What will Xi’s third term mean for India-China ties?

Updated on Oct 18, 2022 11:01 AM IST

The swinging fluctuations in Sino-India relations, tenuous at the best of times, have remained inexplicable, more so given Beijing’s talk of bonhomie that has punctuated the changes.

 (AFP) PREMIUM
(AFP)
By, Beijing

China under President Xi Jinping began with the promise of a “handshake across the Himalayas” in 2013, but a decade later, bilateral ties with India are in the grip of the worst chill in many years – a fact underscored with videos of the Galwan clash between the two countries being played at the ongoing 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Sunday.

The swinging fluctuations in Sino-India relations, tenuous at the best of times, have remained inexplicable, more so given Beijing’s talk of bonhomie that has punctuated the changes.

But the indication is this: Xi, as CPC general secretary and chairperson of the Central Military Commission (CMC), has given PLA sanction to intermittently engage with the Indian Army along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to ensure that the boundary question remains festering and eating into India’s resources – while simultaneously urging New Delhi to separate the problem from the rest of the bilateral ties.

To be sure, it’s not that ties were at their best when Xi fully took over China’s reins in March 2013, as President.

A sense of frustration on the Indian side had already set in by 2012 over issues such as Beijing issuing stapled visas to residents of J&K and Arunachal Pradesh, and the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra river on the Chinese side.

“Despite good relations having developed in the first half of the first decade, there was no substantive progress and there was a sense of frustration on the Indian side (by 2012),” a former diplomat said, asking not to be named.

At the beginning of Xi’s tenure, however, was a promise.

Between the autumn of 2012 and spring of 2013 as China’s generational leadership transition took place, a raft of friendly gestures was exchanged between New Delhi and Beijing.

There was an attempt by both sides to craft a relationship.

In January 2013, former Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo conveyed to former PM Manmohan Singh “…cordial greetings and good wishes from Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and delivered a letter from CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping to Prime Minister Singh.”

New CPC leader, and president-in-waiting, Xi wrote to Singh that Beijing would continue to place “great importance” on China-India bilateral relations. That goodwill continued three months later in March 2013, when during the 5th BRICS summit in Durban, Xi told Singh that India was one of China’s most important partners.

When new Premier Li Keqiang went to India in May – writing “Today, the handshake across the Himalayas is even stronger” in a signed article for The Hindu newspaper – it seemed a robust indication that Beijing was serious about giving momentum to bilateral ties.

The initial promise of a growing momentum in ties – marred by incursions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2013 spring – was followed by a flurry of high-level exchanges in the years 2014-2016.

After Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, there was again a hope – two new, confident leaders, comfortable in interaction with foreign counterparts, were at the helm of affairs in both countries.

Two high-profile visits took place: Xi went to India in September, 2014 and Modi came to China in May, 2014.

But the ties did not turn out as envisaged.

A number of actions by the Chinese, including blocking India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and Beijing’s decision to build infrastructure projects in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir under Xi’s legacy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) put the relationship under serious stress.

The relationship plunged during the middle of 2017 around the Doklam (Donglang) crisis when Indian and Chinese border troops squared off against each other for more than 70 days near the Sikkim border. A brief meeting between Modi and Xi at a Hamburg summit gradually turned the tide again in August, 2017, leading to the resolution of the Doklam standoff.

It was followed by two informal summits between Modi and Xi: One in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and the second in October, 2019 in Chennai. The summits carried the promise that the LAC, the de facto border between the two countries, would remain peaceful as New Delhi and Beijing expanded cooperation in other fields such as trade and people-to-people exchanges.

By April, 2020, the situation began to change with PLA troops again trespassing the LAC at many places in eastern Ladakh – this happened as India faced the beginning of a bruising Covid-19 pandemic.

The death of soldiers in Galwan Valley on the night of June 15 put a stop to pleasantries – Under Xi, China’s most powerful leader since the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, Sino-India ties had plunged to their lowest in decades.

Although border troops from both countries began to disengage after two years of talks since the May 2020 border clashes, New Delhi and Beijing remain distant.

Modi and Xi ignored each other during a photo-op at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan – a long bitter way from their walks in a manicured garden in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in 2018 or the beaches of Mamallapuram in 2019.

What will be Xi’s policies towards India in his third term as China’s leader?

“I know this is the most important question. In some ways it’s the hardest to answer, because compared to the other territorial disputes, China’s policy towards India and that dispute has been relatively erratic. On the one hand, it is not a key part of the rhetoric of Xi Jinping; whenever he lists the critical territorial disputes, the border with India is not really one of them. So, it’s not a part of the national narrative. But at the same time, this is an area where we have seen skirmishes and casualties,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Centre Fellow at Standord’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. where her research focusses on Chinese military and security policy.

Mastro said that often China’s aggressiveness on the border is somewhat out of pace with Beijing’s overall strategy, which is what makes it hard to predict what it’s going to look like moving forward.

“But the bottom line is, I think their priorities still lie to the east and the maritime disputes and Taiwan and that they’re not going to refocus any additional efforts on the dispute with India,” Mastro added.

At present, ties are in a state of relative calm, not in a state of confrontation although the relationship remains stressed.

India-China ties are likely to continue in a state of suspended animation for a while without getting any worse. One thing, however, is clear: The handshake over the Himalayas promised soon after Xi came to power never materialised.

Get Latest India Newsalong with Latest Newsand Top Headlinesfrom India and around the world.

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals