If diplomacy was only about optics, then the 'informal summit' between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram was a resounding success. But beyond the optics, both sides have a somewhat blurred vision of where they see their relationship heading.
Truth be told, there isn't any real convergence in Chinese perception of India, and India's perception of itself. Without this, there can be no clarity on where both sides want to take their relationship in the future.
An unequal music
China and India are singing from the same song sheet, but in ever more discordant notes. Mamallapuram is unlikely to change this.
Engagement with the Chinese at every level — formal and informal, structured and unstructured, professional and business, academic and personal — is both desirable and necessary. But excited expectation attached to every high-level engagement between the top leaders of the countries is a bit over the top. Unstructured and informal summits have their uses, but also limitations in terms of tangible takeaways. To be sure, just like after Wuhan, both sides will say all the right things after Mamallapuram, even issue 'strategic guidance' to officials. But very little is likely to change on ground.
Here is the thing: All the historical symbolism attached to Mamallapuram and harping on ancient ties add up to nothing in this day and age, if the other side either neither gets the message nor values it. Let us face it.
The past matters only if both sides want to use it to build something for the future. Otherwise, it is irrelevant, even meaningless. The future, of course, is as much about what sort of relationship India wants as about whether or not China wants a corresponding relationship. There is no sign of that. The Wuhan Summit might have reduced the Doklam-related tensions, and given a veneer of stability to the India-China relationship. No one expected Wuhan to resolve all bilateral problems. Still, it was expected to give a positive direction to bilateral ties. Unfortunately, the hope that the Chinese leadership would have gained a better appreciation and understanding of India's concerns and sensitivities about its core interests has since been belied. Forget about delivering something substantive on outstanding issues like trade or border demarcation, the Chinese have displayed undiluted hostility towards India, especially on a core interest like Jammu and Kashmir.
Beijing's Pak ploy
Regardless of the nonchalance of Indian official over this — it doubled down in favour of Pakistan by raising the issue in the UN Security Council, supporting Pakistan in UNHRC (the irony of China talking human rights was breathtaking), inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on the eve of Mamallapuram and declaring that "Xi was watching Kashmir" — the fact remains that this issue cannot be brushed under the carpet. There is no question of Sino-Indian ties improving and trust developing between the two countries if China questions and undermines India's sovereignty and backs an enemy country like Pakistan over India. It is crazy for anyone in India to offer China an alibi on Pakistan. The bottom line is that China's interests and stakes in Pakistan are unacceptable if they come at the cost of India's interests.
On virtually every other thing — border problems (the Chinese don't want a solution unless it is on their terms), trade (both bilateral and multilateral where China's sharp business practices are an obstacle to fair trade), security and strategic issues (Chinese expansionism, freedom of navigation, tolerance and support for Pakistani terrorists and terror groups, stabilising Afghanistan, India's NSG membership), BRI-related debt-trap diplomacy — there has been little-to-no give from the Chinese side. All we have is the standard formulation that officials have been instructed to meet and thrash out these issues. It is delusional to attach hope to people-to-people relations and increased tourism as a way forward.
Essence of realpolitik
The Chinese have weaponised tourism. And people-to-people ties won't lead to a breakthrough given that China is not a country that runs on public opinion. Although the visuals from Mamallapuram suggest that both Modi and Xi are quite relaxed around each other, the personal chemistry between the two leaders hasn't really translated into any major breakthrough in national bilateral ties. Given the growing power imbalance with China, and that China hasn't exactly been friendly, India will need to balance the growing asymmetry. But the balancing game is easier said than done.
For one, the partners we need to balance China aren't exactly very reliable. Russia is now firmly in the Chinese camp. The US, under President Donald Trump, has proven to be notoriously capricious. For another, it isn't clear if India is ready to enter into formal alliance arrangements — in part because India wishes to remain wedded to the fiction of 'strategic autonomy' — without which the balancing game is a bit of a pie in the sky. In the end, India will have to build and rely on its own economic and military sinews to manage the rise of China. Wuhan, Mamallapuram and other such events aren't going to change this reality.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)