These are testing times for Sino-Indian relations, and both New Delhi and Beijing are acutely aware of it. The relationship is such that drift would mean a further downslide, and neither side wants that to happen.
Prime Minister Modi as well as President Xi Jinping indicated their intention to work for a robust revival of bilateral ties when they met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in September. Sino-Indian relations are a key determinant of the cohesion of BRICS. Therefore, it was only appropriate that the leaders of BRICS nations, too, had a meeting in Hangzhou on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. After all, the next big thing on the global agenda of particular importance to India and China is the BRICS Summit in October in Goa, India.
Sino-Indian efforts to ensure the success of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou and the BRICS Summit in Goa have been underway for months. However, in this process an important overture was Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s three-day visit to India from August 12 to 14, 2016, at the invitation of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Although there have been a series of high-level visits between the countries earlier this year, Wang Yi’s visit was certainly not a “routine” visit. In time, Wang Yi’s visit may come to be seen as a “turning point” or “defining moment” in India-China relations, at least during the leadership terms of Modi and Xi.
Wang, who met Modi for 20 minutes and had a three-hour discussion with Swaraj in New Delhi, also travelled to Goa, the BRICS Summit venue. His discussions focused on bilateral, regional and global issues as well as the upcoming BRICS Summit, the G20 Hangzhou Summit and the ASEAN Summit in Laos. While India-China ties can affect the mood, temper and direction of all three summits, the two would be the twin drivers of the BRICS Summit in Goa.
Given the centrality of China and India to BRICS, Swaraj and Wang, while reviewing the relationship, dwelt at length on the recent “challenges” – such as, India’s NSG membership and stand on the South China Sea (SCS) conflict – that have strained Sino-Indian relations.
Beijing wanted clarity on these two issues to eliminate strains in the relationship ahead of the BRICS Summit. Wang conveyed that China does not view India as a rival. On the contrary, the two countries should strengthen their partnership, strive for all-round cooperation and push ahead with the development agenda.
Showing China’s resolve to overcome the tensions that have marked bilateral ties, President Xi told Prime Minister Modi that “China is willing to work with India to maintain their hard-won sound relations and further advance their cooperation.” Prime Minister Modi said that bilateral relationship is based on countries being responsive to each other’s sensitivities. Modi and Xi agreed that, for better ties, India and China should understand and respect each other’s aspirations and concerns.
The G20 Summit was about global governance and the architecture, institutions and systems in the emerging international order. However, the greater significance of the summit, beyond its stated agenda, is China’s emergence in a leadership role in global governance and the acceptance of this by the U.S. and the international community. The summit also showed that the U.S. and China, despite their differences and disputes, have come to terms with each other to work jointly for the goals of global governance.
Similarly, China and India, too, need to reconcile their differences and work together in the interests of the developing countries and emerging economies – which is what BRICS is about.
Thus, in Hangzhou, the focus was also on BRICS, when its five leaders met informally. Leading from the chair, Modi said that BRICS is an “an influential voice” in international discourse and it was the group’s “shared responsibility to shape the global agenda and help developing nations achieve their objectives.” Xi stressed the need to safeguard the multilateral trade system, build an open world economy and oppose all forms of protectionism and exclusionism for making all countries equal in terms of development rights, opportunities, and rules.
BRICS has been pushing for greater economic growth among its members and reform of the global financial architecture. Xi wants BRICS to work for a bigger role on the world stage. In moving towards this, China wants to ensure that the undercurrents of Sino-Indian tension do not affect the drive and momentum of BRICS. The five countries with 42 percent of the world’s population have a combined GDP of more than US$ 16 trillion.
BRICS has an ambitious development agenda, and Sino-Indian relationship is the sheet anchor of the cohesion required for actualizing its aims and objectives. The impact of any discordant note arising from tensions between India and China would be felt far beyond the grouping. The ripples would affect the region, other multilateral forums and the interests of developing countries. Both New Delhi and Beijing are acutely aware of this.
The author was Senior Consultant and Editor of China-India Dialogue, CIPG.