the relationship over the last two years, are likely to continue to remain prominent in the relationship and will not be overcome by a “reset.” Rather, they require a newer and broader modus vivendi wherein India and China can agree on how to discuss and engage on these issues, while continuing to foster trade, innovation, and multilateral cooperation.
Aman Thakker is an analyst with Protagonist (formerly Monitor 360) and a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He writes about Indian foreign and domestic policy.