The leaders agreed that the process of the two countries pursuing their respective national developmental goals and security interests must unfold in a mutually supportive manner with both sides showing mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations”. That line in the India-China joint statement agreed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit summed up the approach of both countries to bilateral relations and perhaps even this summit’s outcome. The statement points to the context in which bilateral ties operate, acknowledging continuing strains between two of Asia’s biggest powers while pointing to the vast potential of cooperation.
Mr Modi’s visit builds on progress seen during earlier exchanges with the Chinese leadership, particularly via Chinese premier Le Keqiang’s India visit in May 2013 and the summit with President Xi Jinping last September. The premier’s visit saw expansive rhetoric about there being enough space in the world for the development of India and China and that the two countries view each other as “partners for mutual benefit and not as rivals or competitors”. President Xi’s visit saw more discussion on consolidating economic cooperation, particularly through Chinese investment in India and restoring the trade imbalance which is in favour of China. Mr Modi’s return visit sees more declared resolve to consolidate ties between key sectors in both countries, including state-level leaders, foreign ministries, militaries, development planners, financial regulators, think-tanks and senior figures in media. These are all useful, necessary steps to develop links between elite collectives which can both manage misperceptions and nudge government action where needed.
The summit was marked by the customary enthusiasm but judging by Mr Modi’s remarks, political differences figured prominently in discussions. In unusually pointed language, the PM said he “stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising full potential of our partnership” and suggested that “China should take a strategic and long term view of our relations”. He is likely referring to China’s $46 billion investment in Pakistan and Beijing’s postures on the boundary question that include a refusal to clarify the Line of Actual Control. Mr Modi’s China policy straddles the line between conservative anxieties about Beijing’s ambitions and business sentiment that sees the promise of an ‘Asian century’— and his messaging reflects those ambivalences. And those ambiguities, confusing as they are, do not necessarily preclude improvement in ties.