An informal India-China summit between the two leaders was held on April 27-28, 2018. Although it did not capture much attention of the Western mainstream media, it has signified a decisive, if not yet a U-turn, change to the India-China relationship.
Let us have a quick look at the background. Firstly, a 73-day military standoff from June to August 2017 between India and China over Doklam was generally deemed as a deterioration of their relationship.
Secondly, in Nov 2017, President Trump officially confirmed the launch of an Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China. It appeared that India was a member of this team.
Thirdly, in Feb 2018, the domestic chaos in Maldives led the New York Times editorial to post this headline: “Trouble in Maldives Paradise could become a Global Threat: A power struggle in the tiny nation could pull India and China into conflict” which appeared to be very scary.
Fourthly, when the Trump administration planned to “slap tariffs on a range of Chinese products” in early 2018, some economists in India pondered how India might “gain from US-China trade war”.
Therefore, it is indeed a surprise to many analysts, including those hawkish ones inside India, that Prime Minister Modi and President Xi showed up in a lake to hold friendly chat for improving their teamwork spirit. Among the various positive outcomes, three are particularly jaw-dropping. One is that “India and China agreed for the first time to implement a joint economic project in war-torn Afghanistan”. Second, Modi and Xi “have reportedly agreed to set up a hotline between their respective military headquarters … to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding …” The third surprise is their willingness and commitment “to meet at least three times in 2018 to take forward their personal chemistry” after the Wuhan summit.
An observer points out that these “developments are a massive departure from India’s positions less than six months ago when India was at odds with China…” Some pundits reckon that Modi’s calculation for general election in 2019, New Delhi’s lack of progress in curbing domestic corruption (India’s ranking in Transparency International’s newly released Global Corruption Perception Index for 2017 has dropped down two places to 81 out of 180 countries), the revaluation of the Doklam standoff and etc are reasons behind the new drama.
While all the above may be true, we must understand India’s fundamental interests in South Asia. The fact that India abstained from the United Nations voting against Russia over the Crimean Crisis in 2014 was an event almost all Western analysts overlooked or underestimated (saying it is a balancing act) its implications even if aware of. This abstention was actually very illustrative of India’s independence in world politics.
Moreover, India is determined to be the dominant player in South Asia, including the Indian Ocean. Be the Prime Minister Modi or any other Indian, New Delhi has its own agenda under its own control. It can be traced back to India’s leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement since 1947. Therefore, the Modi government will determine its own approach and paces of dealing with China, rather than acting in accordance with the baton of Trump the Conductor.
Obviously, Modi has made a decisive choice of not joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative and instead seeking China’s co-operation, or playing a complementary role, in India’s economic programs in South Asia. Therefore, there is no ground to believe that Modi would join Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China in an American way.
The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of China Daily Mail.