The recent dramatic episodes in Sino-Indian relations can be best epitomized by the old Chinese proverb: Friends are often made after a fight. Since last year’s Doklam standoff in which bilateral ties plumbed new depths and reached a nadir, the two Asian giants have engaged in series of dazzling diplomatic exchanges at all levels. These efforts have not only put the ties back on track but are also projecting relations to a level that perhaps will be an all-time high.
After the 9th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Xiamen in September 2017, there have been unprecedented, frequent and close diplomatic interactions between China and India. On December 11, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India and soon after, then State Councilor Yang Jiechi also embarked on his Indian trip.
In January 2018, Vijay Gokhale, an old China hand who played a crucial role in resolving the Doklam standoff as ambassador to Beijing, was promoted to India’s foreign secretary, illustrating the great importance the Narendra Modi administration attached to Sino-Indian relations. Only a month later, Gokhale went to Beijing for a high-level talk with Yang Jiechi.
It was Gokhale’s visit that in effect set in motion a cascade of high-level diplomatic exchanges: On the economic side, on March 26, Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan visited India and participated in the 11th India-China Joint Economic Group in New Delhi. On April 14, He Lifeng, chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, hosted Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of the National Institution for Transforming India, at the fifth Sino-Indian Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing.
On the political side, on April 13 India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval came to Shanghai and met Yang Jiechi. On April 21, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj arrived in China to meet Wang Yi and take part in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers meeting. Around the same time, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman arrived in China for the SCO defense ministers’ meeting on Tuesday.
These events will culminate in Modi’s trip to Wuhan for an informal meeting with President Xi Jinping on April 27-28. Of course, not too long after this, the two leaders will meet each other again at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao in June.
Such a dense and intense series of high-level diplomatic exchanges has rarely happened in the history of Sino-Indian interactions, signaling both sides’ aspirations to chart a new course like never before.
Talking about the agenda of the Wuhan meeting, Wang Yi revealed the two leaders will exchange views on the “strategic nature concerning the once-in-a-century shifts going on in the world.” One may wonder why the top Chinese diplomat talked about such a shift. After all, an era of great uncertainties featuring Trump’s opportunistic maneuvers, braggadocio and threats, might be a good time for China and India to chart some certainties for the world.
If there is any certainty to be found, the relative rise of China and India may well be one of the grand, overarching, long-term shifts. As the world’s fastest-growing economies, the states with the oldest civilizations as well as the only two members of the billion-population club, China and India are bound to play larger roles both separately and collectively on the global stage.
How the new mood of renewed optimism will materialize into more concrete policy outcomes remains largely uncertain, but Beijing and New Delhi can at least draw important lessons from the twists and turns of the last few years.
For example, the megaphone approach on contentious issues was not helpful at all. Issues like India’s bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership and the proscription of Masood Azhar could have been better addressed via quiet diplomacy, but New Delhi chose to air them extensively, with extremely muscular rhetoric. Lacking the wherewithal to coerce Beijing, New Delhi only escalated suspicions and quarrels with such behavior.
Friction can be handled with deft diplomacy. With the return of frequent and attentive diplomatic exchanges, the two sides can quietly work out their issues. As tellingly demonstrated in India’s actions taken to address China’s concerns over the Dalai Lama as well as China’s endorsement of India’s demand for including a specific anti-terrorism section in the BRICS’ Xiamen declaration, they can deal with each other’s sensitive issues in a prudent, low-key manner.
If Sino-Indian relations are really heading to an all-time high, that’s because they can now manage to maximize their cooperation potential while minimizing friction.
The author is a researcher with the Pangoal Institution.