From Doklam to Wuhan, 2018 will go down as watershed year in testy India-China ties

Beijing | The year 2018 will go down as a watershed in India-China relations for its remarkable turnaround – from the brink of a major military standoff to bonhomie – with the first informal summit of the top leaders of the two countries leading to cooling down of tensions between the two Asian giants.

In 2017, the bilateral ties were marred by rancour and bitterness over the USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a pet project of President Xi Jinping to consolidate China’s influence abroad – followed by the 73-day standoff at Doklam.

The deadlock over the CPEC and the Doklam standoff prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi to explore peaceful development of ties with an informal summit at Wuhan.

Under the strategic guidance of the two leaders, the two countries resumed joint military drill in 2018 – the first exercise of its kind since they were locked in the standoff at Doklam 18 months ago.

“In the current profound dynamic international situation, the sound development of China-India relations conforms to the fundamental interests of both countries,” the Chinese foreign ministry said, summing up the Sino-India ties this year.

“Looking forward to the year 2019, China is ready to work with India to enhance political mutual trust, deepen exchanges and cooperation across the various fields, properly manage differences and promote faster, better and more stable development of China-India relations, guided by the important consensus reached by leaders of the two countries,” it said in a written reply to PTI.

While the BRI itself posed a major threat to dent India’s influence in the South Asian neighbourhood with China dolling out billions of dollars in loans for infra projects to smaller countries amid allegations of debt diplomacy, the CPEC has emerged as the biggest irritant in Sino-India ties. China went ahead with the CPEC disregarding India’s protest that it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India hit back by boycotting the BRI Forum hosted by President Xi last year.

Also, China’s open opposition to India’s efforts to become member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and stonewalling of New Delhi’s bid to declare Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the UN has widened the rift between the two countries.

“The 2018 was the year when India-China relations moved from Doklam to Wuhan and beyond,” said Gautam Bambawale, who was India’s envoy to Beijing for the best part of the year and played a key role in closely interacting with the Chinese officials to workout the first-ever informal summit.

“In order to do so, both countries and their leaderships had to introspect and independently came to the conclusion that an Informal Summit would provide both leaders the opportunity for strategic communication. Their conversations at Wuhan set the tone for a quick repair of the relationship,” Bambawale, who retired on November 30, said in e-mail response to PTI.

“The outgoing year has seen political communication at its best. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi met four times this year. What has not been noticed is that Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her counterpart Wei Fenghe have also met thrice this year. Our Foreign Ministers too have met on multiple occasions. The visit to India this year of Public Security Minister of China was a significant event,” he said.

More importantly, for the first time both sides held numerous delegation-level talks to push India’s exports to China to address the over USD 51 billion trade deficit.

China has agreed to step up imports of India’s rice, sugar, rapeseed oil, besides the long overdue imports of pharmaceuticals, which could partly balance the trade. China is also responding to New Delhi’s persistent campaigns to step up its big-ticket investments in India.

The development of bilateral military ties is the “most critical India-China interactions this year,” Bambawale said, referring to the resumption of the ‘Hand-in-Hand’ military drills in Chengdu and the defence dialogue – both of which were held after a gap of one year due to Doklam standoff.

The two nations also held the 21st round of border talks in November during which they called for advancing the dialogue process to find a solution to the border question.

“Great interaction, more conversations across the board are important for the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas,” Bambawale said.

While 2018 is the year of most extensive political conversations between the two sides, observers say 2019 could be the year of deliverables with onus on China to reset its strategic ties with India without its close ally Pakistan hampering the development of meaningful Sino-India relations.

The year 2019 will be watched with great interest in China as India goes for the general elections and how the results could shape the nature of the political dialogue as Xi is set to travel to India next year for the informal summit.

Towards the end of the year, Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi travelled to New Delhi, where he attended the first meeting of the People-to-People mechanism with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

“Both countries, their Governments and their people will have to continue expanding and enhancing their conversations, their interactions in 2019 so as to enhance mutual understanding which in turn will hold the relationship on an upward trajectory,” Bambawale added.

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