What are Modi’s main goals for the summit?
Less formal summits, such as these, are designed to offer space for the two leaders to engage in candid conversations to develop a deeper understanding for each other, unencumbered by administrative formalities. For Modi, three broad objectives stand out.
First, he is expected to reinforce that administrative changes within the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir are an internal matter for India. On August 5, 2019, the Indian government passed a presidential order to make changes to Article 370 of the Indian constitution, a provision that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status. In the middle of August, the Chinese Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) called for a closed-door Security Council meeting to discuss the changes. This has, without a doubt, irked the Indian leadership. Chinese officials, both in Beijing and elsewhere, had been briefed in detail about the changes and were told that these changes had no effect on India’s external borders. Making sure that Xi appreciates and absorbs India’s position in full will be of paramount importance for the Indian prime minister.
Second, Xi and Modi meet at a time of shifting geopolitical realities. China-Russian ties grow stronger by the day, while there is little to cement fraying U.S.-China relations. What is increasingly clear is that the trade war between the United States and China is only a symptom of a new normal that licenses unfettered geostrategic competition. While Indian officials search for opportunities to leverage these geopolitical cracks—such as the possibility of shifting U.S. supply chains from China to India—it will be left to Modi to assess the extent to which Xi’s China is prepared to accommodate, if not accept, Indian interests and concerns. There is no better time than the present to press Xi. China is very clearly reeling from the United States’ combative methods.
Third, at the operational level of economic diplomacy, Modi and Xi are expected to discuss a range of issues. These include the need for increased Chinese market access for Indian generic drugs, the possibility of greater Chinese greenfield investments in India, and potentially, the thorny issue of 5G technologies and the future of Huawei in India. The case of the prominent Chinese telecommunications giant is especially sensitive. The Indian government is assessing the cost to its security of allowing Huawei to join future 5G auctions against the cost of keeping the firm out. In turn, for China, Huawei is nothing less than a national champion. Senior Chinese officials openly have made the case for Huawei and have even underlined the potential damage to the bilateral relationship if Huawei is not allowed to take part in India’s prospective 5G auctions. What should have otherwise been a technical issue best handled by officials could very well make its way into the conversation between the two leaders. The tenor of this discussion will matter more to the future of China-Indian relations than anyone could have guessed two or three years ago.
Will Modi and Xi make progress on their countries’ contested border at the summit?
The ever-present issue of the contested border between India and China is bound to be discussed. The last informal summit at Wuhan was fundamentally convened to allow both leaders to move past a seventy-day military impasse at the border in Doklam during the summer of 2017 on Bhutanese territory contested by China. An exchange of official notes between China and India in 2012 underlined that a long-standing dispute with regards to the location of a tri-junction point—where Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese territories intersect—would be solved by all the three involved parties. In the summer of 2017, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unilaterally began building a road in the region, forcefully changing the facts on the ground. With the view to assist the Bhutanese military, Indian armed forces rushed down from their post—located close to the contested territory—and blocked the PLA in their tracks. This led to a standoff that ended with a mutual withdrawal of forces from the region.
At present, there are two ways of approaching the border: a modest, highly achievable advance, or something a lot more ambitious, where the payoff would be high but the outcome far less certain.
On the more modest side of things, Modi and Xi are expected to discuss the possibility of doing more for people-to-people movements across a land customs station in the Himalayas known as Nathu La. Nathu La is in East Sikkim, on the India-China border. The aim is to find ways to give local trade a fillip. This approach wouldn’t require an incredible amount of creativity, but it does call for a commitment from both leaders to continue to desecuritize parts of the border.
Doing something more ambitious would require more give and take. The India-China border is divided into four sectors. The border has not been delimited in any of these sectors. That is to say, India and China have not formally agreed to the outer limits of what is known as the Line of Actual Control (LOAC). The LOAC is quite simply a line demarcating Indian and Chinese military control of their respective perceptions of the border.
Chinese officials argue that India could consider an “early harvest” or a partial solution, with regards to the long and so far undefined border. Simply put, they suggest formally delimiting what is known as the Sikkim sector, a part of the border close to where the Doklam standoff took place, rather than looking to resolve the dispute in all four sectors at the same time.
For such a deal to be taken seriously, China watchers in India argue that Xi should in fact put two possibilities on the table. First, apart from Sikkim, an additional sector, they suggest, ought to be considered in the early harvest formulation. Specifically, this is what Indian officials refer to as the middle sector, which borders the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. Second, they contend, serious movement on the border could be realized if Xi agreed to the formal clarification of the entire length of the boundary. This process started in the early 1990s, but there has been little progress to date. Essentially, China has been unyielding in this regard, and has blocked any attempt to even clarify or formally accept the exact location of the border.
These advances would require a degree of determination in both India and China that has largely been unprecedented. Most officials discount this possibility. On the other hand, if there is a pair of leaders who could cut such a deal, it’s Modi and Xi. Whether or not they choose to venture beyond what is modestly possible, will, to an extent, come down to the personal faith they place in each other.
How will India-China ties develop going forward given India’s firm position on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?
India’s position on the BRI is clear: it does not accept it for two main reasons. First, some BRI-funded projects are within the ambit of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. These projects, Indian officials have made plainly clear on multiple occasions, are being built on territory in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, despite Indian concerns about sovereignty. Second, the BRI simply does not follow international standards on transparency, sustainability, openness, and the rule of law. During the second Belt and Road Forum, in April 2019, Xi said that China would address these concerns. Yet, despite this rhetoric, there is little to suggest that BRI financing and contracts are either open or transparent.
However, India may well be open to project-specific partnerships with China on connectivity and infrastructural development, as long as they fall outside the remit and the reach of the BRI. On multiple occasions, Indian and Chinese officials have made a case for cooperation in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, which connects these four countries and their markets. To be sure, the first BCIM meeting dates back to the late 1990s. The venture is in dire need of administrative revitalization and an injection of political realism by highly individualist leaders such as Modi and Xi.
Where is the India-China relationship headed?
Between 1993, when India and China inked their first major agreement on the contested border, and 2013, when both sides entered a border defense cooperation agreement, the relationship travelled slowly and steadily along a recognizable path. Progress on China-Indian relations also coincided with a more globalized world. Bringing China into the fold, as it were, was the West’s ambition.
At Mamallapuram, Xi and Modi are meeting at a time when China seeks to reglobalize the world, but this time, with Chinese money and physiognomy. On the other hand, the United States strives to deglobalize international politics. This leaves unanswered questions about the future of the global trading order and that of multilateralism more broadly.
India and China will need to design a durable, forward-looking framework that balances the challenges inherent in their relationship with the opportunities it presents. This can only really happen if Xi and Modi can find a new way to finely calibrate the relationship between competition and cooperation.
For India, this balancing act will require pressing China where it matters, such as working more closely with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific. This will entail focusing on national economic development, while keeping in mind that China’s purchasing power parity is significantly greater than that of India. And New Delhi will also need to remain firm on the BRI and core Indian security and economic concerns, while finding creative and effective ways to leverage the many possible opportunities in the relationship between two Asian giants.