The “informal meeting” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan has raised hopes for a reset between China and India in the mold of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s groundbreaking visit to Beijing in 1988. During that visit, Gandhi and his host, Deng Xiaoping, relaunched the China-India relationship after a rocky period and pushed to decouple it from their troublesome territorial dispute. The summit proved a turning point which paved the way for a massive improvement in Sino-Indian relations in the 1990s and the early 2000s.
With this background, many commentators have seen 2018 as a potential repeat of 1988. Regrettably, such a comparison is deeply misguided as the international circumstances and the very relationship between China and India make such a prospect unlikely. While the Wuhan summit signifies a thaw and opens the door for improvement in relations, it is not a 1988-style reset.
Of course, seeing 2018 as a repeat of 1988 is not completely fanciful; there are undeniable parallels between the two summits. Both were preceded by military standoffs between Chinese and Indian troops, the Sumdorong Chu incident (or Sangduoluo He) in 1987 and the 73-day long Doklam standoff in 2017 which forced Beijing and Delhi to awake to the dangers of possible military conflict. In 1988 and again in 2018, a strong Indian prime minister who had stood his ground in the preceding standoff took the political risk of going to China about a year before a general election and was received by a powerful but conciliatory Chinese leader. Moreover, both summits concluded with a promise that the two sides will take into account their respective concerns and work to reach a solution to their territorial disputes. Much more important, in both 1988 and 2018 China and India realized that relations were drifting toward confrontation and halted this process before it was too late.
However, these parallels are overshadowed by the fundamental differences between 1988 and 2018 which make a reset that transforms relations in the mold of 1988 unlikely. There are four such fundamental differences.
First, the international conditions in 2018 do not favor a complete reset of relations as they did in 1988. Gandhi’s visit took place with a backdrop of momentous international changes. The Cold War, which had poisoned Sino-Indian relations in the 1970s and 1980s, was coming to an end, the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, which had been supported by India and resisted by China, was drawing to a close and the USSR and China were slowly mending fences, complicating Indo-Soviet relations. At the same time, U.S.-led globalization was forging ahead and integrating the world in a new international economic system. These changes removed many of the obstacles to improvement in bilateral relations and pressured both sides to seek a rapprochement in the face of a changing environment that presented them with uncertainty and potential new threats.
In contrast, in 2018 both sides face a complex international situation characterized by uncertainty and tensions which do not promote Sino-Indian amity. The existing order in Asia is in crisis, with China slowly building the foundations of an alternative international system while Washington, Tokyo and Hanoi resist these efforts, producing tensions. However, it is still unclear what China’ alternative international system would look like and if it would be acceptable to the rest of Asia and, particularly, to India. How India will situate itself in such an international situation is an open question. Would it resist China, accommodate it or find some middle position? Such uncertain and shifting circumstances, which might put China and India on a collision course, make a reset much more difficult to accomplish.
Second, the relationship between Beijing and Delhi is much more complex and difficult to manage in 2018 than it was in 1988. At the time of the Gandhi-Deng summit, the territorial dispute was the principal point of tension between China and India and the main obstacle to improved relations. This allowed the two leaders to decouple the territorial dispute from the rest of the relationship to allow progress in other areas while creating a new diplomatic mechanism to manage the dispute.
In comparison, the present China-India relationship is troubled not by one but by a number of serious issues. Together with the still crucial and destabilizing territorial dispute, such issues include China’s growing influence in India’s neighbors, Beijing’s expansion in the Indian Ocean, India’s increasing engagement with Chinese rivals such as the United States and Japan, the China-Pakistan axis and the emerging arms race between the two sides. These issues not only increase tensions between China and India but also generate unexpected crises and escalations which frequently destabilize the relationship in different areas. As a result, it is difficult to quarantine the contentious issues from the rest of the relationship and manage them separately, as was done in 1988.
Third, the power balance between China and India has shifted dramatically in the last 30 years, making negotiations and mutual accommodation much more difficult. In 1988, China and India had comparable levels of comprehensive national power and were both relatively weak in global terms. This state of affairs allowed the two sides to negotiate and cooperate on an equal basis. This is not the case anymore.
Following its spectacular rise, Beijing, now essentially a superpower, has become much more powerful than India and more assertive. It has grown less willing to accommodate India’s sensitivities in its conviction that time is on its side and India needs China more than China needs India. For its part, Delhi has increasingly grown fearful of China’s rising power, uncertain of its long-term intentions and worried that Beijing does not treat it as a fellow great power whose interests have to be respected. As a result, negotiations have been plagued by inflexibility, growing mistrust and uncertainty about how to calibrate a relationship in flux.
Finally, unlike in 1988 Beijing and Delhi have to deal with the legacy of three decades of false dawns, tensions and disappointments. Of course, the 1988 summit was burdened by several rounds of unsuccessful border negotiations, China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear program, India’s rejection of Deng Xiaoping’s offer of a package deal to resolve the territorial dispute, as well as the Sumdorong Chu incident. However, both sides were hopeful that goodwill and mutual thrust, mostly lacking before 1988, could overcome these issues and relaunch relations.
In contrast, 2018 comes follows decades of disappointment. The negotiations on the territorial dispute dragged for many years and despite being elevated to the highest level in 2005, with the Special Representative talks, have produced very little substantive progress. Agreements in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were signed to stabilize the border and move toward resolving the dispute but settlement remains elusive and there are regular tensions around the border, such as those in 2013, 2014 and 2017. Similarly the relationship has seen false dawns, such as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003 and the Xi-Modi summit of 2014. Throughout, the deep seated issues which trouble China-India relations have persisted. Talk of the economic emergence of “Chindia,” of global cooperation and of civilizational partnership has neither delivered on its promises nor helped to mitigate disagreements. While economic interaction has increased massively, it has fallen far short of expectations and has created new tensions, particularly around India’s trade deficit with China. Inevitably all this has bred cynicism and mistrust which severely limit the chance for a real reset.
For all these reasons, expecting a repeat of the Sino-Indian reset of 30 years ago is misplaced. Sino- Indian relations and Asia’s international situation militate against it. Nevertheless, none of this is to suggest that the Wuhan summit was not a success. The relationship between Delhi and Beijing was increasingly heading in a dangerous direction, exemplified by the Doklam standoff, and the Wuhan summit served to halt this deterioration and engineer a badly needed thaw. Perhaps, it has also opened the door for cooperation in new areas, such as joint projects in Afghanistan and greater, more balanced economic interaction between the two sides. More importantly, the Wuhan summit has potential. If built upon, it might be the first step in the difficult, slow process of rethinking relations and negotiating through give-and-take a new modus vivendi between the two sides. The positive atmosphere and rhetoric of the Wuhan summit, both amply covered in the media, suggests that both sides cautiously hope to move in such a direction.
In sum, the Wuhan meeting does not signal a reset in the mold of 1988; however, it signifies a thaw between China and the hope of building a new, better relationship between Delhi and Beijing. This is an important step in the right direction, and the first on a long road.
Ivan Lidarev is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London who specializes in China-India relations and a former Visiting Fellow at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. His research has been featured in The Diplomat, The National Interest, East Asia Forum and The China Brief, among other publications.