Substance and optics of the summit

Substance and optics of the summit

Context

India-China relations have been under great stress in recent years. The 2017 military standoff at the Doklam tri-junction and the war of words that followed vitiated a relationship that was already reeling under a great deal of pressure. The Wuhan summit should be viewed in the context of this vitiated atmosphere and a strong desire for stability and rapprochement.

The Electoral benefits

  • Modi needed this meeting more than Mr. Xi did given how the former would need a calm and peaceful India-China border as he leads his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into the general election
  • While tensions with Pakistan wouldn’t be costly for the BJP from an electoral point of view, a ‘failed China policy’ could potentially be used by the Opposition to take on Mr. Modi in the context of the BJP’s unsuccessful policy towards the neighbourhood.

Outcomes and measures that need be taken

  • Both the leaders issued strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs and directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides
  • It is important that the both India-China update the 2013 defence cooperation agreement as well as set up the hotline between the two military HQs
  • If China can persuade Pakistan to see the utility of India-China (and potentially Pakistan) collaboration in Afghanistan, it could promote trust and cooperation all around
  • If China and India can cooperate in Afghanistan, they can certainly do so in other parts of the neighbourhood and can consider joint India-China projects in the region.

Going forward

  • Notwithstanding the positive outcome of the Wuhan summit, it must be asked whether the summit has come too late in Mr. Modi’s current term as Prime Minister to herald a new beginning between India and China, especially on the border question
  • China watchers argue that the broad contours of a India-China border agreement have been worked out during the 20 rounds of talks at the Special Representatives level.
  • However, an agreement can only be arrived at a higher political level. While Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi, both with strong domestic political standing, would be able to reach such an agreement, and use it to further consolidate their domestic appeal, will Mr. Modi take that gamble? If not, weren’t the ministerial visits that were already taking place and Mr. Modi’s upcoming visit to China in June for the SCO summit enough to sustain the thaw?
  • The answer perhaps lies in Mr. Modi’s keen eye for the optics and its domestic political utility.

Optics: public perception

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