Conflict Alerts # 175, 15 October 2020
In the news
13 October marks the one-year of the Modi-Xi's second summit meeting at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu, India which the Chinese President Xi Jinping had described as his "heart-to-heart" discussions with the Indian Prime Minister Modi as "candid," like those with a "friend." In turn, Modi had said that the "Chennai Connect" would mark the start of a "new era of cooperation" between the two countries.
After the meeting, the two leaders decided to establish a high-level economic and trade dialogue mechanism to achieve enhanced trade and commercial relations. On the vexed boundary issue, the then Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had stated in October 2019, that both sides have been discussing additional confidence-building measures (CBMs) and the leadership will seek to strengthen peace and tranquillity along the border.
Issues at large
First, little progress on the outcomes from Mamallapuram. One year later, relations on all front between the two countries have worsened, and a new era of cooperation has given way to a new area of confrontation as the two continue to remain in a month-long border standoff across Ladakh. The meeting stressed on greater Indian investment in China in information technology and pharmaceutical sectors. Presently, China remains a vexed trade partner with the US, and the conflict has expanded over individual countries banning Chinese apps like Tik Tok and companies like Huawei from domestic investments. A similar stance has also been taken by India, and over the year, New Delhi has looked for gains in trade while Beijing remained transactional which has yielded nothing. CBMs and special representatives engaged in dealing the boundary question has also yielded little as the two countries now see a Dokhlam moment in Galwan valley in Ladakh. Since then, bitterness has lingered not only in the strategic quarters but also in diplomatic signalling by India engaging deep in the Quad and the US.
Second, Wuhan spirit remains to be kindled. The Mamallapuram summit followed a similar summit in Wuhan summit 2018 wherein Xi and Modi met to reset the relationship following the Doklam crisis. In Wuhan, the two leaders initiated a chat in private which was carried forward in the Mamallapuram, but despite those, the two leaders do not share a warm personal relationship, and Xi remains the only leader whom Modi still does not greet with an embrace unlike his counterparts in the US and Europe. The rapprochement, deemed as the Wuhan spirit by the two leaders, did not reflect in the 'Chennai connect' in Mamallapuram and after a year still does not kindle between the two political leaders.
Third, a year later, the military's role in the bilateral relationship has expanded. Since the Galwan crisis in Ladakh, several military-level and only a few political leadership level meetings followed. Between 2014 and 2019, Modi and Xi Jinping met 18 times which contained the Wuhan Joint Strategic Guidance to their respective militaries. And yet, border intrusions by the PLA under Xi-Modi watch have continued. The message seems to be clear that both countries have seen their trade, border and political bonhomie as separate issues and good trade or political relation are not conducive to resolving strategic differences. In this background, the countries' military has continued with efforts to thaw the crisis with political leadership playing by rhetoric and less to act.
After one-year, the mood of rapprochement set in motion is dissipating. The "Chennai Connect" is not strong enough to keep Delhi-Beijing ties afloat. Informal summits are useful ice-breakers as leaders can talk without the added pressure to show deliverables but serious structural problems in India-China relations are not likely to be resolved by two leaders' informal' dialogues and that seems to be evident with the return of border tensions between the two.