The Mamallapuram summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi comes in a context different from that of the Wuhan summit and will seek to build on the latter. The Wuhan summit was held in the aftermath of the Doklam crisis and was therefore based on the core bilateral issues with a focus on the security front. Whereas the Mamallapuram summit could put more emphasis on broader regional and global issues of mutual interest as well as on the economic front.
The relationship between India and China has gained markedly significant attention from the rest of the world since the Doklam crisis of 2017. The crisis provided the first-ever indication of a possible conflict between India and China in the 21st century, often labeled as the “Asian Century”. The decisive leadership of both the countries was fast to act, leading to the first informal summit between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping in Wuhan during 27-28 April 2018. There was a feeling that the summit had resulted in developing a more in-depth understanding between the two leaders about where they stand with regard to avoiding conflict and furthering co-operation. This bilateral understanding and consensus, facilitated by the personal chemistry between the two leaders, came to be known as the “Wuhan Spirit”.
The Wuhan Spirit has reinforced a trend, which has been shaping up ever since India and China did a reset of their relations after the 1962 war. This trend has involved isolating the most contentious India-China border issue from the more positive aspects of the bilateral relationship. The eventual goal of border dispute resolution has turned out to be a bridge too far, and therefore the low hanging fruit of border dispute management has been pursued with greater urgency. The Wuhan summit was, in fact, the culmination of this trend, wherein both the leaders agreed to issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries regarding maintaining peace and stability in the border regions. Sino-Indian relations have certainly warmed up in the post-Wuhan period, especially considering the Doklam downturn. There has been a reduction in border transgressions as well as the trade imbalance between India and China.
Though the bilateral relationship has received a boost, the international environment has become far more complicated in the post-Wuhan period. The US-China relationship is currently witnessing its nadir after three decades of stable growth. Technology and human rights issues are adding new dimensions to the deterioration of Sino-US ties in addition to the trade tensions. The global economy is also foreseeing a second recession in this century. Unlike in 2008, it has been projected that India and China will not be spared this time. Moreover, sustained high economic growth has been evading the two countries. Though China has been recalibrating its economy to come to terms with its “new normal”, India is striving to achieve new heights in an increasingly bleak economic landscape.
From being glorified as the new leader of globalization in the past couple of years, China recently has been facing increasing criticism for its policies inside its borders such as, in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, and outside its borders like the “debt trap” created as a result of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The US’ branding of China as a strategic competitor and a revisionist power, as well as the EU’ categorizing of it as a systemic rival, has indeed signaled a re-emergence of the “China Threat” theory after two decades. Meanwhile, India has been demonstrating to the rest of the world its assertiveness in dealing with its developmental and security challenges – be it the challenges to territorial integrity, cross-border terrorism, or environmental change.
It is in the context of such geopolitical and geoeconomic turbulence that the second informal summit between Xi and Modi is taking place during 11-12 October 2019 at Mamallapuram. A particular emphasis in the summit may be on the economic front, where both countries are facing huge challenges. In this milieu, China may well seek to water down India’s resistance to the BRI as well as push ahead a prominent role for Huawei in India’s 5G plans, in return for increased market access to specific Indian products. China may also try to push once more the concept of “India-China Plus”, so that it can increase its South Asian footprint in a softer way, with respect to India’s sensitivities. Xi’s visit to Nepal after the India trip signifies this intent. However, India’s concerns regarding Pakistan is bound to fall on deaf ears as China has remained largely steadfast in supporting Pakistan. The visit by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to China just before Xi’s trip to India reinforces this fact. Despite these issues, the enhancement of societal and cultural relations may become a major agenda in the meet.
Hence, the second Modi-Xi summit may represent the next phase of the Wuhan summit. The first summit was essentially focussed on bilateral issues, with a particular emphasis on border management and bilateral trust-building. The Mamallapuram summit, on the other hand, is likely to have most probably delved more deeply into the broader issues impacting the two countries’ interests and concerns at the regional and global levels. With Xi Jinping consolidating his position as the undisputed core leader of the party and the military, and with the Modi administration returning to power with a larger mandate, the consolidation of the personal chemistry between two influential leaders becomes decisive in taking the bilateral ties forward. Therefore a “Mamallapuram Spirit”, could further broad-based consensus by both the leaders in the second summit, which in turn could reflect a logical progression of Sino-Indian ties as well as their joint reaction to the increasingly complex international environment.
*** The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education ***