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International Relations

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Incremental progress and sustained dialogue have been the main features of the engagement between the leaders of the two countries since the late 1980s, when the two sides began to normalise the relationship that went into a deep chill following the border clashes of 1962. A third feature of recent times, marked by increasing tensions between the two countries on a range of issues, has been the strong political commitment of the two sides to prudently manage their differences and prevent them from becoming disputes. The second informal summit at Mamallapuram near Chennai, between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, has followed a similar script. And if you are a diplomat, you might add a fourth feature to India-China political encounters. An air of informality has begun to leaven the dull rigidity that used to define them. Modi, always insistent on adding some colour to diplomatic events and holding them outside Delhi, took Xi to Ahmedabad in 2014, Goa in 2016, and now to Mamallapuram.

The Modi-Xi summit that took place amidst the visual beauty of Mamallapuram was, of course, not expected to produce big breakthroughs. The leaders don’t negotiate on complicated issues but only review the state of the relations, set a direction to their ministers and officials. Given the depth of differences on the boundary dispute, Kashmir, China’s protection to Pakistan against international pressures on dismantling its terror infrastructure, and Beijing’s opposition to Delhi’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it was entirely reasonable for the two leaders to focus on areas that are amenable to progress. One of those areas is economic cooperation. Following the discussion on India’s concerns about trade deficit that has reached unsustainable levels, Xi has agreed to set up a high-level political mechanism to find ways to enhance India’s access to China’s market. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will lead the Indian side.

According to the Indian officials, there was no discussion on other controversial issues such as Kashmir that are troubling the relationship so deeply today. Before the summit, Delhi had affirmed that the issue is an internal one and the PM will not engage on Kashmir unless Xi raised it. Delhi’s strategy, quite clearly, is not to get rattled or complain about China’s harmful actions, but to look for advances in the bilateral relationship wherever possible. On the face of it, India’s approach seems to impose few costs on China. Implicit in this strategy, however, is the proposition that Delhi will do what it needs to counter Beijing’s unhelpful moves. This, in turn, demands an active effort to reduce the widening power gap with China. Put another way, diplomacy alone can’t resolve India’s China challenge; it can at best manage it for the moment. The answer lies in accelerating India’s own economic development, modernising its security structures, and strengthening cooperation with neighbours and building strong partnerships with major powers. The longer Delhi takes in getting its act together, the harder the challenge gets and less credible its feel-good engagement with China.

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