China and India: on the ‘friend’ side of ‘frenemy’?

by Soyen Park / East Asia Forum / 16 May 2018

As Korean leaders Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in were charming the world walking hand in hand over the demarcation line to the north, another ‘heart-to-heart’ summit was happening in the central Chinese city of Wuhan — this one between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Billed as the ‘first informal summit’, the two-day get-together between Modi and Xi aimed to ‘reset’ China–India ties after years of mutual distrust. Not even a year ago, the world’s two most populous countries locked horns in a face-off at Doklam. But the dragon and the elephant seem to have agreed to settle their differences and dance to the tune of rising global uncertainties, at least for now.

For an informal summit, the Wuhan meeting appeared to cover a wide range of issues. No agreement was signed and no joint statement was issued, but both leaders emphasised their determination and commitment to a future characterised by positive bilateral ties. Modi and Xi reportedly held multiple one-on-one discussions with only their interpreters present. Media from both countries are hailing the talks as open, cordial and warm. The headline ‘2 days, 7 events, 9 hours’ says it all.

The major focus of the meeting was border peace — an obvious focus given the impact of last year’s 73-day-long stand-off on an already sour relationship. The confrontation highlighted how a dangerous tug-of-war between the two nuclear powers could easily escalate into a military skirmish. It also revealed that a Cold War zero-sum mentality towards conflict is still present. Both leaders have agreed to ‘issue strategic guidance to their militaries to strengthen communication’. To do so, Chinese and Indian militaries will soon set up a hotline between their headquarters.

Another major outcome of the summit came in the form of expressions of interest in undertaking a joint economic project in war-torn Afghanistan. Details are still in the works, with some concerned that such a move could rile Pakistan, which feverishly refuses to recognise India’s growing role in the country. This also means that the regional geopolitical equation could shift depending on how the India–China–Pakistan triangle realigns.

Other thorny issues such as India’s trade deficit, terrorism, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Belt and Road Initiative were also discussed. Both leaders vowed to collaborate on tackling global challenges including rising protectionism, climate change, food security and sustainable development. Overall, the meeting was both significant and informal enough to win the hearts of those in both countries. Read more…

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