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An India-China thaw may be on the horizon if Modi is re-elected

Post Date

21 May, 2024



Prof. Syed Munir Khasru

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
May 15, 2024


India is in the midst of a pivotal general election. The potential continuity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership could spark a renewed debate on the trajectory of India’s relations with China.

Over the past decade, ties between the two Asian giants have been characterised by a complex interplay of cooperation and competition, marked by diplomatic engagements at the highest levels and border stand-offs underscoring enduring tensions.

There have been several incidents that have tested the limits of both nations’ strategic patience. The 73-day military stand-off in Doklam in 2017, triggered by China extending a road into the disputed territory, brought the two nuclear-armed neighbours perilously close to an armed conflict. Violent clashes in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh in 2020, which resulted in casualties on both sides, exacerbated bilateral tensions.

When Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou, he voiced India’s objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through the Pakistan-administered portion of Kashmir, which India also claims.

Despite these flare-ups, there have been concerted efforts to foster dialogue and diplomacy. When Modi met Xi at an informal summit in Wuhan in 2018, against the backdrop of the Doklam conflict, the leaders resolved to provide strategic guidance to their armed forces, to enhance communication and foster trust.

The following year, Xi visited Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu for a second informal summit focused on enhancing bilateral relations and increasing cooperation. However, these engagements have yet to yield tangible results, and the issues fuelling mistrust remain unresolved.

At the heart of the India-China rift lies the thorny issue of territorial disputes, particularly over the unresolved border in the Himalayas. The two countries have vastly divergent perceptions of the Line of Actual Control, a loosely defined ceasefire line, and this has led to periodic incursions and accusations of transgression.
India’s concerns about China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean region and its strategic partnerships with India’s neighbours, notably Pakistan, have fuelled apprehensions about a potential encirclement. China’s close relations with Pakistan, underpinned by economic and military cooperation, is a thorn in India’s side. New Delhi views Beijing’s support for Islamabad as a hindrance to regional stability and a potential threat to its national security.

India’s joining of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has added a new layer of complexity to the India-China equation. The Quad, seen as a counterweight to China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, has raised concerns in Beijing about potential encirclement as well.

On the other hand, China’s actions in the South China Sea, coupled with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, have fuelled fears of a debt trap and an erosion of sovereignty among smaller nations in the region. India’s opposition to China’s infrastructure initiative and its espousing of a free and open Indo-Pacific have positioned it as a strategic bulwark against China’s regional ambitions, further straining bilateral ties.

If Modi secures a historic third term, his approach towards China may be influenced by a desire to leave a lasting legacy of regional stability and economic cooperation. A pragmatic and statesmanlike approach, driven by the pursuit of long-term bilateral and regional interests, could motivate him to seek a thaw in relations with Beijing.

Such a shift would necessitate significant concessions from both sides, and a willingness to address long-standing grievances and find common ground on contentious issues. India’s concerns about China’s support for Pakistan and Beijing’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean region need to be allayed.

Similarly, India will need to reassure China that it does not consider the Quad an anti-China grouping and that its involvement is focused on addressing shared regional concerns. While the challenges are formidable, the potential rewards of a pragmatic rapprochement could extend far beyond the bilateral realm, ushering in a new era of cooperation and prosperity for the entire Indo-Pacific.

For Modi, the decision to pursue a diplomatic thaw with China may ultimately rest on his ability to navigate the complex web of domestic political pressures, regional alliances and global power dynamics.

Only time will tell if Modi’s continued leadership can catalyse a diplomatic breakthrough that has long eluded the two Asian giants, or whether the status quo of strategic distrust and periodic tensions will persist, casting a long shadow over the region’s geopolitical landscape.