Sino-India ties turn frosty as China’s domestic compulsions hold sway

Updated on Sep 17, 2022 03:53 PM IST

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping did not have a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand on Friday despite sharing the stage for the first time since the dragging border row erupted in April, 2020

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO leaders and others pose for a photograph in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Friday. (PTI)
Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO leaders and others pose for a photograph in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Friday. (PTI)

BEIJING: Domestic political compulsions in China ahead of an all-important leadership reshuffle in October could be the reason why there was no meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a regional summit in the central Asian city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

Chinese experts, however, say the reason behind the much talked about meeting not taking place is India’s insistence on disengagement from all points of friction along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh and New Delhi’s perceived tilt towards US policies aimed at containing China.

Modi and Xi did not have a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand on Friday despite sharing the stage for the first time since the dragging border row erupted in April, 2020.

Given the state of ties, Modi and Xi would at least meet for a “pull-aside” - an informal talk - if not for a formal bilateral meeting, was the least of the expectations.

As the two leaders - who stood next to each other for the SCO summit photo opportunity - walked away without exchanging pleasantries, the expectation of a pull-aside fizzled as well.

That a bilateral meeting between the two leaders wasn’t held indicated two things: First, the leaders of the two most populous nations with two of the largest militaries had missed a critical opportunity to resolve the ongoing military tension in eastern Ladakh. (The two had last met in-person in late 2019 in Brazil.)

Point to remember: It is widely believed that the two leaders sorted out the Doklam (Donglang in Chinese) crisis near the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction during an informal interaction on the sidelines of the G20 summit at Hamburg in July, 2017.

Second, that Modi and Xi did not meet was an indication of the post-Galwan Valley deep chill that has settled over the ties, known to be tenuous at the best of times.

It’s difficult to fathom why there was no meetingon the sidelines of the SCO summit.

It is possible, however, that the decision was driven by domestic compulsions.

Xi is set to secure a precedent-breaking third term as China’s president at the 20th Communist Party of China (CPC) congress to be held in a month’s time.

He will emerge as one of modern China’s most powerful leaders rivalled only by Mao Zedong in reverence and prominence: Xi’s vision and thought will likely be enshrined in the CPC constitution and an appropriate title will likely be attached to his name - on the lines of “chairman” and “paramount leader”.

So, only a month away from acquiring historic glory, which leader would show any sign of compromising on territorial sovereignty, given that Beijing has argued that it was India which had trespassed across the LAC, and not - as New Delhi has consistently said - the other way round?

The fact that Beijing only reluctantly admitted to the disengagement of troops last week, issuing the joint statement hours after India had done, and did not admit to the last round of disengagement in August, 2021 fits into the narrative of China’s muscular nationalism.

Even though Xi’s re-emergence as China’s strongest leader after the October congress is a conclusion debated by few, he nevertheless has to portray himself to his domestic audience as a strong leader ready to lead China in a more aggressive manner in the coming years.

China will not budge an inch on territorial issues (whether wrongly is another matter) is the CPC narrative: The PLA’s ongoing military bluster over Taiwan is an example.

The CPC’s India strategists would have thought that the optics of a Modi-Xi meeting in Samarkand - whatever the outcome - could be construed as a win for New Delhi. Hence, best to keep away.

China had also repeatedly asked India to mention the “one China” policy in official statements - in the backdrop of tension in Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as part of its territory - in recent weeks but India didn’t oblige.

Chinese experts HT reached out to agree that ties are in “deep freeze” but differ on the reasons why the two leaders did not meet.

“The conditions for the meeting between the leaders of the two countries were not ripe. Moreover, many of India’s policies are still in fact united with the United States against China. Even if the leaders met, the atmosphere was unlikely to be very good, so the choice was not to meet during the SCO,” Lin Minwang from the Institute of International Studies, in Shanghai’s Fudan University, said.

Lin added: “In fact, China-India relations have slipped to the lowest point. Even if the situation on the Sino-Indian border can be restored to the situation in April 2020, India’s diplomacy cannot be restored to 2020, especially since India has gone too far in cooperating with the US policy of containing China.”

Hu Shisheng, from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said ties are in “deep freeze”, indicating frosty ties.

“According to the Indian side, they are demanding retreat from all the standoff points (along the LAC). Before the retreat, there will be no recovery of bilateral relations. To Chinese leaders, this is a kind of coercive diplomacy,” Hu said. “Judging from the knowledge and logic of the elites who have mastered New Delhi’s diplomacy, I think there is little chance of improvement. Just hope it doesn’t get any worse. I’m not optimistic about (India-China) bilateral relations,” Lin added.

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  • 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.

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