The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on June 9 and 10 marks the initiation of a new Sino-India dynamic. The SCO summit will formalize India and Pakistan’s entry into the China and Russia led Eurasian security group. Originally launched to resolve border issues between China, Russia and erstwhile constituents of the Soviet Union, the block has evolved to a powerful eight-member grouping with substantial resources. It is widely believed that while Russia pushed for India’s membership, Pakistan’s entry into the bloc was backed by China.
The Chinese coastal city of Qingdao will play host to global top guns including Modi, Xi, Putin, and Rouhani. India has already iterated its intentions to establish peaceful relations with China. Indian ambassador in Beijing Gautam Bambawale said,
“We believe that the message which will come out of the summit is that important big countries which are members of the SCO can peacefully coexist despite differences in their systems and that they can work together.”
On 5 June, India and China held preparatory talks for the SCO summit. A Press release from the Ministry of External Affairs stated,
“The two sides reviewed the follow-up action on the understandings reached at the Wuhan Informal Summit and discussed the agenda for bilateral engagement in the coming months.”
These attempts at restoring diplomatic normalcy come at the realization that hostile Indo-China relations seek to damage growth and stability for both nations. Both sides had emerged bruised from the Doklam standoff, and having sold their preferred versions of how the standoff ended for domestic political purposes, the desire to stabilize the relationship was visible since late last year.
One major step in this direction was the summit in Wuhan on April 27-28. It is important to note that the summit was termed as ‘informal’ and had no pre-defined agenda. In that sense, Wuhan was about the desire to return to the negotiating table, not about negotiating anything specific.
The Wuhan summit was particularly relevant for Modi’s domestic messaging too. With India gearing up for general elections in 2019, Modi’s foreign policy record would definitely be up for opposition jibes. Consider this: India-Pakistan relations are nowhere near normal, India’s neighborhood policy is in doldrums (despite the recent overtures towards Nepal) and India-China relations have been becoming difficult. While tensions with Pakistan wouldn’t be costly for the BJP from an electoral point of view, a ‘failed China policy’ could be a potential dent for Modi’s domestic image. This is because, unlike India’s other neighbors, China is its biggest trading partner, and in many ways unavoidable from an economic and geopolitical point of view. In that context, cozying up to China is almost essential for Modi’s foreign policy – regardless of the chest thumping rhetoric his party, the BJP, might project.
In terms of tangible developments, the Wuhan summit might not boast of much, but some progress was made nonetheless. The two leaders agreed to promote trade cooperation while mitigating trade deficit and strengthened exchanges in the fields of movie, sports, tourism, youth and local contacts. In a rare moment of candor, President Xi mentioned that he had watched Bollywood movies such as ‘Dangal’. The two leaders also agreed to establish a high-level people-to-people exchange mechanism.
The most important discussion pertained to the border skirmishes between the two neighbors. Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said,
“[the talks] underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquility in all areas of the India-China border region.”
This is diplomatese for conveying that the two countries have realized that local military activities on the border and tactical factors can have strategic and political implications — and that not everything that happens on the India-China border between the two militaries is politically sanctioned. That border tensions, which often occur without the explicit directives of the central leaderships, can potentially derail the relationship is an important realization, and the two sides should be credited for addressing it.
The SCO summit will hopefully take forward the diplomatic progress achieved hitherto. Mr. Modi is scheduled to have a one-on-one meet with Mr. Xi. Indian envoy Bambawale assures,
"As a result of their discussion in Wuhan, the two leaders have arrived at a certain consensus: the first and most important consensus is that India and China are partners in progress and economic development. The second most important consensus is that there are many more commonalities between India and China than differences.”
The extent and duration of this thaw in Sino-India relations is yet to be fully gauged, but it’s safe to assume that both Modi and Xi would seek to prolong diplomacy for their respective domestic political gain. To that end, Mr. Modi would hope that Chinese theatres don’t run out of Bollywood movies anytime soon.
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About The Author
Parth Maniktala is a student of literature at Hansraj College, Delhi University. He is the current President of the Hansraj College Debating Society. Parth has been recognized as one of Asia’s top 10 speakers at the United Asians Debating Championship held in Cambodia in 2017. He has also been the chief adjudicator of the annual national schools debating championship of Nepal. Apart from debating, he has a keen interest in cinema and literature. He has in the past served as the literary editor of the St. Columba's School's magazine.