China and India push to improve strained ties


China and India push to improve strained ties

China’s President Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi agreed to maintain “peace and tranquillity” along their disputed border and enhance “strategic communication” to prevent tension from escalating, during a summit intended to improve fraught relations between the Asian neighbours.

During two days of talks, the leaders also agreed to “handle all our differences through peaceful discussions”, said Vijay Gokhale, India’s foreign secretary, adding that they would offer “strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further friction.

The informal summit was intended to clear the air and infuse a positive energy into ties between the Asian neighbours after one of the worst years in their bilateral relationship since 1962, when Chinese troops invaded India.

But despite the overt display of mutual goodwill, analysts expressed scepticism that the growing strategic rivalry between the two ascending Asian powers would be fundamentally altered. 

“The outcome was long on symbolism and vague promises, but short on tangible results,” said Brahma Chellaney, a senior fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “The atmosphere was friendly; the two leaders displayed bonhomie. Yet in terms of substance, this meeting begs the question as to what has been achieved. 

“It’s China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour — and its determination to contain India — that is at the root of tension,” he added.

Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said that Beijing tended to exaggerate the success of its diplomatic initiatives and that reducing bilateral tension — and the “trust deficit” between Mr Modi and Mr Xi — would take time.

“These conflicts are deeply rooted in the unresolved border disputes and the legacies of the 1962 war,” he said. “Long-term strategic mistrust and rivalry need more time to be sorted out.”

Relations between China and India have soured in recent years, despite Mr Modi’s initial warm overtures to Beijing after his 2014 election. Last year, Indian and Chinese troops were locked in a 72-day stand-off on a disputed Himalayan plateau claimed by both Bhutan — India’s tiny neighbour and de facto protectorate — and by Beijing.

While the stand-off was defused without shots being fired, New Delhi is alarmed at Beijing’s growing economic influence over India’s neighbours such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal, and its increased strategic presence in the Indian Ocean.

Beijing, meanwhile, has bristled at New Delhi’s critique of Mr Xi’s signature Belt-and-Road initiative, and is suspicious of India strengthening strategic ties with China’s big rivals, the US and Japan.

C. Raja Mohan, director of Carnegie India, a think-tank, said Beijing now wants better relations with India — along with other neighbours such as Vietnam and Japan — to hedge against the growing unpredictability of its relations with Washington under President Donald Trump. 

“The geopolitical context has changed with the US threatening and demanding a reorganisation of the China-US economic relationship,” Mr Mohan said. “The Chinese have woken up and said: ‘At least keep our periphery a little calmer’.”

Many Indian analysts feel Mr Modi is also eager to change the tone of engagement with India’s more powerful neighbour to ensure no repeat of last year’s border confrontation or other public spats, with a general election looming.

In Wuhan, Mr Xi and Mr Modi toured a provincial museum together, strolled along the picturesque banks of Wuhan’s East Lake — where Mao Zedong had a holiday villa — and then engaged in a traditional tea ceremony during a boat ride on the lake. 

“The great co-operation between our two great countries can influence the world,” he said, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency.

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