While attention was focused last week on the summit between North and South Korea, another important encounter was taking place in the southern Chinese city of Wuhan. There, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an attempt to put their bilateral relationship on solid ground. Good relations between the two countries are critical — they account for 35 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its economy — and Japan must understand that relationship as it formulates its regional strategy, especially given the growing significance of New Delhi in Tokyo’s foreign policy.
Relations between China and India have been fraught. The two countries have long battled for regional primacy, a rivalry that has manifested in three border wars and a 10-week standoff last summer over a contested border. India is unnerved by China’s support for Pakistan, its longtime adversary, and the growing Chinese political and naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
Beijing protests India’s support for the Dalai Lama, whose government in exile is in northern India. China claims more than 90,000 square kilometers ruled by India in the eastern Himalayas, while India counters that China occupies 38,000 square kilometers of its territory on the Aksai Chin plateau in the west. India counted 426 incidents along the two countries’ 3,500-kilometer border, a near doubling of the 273 incidents in 2016.
The Wuhan summit was an effort to smooth those wrinkles. The talks were modeled after the shirt-sleeves Sunnylands summit that Xi held with U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013. The two men met far from their capitals, in an informal setting, with no agenda and few aides. The fact that Xi played host was an olive branch of sorts, since Beijing has long insisted that China’s premier was the appropriate interlocutor for the Indian leader; this is the first time that a Chinese president hosted his Indian counterpart for an entire visit.
In fact, both governments have made gestures to defuse tensions. In March, Modi offered warm congratulations after Xi’s reappointment as president. Last month, India for the first time banned Tibetans from holding a rally with the Dalai Lama in New Delhi to mark the 60th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and told officials to stay away from the event. China ended objections to international efforts to put Pakistan on a “gray list” of countries that were not working to stop terrorist financing. Beijing also offered to resume sharing hydrological data on rivers that run into India. The two militaries are proceeding with a long-sought hotline between their central headquarters and an annual bilateral military exercise is set to resume.
The meeting served up warm feelings and some progress. The two men agreed that solid China-India relations “are an important factor for global peace and stability,” and promised to “engage in even closer strategic communication.” While they endorsed the work of the special representatives “to find a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement” to the border dispute, there were no concrete agreements.
Another problem in the relationship is a swelling trade imbalance that has reached $500 billion in China’s favor. One easy fix would be for India to join the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s project to build infrastructure that would connect Asia and Europe. New Delhi objects to the BRI because it considers the project an attempt to extend Chinese influence into South Asia — and India’s periphery — and because some projects run through territory in Pakistan that India claims.
Geopolitical considerations are an important part of the calculus. China is concerned by the prospect of cooperation between India, Japan, the United States and Australia — the “Quad” that has re-emerged — as well as the “Indo-Pacific strategic construct” that some view as a means to contain China and counter its spreading influence. Beijing would also like to enlist New Delhi in a front against U.S. President Donald Trump as he tries to rectify U.S. trade imbalances. New Delhi worries that its rapprochement with Washington could be derailed if Beijing proves to be a more valuable partner in U.S. efforts to force North Korea’s denuclearization.
Japan must grasp the complexities of those considerations. Its foreign policy seems to assume antagonism between India and China and has been building a relationship with India on the belief that it has a ready ally in efforts to contain Chinese influence. There is rivalry, but China and India agree on the need to restructure the international order, and both are members in the BRICS, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. New Delhi can be as suspicious of Washington as it is of Beijing and will not take any action that might be seen as compromising its diplomatic independence or sovereignty. In many respects, Japan may be the best partner for India, but it must be ever alert to self-imposed limits on Indian diplomacy.