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International Relations

India-China ties can transition from one of lack of trust to a transactional one

There are several ways to interpret the weekend deliberations between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mamallapuram, the coastal town in Tamil Nadu. One is of course to dwell on the informal settings of the conversation between the two leaders, including Modi’s beach plogging and decision to don the traditional Tamil Nadu veshti.

Indeed while this does provide a nice distraction, there is a larger takeaway and this was conveyed by Xi Jinping. Immediately after he departed India, Xi Jinping put out an interesting statement reported by Xinhua, the official news agency of China. While dwelling on the positives, the Chinese President remarked rather cryptically, “We should carefully handle issues concerning each other’s core interests. We should properly manage and control problems that cannot be solved for the time being."

Shorn of diplomatic speak, Xi Jinping is simply saying that both countries should agree to disagree on matters that are a bone of contention.

Essentially, he is arguing that these differences cannot hold the entire relationship hostage and in the process derail dialogue—the sina qua non for resolving differences. It is a nuance that would surely not be missed by the Indian side. In fact, it has since the turn of the Millennium, been a hallmark of Indian diplomacy.

Earlier the binary contours defined around the Cold War era precluded such a nuance. Even with the United States, which was the single biggest shift Indian diplomacy undertook under the leadership of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and continued first by Manmohan Singh and in the last six years by Modi, the recalibration happened in stages.

Initially serious points of disagreements were put on the back burner. Instead the focus was on points of agreement between the two countries. Once these were institutionalized, they provided a foundation for the relationship to explore resolution of testy issues.

In the India-China context, something similar seems to be playing out. Though the two instances can’t be compared—the US has never militarily attacked India, though it sided Pakistan in a bilateral conflict—there are sufficient parallels suggesting that the relationship can transition from one of lack of trust to a transactional one. That is exactly why an informal setting such as Mamallapuram provides the perfect platform to explore such nuances in the relationship.

This is presumably why the verbal bloodletting on a key disagreement between the two sides preceded the summit. China, a loyal supporter in the Pakistan corner, aired its views on Kashmir just a day before the summit. In response, India did not mince its criticism of China’s stance. With both sides having drawn their respective red lines on a contentious issue, the decks were cleared for both leaders to proceed with their dialogue.

The fact that there was no pressure of a formal joint statement at the end of the summit also allowed both sides room to make their own public interpretations of the deliberations—ensuring the right messaging to their respective constituencies.

This is not to suggest that the Asian neighbours will revert to bonhomie from tomorrow. Of course not. This would be a fatal presumption.

After all, as has already been pointed out by several commentators, the face off between the two armies in Doklam immediately after the informal summit between the two leaders in Ahmedabad.

Brace for similar infractions in the future too. The difference will be that there will be an institutional mechanism that would avoid conflict.

The uncomfortable reality from India’s point of view is that the two countries are unequal. Contrary to what is claimed by some, even in official quarters, India, for now, is punching way above its league—it is actually a tribute to its diplomacy and the new found self-belief to impress upon others that the country will realise its potential.

The Chinese economy at about $14 trillion is nearly five times that of India. But then don’t forget India was in a similar spot with the US, which at about $18 trillion, is the largest in the world, some years ago when it embarked on a recalibration of their relationship. It was the mantra of “agree to disagree" that allowed the two countries to strike out on a new note. Will history repeat itself?

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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