India’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping will meet in the southern Indian city of Chennai this week, for the second in a series of “informal” summits. The last one, in Wuhan last year, was credited with repairing a bilateral relationship strained by a confrontation over the Doklam plateau, along the China-Bhutan border. But the long delay in confirming this widely expected second meeting suggests arduous and complicated behind-the-scenes negotiations were needed to make it happen.
That wouldn’t be surprising. While the two giant neighbors have dialed down the public rhetoric considerably since the standoff over Doklam, their relationship has if anything grown even more fraught. In August, the government in New Delhi revoked the decades-long autonomy granted to India’s restive state of Jammu and Kashmir, and cut off communications to areas under its direct control. Pakistan, which claims the state, reacted with predictable outrage. One of its few prominent backers has been China, which raised the issue at the United Nations Security Council. Xi even invited Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Beijing for discussions prior to his summit with Modi — and subsequently said “the rights and wrongs of the situation were clear.”
Modi has a difficult path to tread with Xi. On the one hand, exasperation has grown in New Delhi about Beijing’s resolute support of the Pakistani military establishment, which most in India believe is incurably opposed to peace with India. Worse, it isn’t just Pakistan that India is worried about in its neighborhood. After Chennai, Xi will visit Nepal, which shares a border with both India and China but has long been closer to the former. New Delhi strategists worry that China’s deep pockets mean it will inexorably suborn all of India’s South Asian neighbors one by one.
Anger has also grown — as in many other parts of the world — about Chinese trade practices, which India believes are responsible for an apparently intractable trade deficit. On the other hand, the distance between the two countries in terms of hard power is vast, and the parlous state of India’s public finances and a sharp slowdown in growth mean it isn’t going to start closing the gap any time soon.
But Xi had better be careful as well. Modi likes to draw a sharp distinction between his administration and the relatively placid and predictable policies of its predecessors. The Kashmir move — which would have been rejected out of hand by any previous Indian administration — shows that his “new India” is a risk-taker, even when there is no clear endgame in sight.
China might feel that it is quite obviously in India’s interest to “hide its strength and bide its time,” as an earlier Chinese leader once advised his people. But Modi and his voters see the national interest quite differently. In their view, while New Delhi is respectful of Beijing’s red lines, the Chinese encourage Pakistan to breach India’s. I suspect some Modi advisers view nothing as off the table — whether a more aggressive posture on the border, or even quiet support for Tibetan or Uighur nationalists. No previous Indian government has done that — a fact that makes it more likely, not less, that Modi will consider it and other similarly audacious moves.
The truth is that the calm following the Wuhan summit last year had a lot to do with the Modi government’s desire to avoid a Doklam-like confrontation in the run-up to general elections in India. Modi was returned to power with an increased majority, however, partly because of a nationalist upsurge following an airstrike on Pakistani-held territory. Beyond a point, he will find it hard to convince his voters that he’s serious about tackling Pakistan if he doesn’t also raise the temperature with Islamabad’s main backer.
Rationally, just as Pakistan is only an irritant for India rather than a serious threat, India can be little but a thorn in China’s side for the foreseeable future. But leaders whose power is based on a carefully constructed image of unyielding strength — as is the case with both Modi and Xi — may feel they can ill afford to ignore even small issues.
The Chennai summit may end quietly, or even with apparent bonhomie. India and China may swap concessions of one sort or another. With every passing year, however, the contradictions at the heart of their relationship grow ever harder for their leaders to ignore.
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Nisid Hajari at firstname.lastname@example.org