China Power | Diplomacy

Xi-Modi Summit: ‘The Chennai (Dis) Connect’

The Chennai summit served to highlight key differences in China and India’s approaches to pressing issues.

By Antara Ghosal Singh for
Xi-Modi Summit: ‘The Chennai (Dis) Connect’
Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

The second informal summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (held from October 11 to 12) has been widely criticized for being “underwhelming” – high on optics but low on substance. However, another striking feature of the summit that remains largely unreported is the glaring differences in the Indian and Chinese official positions on issues of mutual concern. Analyzing the post-summit statements released separately by both sides, and tracking the public discourse in either country, this paper deliberates upon the key areas of disconnect between China and India, as brought out by the Chennai summit.

The Perception Gap Over the Scope of Bilateral Ties

Both agree that bilateral ties transcend the bilateral scope, but India stresses the global significance of China-India ties, whereas China seems keen to bring the focus back to South Asia. For instance, phrases like “growing role of China and India at the global stage,” “international situation witnessing significant readjustment,” “both countries as factors of stability in the current international landscape,” and so on figured prominently in the Indian press release.

Meanwhile, the Chinese side regarded the Modi-Xi summit as a part of its broader South Asia outreach initiative in October, which started with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s China visit and ended with Xi’s historic visit to Nepal after 23 years. During that period, China also enhanced strategic communication with India. Terminologies like “major-country relations,” “rejuvenation of the oriental civilization,” and “democratization of international relations” that characterized the Chinese statement following the 2018 Wuhan summit were strangely missing from the Chinese statements this time.

While analyzing the Chinese discourse (official and otherwise) it appears as if Xi’s Nepal visit somewhat overshadowed the Xi-Modi summit. In sharp contrast to the media and public frenzy in India over Xi’s visit, China’s state media offered far greater and more meaningful coverage to the Nepal leg of the visit than the otherwise much-hyped informal summit between China and India. Furthermore, it is no less symbolic that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) website, while showcasing Xi’s South Asia tour, featured pictures of Xi in Nepal for all six display images.

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It is further interesting to note that while the strategic community in India largely remained hopeful about China’s renewed interest in mending ties with New Delhi, amid steady deterioration of its bilateral equations with the United States, Chinese strategists were rather disillusioned about the future course of China-India relations and argued that given the long term conflict of interests, it is impossible for China-India to be best friends at the global stage. They further opined that the high-level informal summits, despite their grandeur and popularity, are unlikely to ensure permanent peace between China and India, let alone reclaiming the old mojo of “China and India brotherhood,” or providing fresh impetus to a grand anti-Western global alliance. Therefore developing a predictable and stable relationship and avoiding the Thucydides Trap in Asia remains China’s sole prerogative.

No wonder that some sections of India strategic circles have lately been cautioning New Delhi against its “prolonged illusions” about “strategic parity” with China and “false hopes” about building a new global order with China, instead advising it to concentrate on small steps of narrowing differences with China bilaterally, while no longer holding itself back voluntarily in deepening ties with the United States and its allies.

Pakistan Remains the Key Point of Contradiction

One of the most glaring discrepancies in the post-summit Indian and Chinese narrative has been on the issue of Pakistan. According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s round-up of Xi’s South Asia tour, Pakistan and the recent crisis in South Asia (read: Kashmir) figured prominently in Xi-Modi interactions. As per the Chinese narrative, Xi met with Khan in Beijing, listened to his views, and conveyed the same to Modi in Chennai, while also encouraging him to resolve the existing problems through dialogue. A China-India-Pakistan trilateral was also proposed, where no two countries would “target any third party or be influenced by a third party.”

The Indian side, however, officially ruled out any discussion on Pakistan or Kashmir during the meeting. Instead, in what can be interpreted as a veiled reference to Pakistan-sourced terrorism, the Indian press-release mentioned the leaders’ “consensus” on terrorism as a common threat and agreed for joint efforts toward strengthening the international framework against training, financing, and supporting terrorist groups throughout the world and on a nondiscriminatory basis. Predictably, no such consensus on terrorism was confirmed by the Chinese side, except for a passing mention of India’s willingness to work with China on the issue.

As per Beijing’s assessment, Pakistan is “so marginalized in economic and diplomatic terms that it might just collapse under India’s pressure.” However, for China, preventing its possible collapse is a “strategic need” because without Pakistan, there will be serious power imbalance in South Asia. Therefore, to keep Pakistan relevant in South Asia politics, China is keen to bring the dialogue process back in the subcontinent. However, it is interesting to note that China is proposing a re-hyphenation of India-Pakistan at a time, when New Delhi is actively seeking to de-hyphenate itself from Pakistan in its interaction with major powers.

BRI By Any Other Name

Without naming the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese statement mentions the “consensus” reached in Chennai (1) to expand China-India cooperation to other countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia and Africa on the basis of the existing “China-India + Afghanistan” cooperation and (2) to align economic development strategies in China and India, as a part of the proposed high-level economic and trade mechanism.

The Indian side, however, played down any sort of consensus with China on BRI or related proposals, while highlighting that the mandate of the new trade mechanism, which is one of the key outcomes of the summit, is still under negotiation and can only be determined after the meeting of both the delegations.

It needs to be noted that both sides emphasize the importance of regional connectivity as a prelude to stable and prosperous regional environment. However, China’s vision is to open up South Asia through various high-profile connectivity projects and free trade agreements under the BRI framework. India, on the other hand, is one of the staunchest critics of China’s BRI and has publicly boycotted the last two Belt and Road Forums hosted by China. New Delhi is highly suspicious of China’s strategic ambitions in South Asia and has serious concerns over cheap Chinese products taking over the Indian market, either directly or through back-door entry via other countries in South and Southeast Asia.

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In the run up to the Chennai summit, China’s state media ran an aggressive campaign about the need to combine Nepal’s natural resource advantages like hydropower with China’s capital and technological advantages and India’s market advantage. Chinese media even proposed connecting the Chinese and Indian railways through Nepal under the framework of the BRI for freer movement of people and resources between the two sides of the Himalayas. Contrarily, the Indian media highlighted how the country would prefer getting connected with China through the maritime domain, as a part of its own Indo-Pacific vision, rather than joining the BRI on China’s terms.

Therefore, to conclude one might argue that it is not so much the China-India “connect,” as officially projected by both sides, but the notable “disconnect” between the two sides that was the bigger takeaway of the second informal summit between Xi and Modi. This further sets the tone for rockier China-India relations in the near term.

Antara Ghosal Singh is presently working as a Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group (DPG).  She is an alumna of Tsinghua University and Beijing Language and Culture University, China and National Central University, Taiwan. Before joining academic research, she has worked as a journalist.