India-China ties moving to new level

(Spring is in the air in Argentina — Modi, Putin and Xi exchange pleasantries)

The G20 in Argentina last weekend turned out to be of great significance for India-China relations. On the sidelines of the event, PM Modi and President Xi Jinping had occasion to interact thrice – one bilateral meeting and a second meeting of BRICS leaders were scheduled in advance and then, lo and behold, Russian President Vladimir Putin sprang a huge surprise on his Indian and Chinese colleagues by initiating a summit meeting in the Russia-India-China (RIC) format.

Modi and Xi instinctively warmed up to Putin’s initiative, which brought in a third India-China interaction on the sidelines of the G20. Predictably, for the Indian media with eyes riveted on what happens between the US and India the JAI (Japan-US-India) trilateral in Buenos Aires became the big event. How horribly naïve and ignorant our media people are! They missed the real action and mistook the shadows for the real.

One must be really moronic not to know that a trilateral involving Trump is an oxymoron. The man is so hopelessly distracted with his existential battles at home, and incoherent thinking, limited attention span and consumed by egomania that one wonders what actually transpired at the JAI behind closed doors. Interestingly, JAI was a non-event for the MEA website – unlike the BRICS and RIC summits.

The body language of the Russia-India-China summit and the BRICS event suggests that Modi, Putin and Xi have struck a personal rapport between and amongst them.

(The RIC handshake at Buenos Aires, Dec 1, 2018)

The Xinhua account of the Modi-Xi bilateral stood out for its upbeat tone, exuding optimism about the future trajectory of Sino-Indian relations that has not been there previously.

The Xinhua report opens with a statement that the two leaders “agreed to increase mutual trust and bring the bilateral ties to a higher level.” It mentions Xi as expressing satisfaction that “the various important consensuses between him and Modi are being earnestly implemented and the bilateral ties have witnessed stable development.”

Furthermore, Xi noted, “The China-India relations have seen an increasingly positive momentum, which not only brings strong growth impetus for the two countries, but also injects stability and certainty into the profoundly dynamic international situation.” On the whole, Xi’s remarks highlighted the potential for carrying the relations forward both in the bilateral and multilateral setting.

In turn, Modi made a highly significant observation that “The Indian side is willing to increase mutual trust with China, and make good use of the meeting mechanism of the special representatives of China and India on the boundary issue and maintain peace and stability in the border areas.” This remark must be seen in the context of the recent meeting of the special representatives at Chengdu, where “some important consensus” was reached, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement. (Xinhua)

Interestingly, the momentum of high-level contacts and strategic communication will continue with the forthcoming visit by the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to later this month. All in all, the “Wuhan spirit” is steadily transforming the relationship and taking it to an altogether higher level.

Alas, this remarkable transformation is taking place almost at the fag-end of the term of the Modi government. Modi lost a lot of time chasing the chimera of the “joint vision” with the US in the Asia-Pacific. It is only with the appointment of the new foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale that signs began appearing of a profound course correction.

The events in Buenos Aires suggest that Indian policymakers are connecting the dots, finally, and remaking the foreign policy exclusively through the prism of India’s national interests. The primacy given to India’s strategic autonomy, as evident from Modi’s bold decision to proceed with the purchase of the S-400 ABM system, has created a new ambience also for India-China relations. The cloud of strategic ambivalence in India’s foreign policies characteristic of the past decade or so has lifted and that is something that both Russia and China must be welcoming.

(The RIC summit, Buenos Aires, Dec 1, 2018)

To my mind, Putin felt encouraged to sense that the time has come for the realization of what Russian pundits often call the “Primakov’s Triangle”. (The idea of a Russia-India-China format was first propounded in 1998 by the legendary Russian strategist and then foreign minister Evgeniy Primakov but both China and India had reservations about it.)

Indeed, the statements made by Putin, Modi and Xi at the RIC summit make extraordinary reading, signaling the sea change in the regional alignments ensuing from the rethink in India’s strategic calculus, distancing itself from the US’ “Indo-Pacific strategy”.

All in all, the single biggest outcome of the RIC summit on December 1 is that, the three leaders have “agreed to hold further such trilateral meetings on multilateral occasions.” (MEA press release) A new process is taking wings on the strategic landscape of Eurasia.

Read the statements at the RIC summit here.