PM Modi’s ‘informal summit’ with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, last month, came at a time when India-China ties have reached the strongest point since Modi took over. It was always clear that the initiative had to come from the Indian side and it could come only after the PMO stopped listening to overzealous experts with active imaginations, who had, of late, developed a tendency to brand every Chinese infrastructural activity around the border as an aggression and threat to India, and had, for years, been urging India to compete with China in every possible sphere. The tendency still persists, as was evident from recent wild speculations on Chinese mining activities on its side of Arunachal Pradesh border and from India’s position that it needs to develop its technological capabilities (in fields like Artificial Intelligence) in response to Chinese deployment of AI for military purposes. Allegations of Chinese mining activities have now been vehemently denied by Chinese newspapers, who have urged the Indian media not to obstruct the India-China relationship by getting excited about unfounded reports.
The India-China relationship has become crucial to both countries, both immediately and in the long-run. It suits idealism as well as practical considerations. In the long-run, it coheres well with China’s (and perhaps, now even India’s) vision of two ancient cultural powerhouses coming together and shaping the future progress of Asia in a cooperative manner. This is not a pipedream (something that China should know about given its history with opium) but reality, albeit one based on a broad and daring vision. Such a vision leaves absolutely no scope for weakness or a weakling. Only countries that are alert, powerful and capable of being assertive and magnanimous at the same time are fit to lead the charge in Asia, and India and China view themselves and each other as fit for such a role. All the other countries – especially those under the grip of unwanted elements and external forces – will have little choice but to be led. The attempt demands power, patience, self-giving and a cultural vision based on extensive perception.
One will not have to be a US or a Russia to be called powerful in the times to come; they are only following the norms of lawlessness and strategy, respectively. But India and China are moving towards powerful self-expression and national self-realization within their domains, whose effects are inevitably and automatically being felt globally. The trajectory of both the countries represents the giving way of the earlier liberal institutional norms of the global system to relations based on a cultural and historic spirit. The informal Wuhan summit between the two countries was a step in this direction.
The informality was extremely significant presenting a deliberate contrast to the usual formal bilateral summits between countries. Being unbound by the proprieties and interventions of diplomatic niceties, the summit established a personal rapport between the two leaders who feel passionately about the future of their nations. The atmosphere was so conducive that even the two or three substantive outcomes that were gleaned from the summit – such as cooperation in Afghanistan, working against terrorism and providing strategic guidance to their border military personnel to maintain peace – meant more than the laboriously-arrived at technical outcomes during the 20 annual rounds of Special Representative talks in the last few years, or the technical outcomes negotiated by diplomats well in advance of a formal summit, leaving the leaders to sign a pre-negotiated declaration as mere figureheads. Unlike such past superficialities, this agenda-less summit was a heart-to-heart talk about the direction the two leaders see their countries taking and their common future.
Under such conditions, even minimum outcomes count for more than years of negotiated technicalities, and will actually see the light of day. As some philosopher has said — there are decades where nothing happens and then there are weeks where decades happen. India-China relations have now reached such a point. The Wuhan summit – free from cumbersome superficialities and pre-negotiated hand-outs – marks a turning point in the relations between the two countries, from which they can be expected to climb from height to height.
The outer impact of the psychological boost given by the Wuhan summit was also immediate, unlike previous routine summits. The broad public signal that went out to the Chinese public and investors was that relations with India were of the highest priority for China, especially after China removed high import tariffs on 28 medicines imported from India, right after the Wuhan summit. This was, in the words of Chinese ambassador, to show that Wuhan was not just a ‘talk shop’, but meant a lot to the Chinese.
More significantly, two important developments took place in China-Pakistan relations, after the Wuhan summit. One, the heavily indebted Pakistan had to borrow money from China to combat its escalating balance of payments crisis. Two, China pointedly asked Pakistan to shift banned terrorist and 26/11 mastermind, Hafiz Saeed, to West Asia. We will now have a Pakistan, forsaken by the rest of the international community and completely beholden to and consequently in the strong grip of China.
Already, China is holding talks with Baloch separatists without Pakistan’s involvement and has also become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to dismantle Islam within China, through measures like the infamous ‘re-education camps’ for Muslims – including both Uighur and Hui Muslims – and focusing on revival of Confucian values, emphasizing China’s zero tolerance for jihad. After Wuhan, China and India have also decided to partner in relations with countries like Afghanistan and maybe Nepal and Bangladesh as well. This means Pakistan will be completely sidelined, and through initiatives like CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) would be reduced to a dependency of China.
Such collaborative arrangements between India and China – and initiatives taken by China within its own territory to curb extremism – will further check the activities of jihadi networks in the South and South-east Asian regions. As quickly as the wave of jihadi fundamentalism had started touching Asia, it has receded into oblivion. Maldives is already in check and powerless against its neighbours, especially China, to whom it is again economically beholden. Malaysia has seen a historic election catapulting its erstwhile leader, Mahathir Mohammed, into power, whose descent is from the Kerala state of India, and who has vowed to end the country’s decades-old policy of racial discrimination in favour of Malay Muslims, even appointing an Indian to his Cabinet. Modi is also actively pursuing partnership with Indonesia, after the Cold War slumber and negligence, to develop maritime infrastructure.
Thus, Asia – or to be more accurate, Eurasia – is bustling with changes. Modi’s informal Sochi summit with Vladimir Putin, which came right after the Wuhan summit, was more cement to the Eurasian ties with India. While one of the main concerns at Sochi was how to circumvent the US-imposed CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions – imposed by US against its ‘enemies’ and all who deal with them – on Russia, India and Russia have decided to give a green signal to their key defence deals.
The success and symbolic power of the Wuhan and Sochi summits has got more work done and created more impact than typical formal summits which will take place later this year. Leaders like Putin, Xi and Modi are here to stay, at least in the near future. So, the informal summits fed into the idea of cultivating personal and long-term relationships with countries that matter for India. It was the same with China, which has gone out of the way to accommodate India, while Modi already shares a great personal rapport with both Xi and Russia. This rapport explains why the ‘reset’ in Indo-Russia or Indo-China ties came so fast during the informal summits.
As for the USA’s CAATSA obstruction to Indo-Russia relations, the US realizes that India – of all the countries – will not succumb to bullying. The days of Non-alignment may have died with Nehru, but India continues to retain her independent position, often making it a neutral powerful swing state in global politics. India has developed strong relationships with all powerful countries who are also mutual rivals, but has retained its independence. Which is why the US Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, last month, appealed to the US Congress to urgently provide a ‘national security waiver’ to India from CAATSA, since India’s deal with Russia would go ahead.
India’s increasingly deft maneuverings in international politics came with the direct intervention of the PMO, instead of the foreign ministry, a signal on its own. The Wuhan summit came right before a follow-up ‘informal summit’ with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, with India strengthening its ties with Iran right after the US pull-out from the nuclear deal and with very subtle and under-the-wraps visit by Gen. V.K. Singh to North Korea which successfully consolidated the diplomatic position of India’s new ambassador to the country. This shows India asserting its own independent stand in the changes taking place on the Korean peninsula. It has increased India’s stature – India is not just a tool to be used to tilt the balance of power this way or that under external pressures or will not always be in a reactionary mode, but a deciding voice shaping the course of events in other countries.
India has also stopped competing with Pakistan, with the result that the latter is faced with a fast disappearing identity, cocooned in its isolated world of Kashmiri militants and other terrorists, and of no use to any country in the fast-paced changes taking place internationally. The upshot is that, in today’s world of sharp polarizations between the US versus the rest, everyone wants India in its corner. In the next couple of weeks, the US is likely to rename its US Pacific base as the Indo-US Pacific base, to signal its seriousness about the Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China in the region, along with Australia, Japan and India. These symbolic moves and the US’s increasingly suffocating gestures towards India contributed to India making its own stand clear on developing good relations with countries like China, Iran and Russia.
Indeed, to this effect, India also prevented Australia from participating in the Malabar exercise, despite Australia’s still-continuing efforts to secure a space with India. India has thus rejected the QUAD alliance (US, Japan, India and Australia) in favour of better relationships within Asia.
It is also a fact that, thanks to Trump, the next few months, will likely see the beginning of the process of the complete dismantling of the liberal political economic system instituted by the West after the Cold War, as anchored by institutions like the WTO. Trump’s ban politics with Chinese company, ZTE, higher tariffs on aluminum and steel and now, the ridiculous terming of auto imports as a threat to US’s ‘national security’ – thereby directly hitting EU, Japan and South Korea – have collectively led to the declaration of a massive trade war on all major fronts with almost everyone, antagonizing EU, Japan, China, South Korea and even the US’s NAFTA partners, Mexico and Canada. Its antics with North Korea, Russia and Iran have not helped either. Effectively, except for the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the US has virtually no other country on its side. In the latest move, US is also pressurizing China to import a list of agricultural and energy items from US (to reduce the trade deficit), which China currently imports from Europe and other countries, thereby further antagonizing the latter.
With this unfolding ominous background, India’s decision to keep the US at bay and in symbolic good humor, while forging active partnerships with Russia, China, Iran and Japan, is for the best.
With these developments and India’s active foreign overtures (for which the PM has been unfairly targeted domestically), India has become a strategic and powerful country for all who want to successfully navigate through the Asian geopolitics, which is where the real international affairs will be conducted and shaped. In international relations, it never pays to be a silent doll. India has now finally combined its neutrality with a vocal assertion and the pro-active combination has already placed India in a leading regional position.
Unlike during the time of erstwhile governments, India has come to a point where it no longer needs to target Pakistan or try to act the irritating, interfering big brother within South Asia. Both the attitudes had led to India’s isolation and its confinement within the subcontinent. With its newfound wideness, akin to that of China, India has gone beyond petty territorial wrangles and is spreading her wings. That India could adopt these stances in the last few months without pulling off any forceful outer changes, shows that international affairs, more than anything, is a game of consciousness and psychological perception.