Kashmir, Arunachal and Doklam are thorny, intractable issues. But the challenge is to revive the spirit of the Wuhan Summit of April 2018.
The pre-summit signals couldn’t be worse but both sides are keeping up their hopes. Xi Jinping is squeezing in his trip to Mamallapuram between a meeting in Beijing with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and a swing-by to Nepal which promises, according to the Global Times to “start a new era for the fast development of the China-Nepal relationship ...... while speeding up the construction of cross-Himalayan transportation.”
Imran was accompanied on his third trip to China in a year by Army Chief Javed Bajwa and ISI head Faiz Hameed. Xi declared the friendship between China and Pakistan to be “unbreakable and rock-solid”. A railway line from China to Nepal – the financial terms of which are still being worked out -- isn’t calculated to gladden the hearts of Indian policymakers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China in April 2018 and what was called the “Wuhan Spirit” did lead to improved ties and an easing of the tensions that had sprung to life after the Doklam confrontation. But a note of sourness between the two countries has crept in once again, particularly in the wake of the revocation of Article 370 and the trifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir. China backed Pakistan’s protests about the trifurcation and China’s foreign minister insisted at the UN that “no actions that would unilaterally change the status quo should be taken,” in J&K.
It has also claimed that the “unilateral revision of domestic laws” by India “continues to undermine Chinese territorial sovereignty” in Ladakh. The differences burst into the open in September when India requested the cancellation of Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s scheduled visit for boundary talks. One week before the Xi-Modi summit, India announced it was holding a large military exercise in Arunachal Pradesh at a distance of 100 km from the border with China. However, at a pre-summit briefing the Chinese, who claim Arunachal Pradesh at South Tibet, said that the exercise had never taken place. Besides all that, India is still unhappy about China’s aggressive moves in the Indian Ocean, where they have taken over Hambantota Port and are establishing a logistics base in Djibouti.
From their side, China has been unhappy that India appears to be moving closer to the Quad, with the US, Japan and Australia. They displayed their unhappiness sharply by not confirming whether Xi would actually be coming to Mamallapuram till a few days ago.
Still, both sides are hoping that some elements of the Wuhan spirit might be brought back to life. The Chinese are particularly keen that India should sign up for the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP) that will bring together the Asean countries with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. India is still dithering over whether joining RCEP will be too risky for a host of industries. Dairy farmers, in particular, fear stiff competition to their products from New Zealand. Also, China is in a tight position because of its trade war with the US, but it feels that India is banking on this and trying to squeeze more concessions from it.
The Global Times pointed out condescendingly that: “The second meeting (between Modi and Xi) is set to be India’s most important bilateral event this year.” But it added: “Since Modi was re-elected prime minister, India’s diplomacy with China has become more aggressive.”