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Modi-Xi summit: Can India celebrate 'success' at Wuhan, cautiously?

Interpretation of what transpired at Wuhan between India and China depends entirely on the bias of the person making the interpreter

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside a house boat in Wuhan, China. (Photo: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside a house boat in Wuhan, China. (Photo: PTI)

What does one make of the Summit? The usual partisans are out either panning it or praising it. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, a complex multi-causal matrix. What is surprising is that this summit actually holds the kernel of great promise, if and only if, has the will and institutional memory to follow through. Alas as we know, lack of delivery and loss of direction are the bane of Indian policy making.

From Xi's standpoint this summit was offered as a patch-up but in reality, as China's need to "face-save" goes it was a victory. Much of this perceived victory, has to do with the old imperial tradition of foreign potentates calling on the emperor who almost never left The problem here is that Indian leaders, as a rule, tend to go more often to than Chinese leaders visit To be fair given India's strident stand against Chinese economic projects and holding firm on the issue of Doklam, one did need to soften the blow. Antagonism mixed with sweet nothings is usually a very good tactic, The issue here is, a string of acts of defiance by should have brought the Chinese leadership to India, not the other way round. But given that it forced the Chinese leadership to request and host a summit in itself marks a climb down. Psychologically, therefore, the image of a foreign leader coming to Chinese home turf, was a victory for China, though a pyrrhic one and as such must be seen as a partial victory for India.

The second face-saver that scored was the agreement for joint projects in Afghanistan. Given India's staunch opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative and especially the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the very announcement of this project was a victory for China. However, when one looks at it from an Indian point of view one does begin to see some more nuance. The fact remains that this project in whatever form it materialises (or indeed, if it materialises) must be seen as a pilot project, which if it succeeds could herald increased India-China cooperation. Most importantly, the very fact that China is involved it may give the Indian involvement some level of protection against Pakistani sponsored attacks. Moreover and most interestingly it could open up the possibility of land transit for jointly produced goods through Pakistan either to the sea or to India. From this point of view, this could possibly be a Trojan horse. The issue, however - as always - is that we tend to lose institutional memory rapidly, with policy being highly personalised. In such cases a change of government or for that matter a change in disposition of the government as happens so often, may result in refocused priorities and mission creep setting in, forgetting what the initial goals were (for example how Nehru himself got carried away with our rhetoric on Non-Alignment or allowed ideologues like Krishna Menon to hijack it due to a reluctance to discipline him).

However, the most puzzling and possibly disappointing outcome of the agreement was the curiously worded line that the leaders had issued "strategic guidance.... to the militaries... to build trust". Given that China's love of Jargon is only matched or exceeded by India, This could be read any of three ways. The first is that China has learnt that border incursions into India will run the risk of escalation, with the onus of going lethal entirely left up to China. Should these confrontations turn lethal, however, it brings China down several notches and hyphenates it with India-Pakistan as the "world's most dangerous nuclear flashpoint" as nuclear Ayatollahs like to call it. In effect the introduction of any form of lethality into the India-China border equation destroys the halo of China being a "responsible nuclear power" and has consequences for its own deterrence myth vis-a-vis the US and Russia (after all what would prevent them from initiating limited but lethal action against China, given that China would have partially destroyed some of the foundations of nuclear deterrence should it take action against India. As such the wording could be seen as a face saver.

There is, however, another conclusion that can be drawn from this and a disturbing one at that. This is that India has still not learnt its lesson from Doklam or indeed from the dealings of others with China. Chinese interlocutors for long have expressed complete bewilderment at the dichotomy in India's China policy: a hyper-bellicose military and a pusillanimous or woolly-headed foreign policy advocated by certain influential figures in the Indian policy sphere. for example, there is no end of apologists who claim that the incursions into Indian territory during Xi's visit to India was a rogue commander acting out. Yet the reality is that the commander in question was promoted rapidly thereafter. Similarly, the EP-3 incident involving the mid-air harassment, ramming, and emergency landing of a US spy plane on China's Hainan Island in 2001, the Chinese commander in question received a promotion. Several US scholars such as Oriana Mastro and Lora Saalman had posited then that this was the beginning of a salami-slicing policy by the Chinese, determined at the very top echelons of government.

There is also the third option which is a combination of China learning its lesson and India continue to be confused. Which of these three explanations one chooses depends entirely on the bias of the beholder as interpretation is virtually impossible in this short timeframe. All up - the net result of should be one of cautious optimism for the future and a mixed bag for the present. Given the vast power differential between India and China, the fact we were possibly able to hold our own is something to celebrate, cautiously.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @Iyervval

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Thu, May 03 2018. 08:54 IST