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Modi Xi summit at Mamallapuram shores

In Mamallapuram, seeking the true north in ties

The India-China informal summit is another opportunity for both leaders to reset relations in an era of geostrategic flux

October 11, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 10:01 am IST

The second informal summit between India and China in Mamallapuram, off Chennai in Tamil Nadu, on October 11-12 provides an opportunity for China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to continue discussions on overarching issues of bilateral, regional and global importance.

Some stress points

Ties have experienced some turbulence of late. China’s position on issues such as Masood Azhar, India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, the yawning trade gap and inroads into South Asia, have all played a role. Mr. Modi’s vision of an inclusive Indo-Pacific region, outlined at the Shangri La event in Singapore in June last year, has helped allay some concerns over America’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. China’s public support for Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir has created a new stress point.

The slowdown in the Chinese economy and the geo-strategic competition with the United States point to further uncertainty. The idea of a China-centric order in Asia has met with resistance. Even at the Minsk Dialogue Forum in Belarus this week, several speakers referred to cooperation between the EU-Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with palpable unease, citing China’s lack of adherence to global standards and disregard for the environment and labour rules. During Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing this week, Mr. Xi is reported to have stated that China is “paying close attention” to the situation in Kashmir and that China would support Pakistan on its core interests, inviting a quick riposte by the Indian Foreign Ministry that it is not for others to comment on the internal affairs of India.

On Kashmir

China maintains that the question of Jammu and Kashmir should be settled on the basis of the UN Charter, UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements. What is of note is that its boundary agreement with Pakistan of March 2, 1963 and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have de facto altered the status quo and violated the spirit of the very UN Security Council Resolutions that China cites in support of Pakistan. China holds approximately 38,000 sq km of land in Aksai Chin and a further 5,180 sq km illegally ceded by Pakistan to China under the 1963 agreement. The latter agreement recognises under Article 6 that the settlement is an interim arrangement under which China would reopen negotiations with the concerned sovereign authority once the question of Kashmir is settled.

China’s endorsement of the CPEC has been rejected by India as it passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Straws in the wind suggest that China may have realised that the CPEC was a hasty decision, without proper consultations with India. However, considering its flagship status, it will be difficult for China to review it. Nor can China easily pull away from its strategic “iron brother” Pakistan.

India-China relations have witnessed many peaks and troughs. The frequency is greater, but the cycles of disruption have become shorter. After the border war in 1962, it took 14 years to normalise relations at the ambassadorial level. In the wake of India’s nuclear tests in 1998, it took only two years to normalise ties. After the stand-off at Doklam (2017), the two leaders met within days at the BRICS Summit. Obviously, there is greater maturity in the ties. Both India and China are keen to deepen engagement and impart stability and predictability to their relations.

Significance of the setting

The informal summit at Mamallapuram offers yet another opportunity to both the strong leaders to reset relations in an era of geostrategic flux. Their strategic guidance to the stake-holders on both sides would act as a compass in finding the true north in ties.

Mamallapuram is not a place without significance. Wuhan, the site of the first informal summit, is the place where Mao Zedong had displayed his vitality by swimming in the currents of the Yangtse river. Today, it straddles the great rail connectivity route to Europe envisioned in the BRI. The coastal town of Mamallapuram is evocative of ancient maritime links between the Pallava empire and China 2,000 years ago. Bodhidharma, the founder of the Dhyan school of meditation at the Shaolin monastery in Henan province in China, hailed from this region. When the two leaders gaze out at the sea, they will be greeted by the same expanse of waters of the Indo-Pacific that once united, not divided, India and China. The choice of Mamallapuram as a venue also highlights the scope of the India-China economic partnership across India. There is much untapped potential for Chinese investments in India. Chinese FDI has seen a welcome spike since 2015. According to the Chinese side, cumulative FDI in India stands at $8 billion. Mutual investments provide the ballast for the ship of bilateral relations.

Global context

The second informal summit comes within weeks of the so-called Quad meeting at the Foreign Ministers’ level. It also takes place at a time when tensions between the U.S. and China are mounting along a broad front, from trade to military, with the latest kindling being the blacklisting of 28 Chinese Artificial Intelligence firms for their involvement in the alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang. China’s 70th anniversary celebrations of communist party rule on October 1 were marred by continuing protests in Hong Kong, raising questions about the realisation of the “China Dream” by 2049 through the full reintegration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Further, the ‘One Country Two Systems’ applied to Hong Kong, meant to be a model for Taiwan’s return to the fold, could be viewed with scepticism.

There is no gainsaying the fact that India and China must work together to forge stable relations in which competition does not lead to conflict nor differences to disputes. India and China will always have to co-exist cheek by jowl, as they have done for millennia. It is in the larger interests of the two peoples that there be greater trust and cooperation and that there be deeper friendship at all levels.

At Mamallapuram, the cool sea breeze, the palm fronds and the ancient temples and monuments will provide a perfect setting to the two leaders to muse over our timeless ties and their future. Helpful steps that can contribute to better relations include firewalling the bilateral track from third-party considerations, fighting stereotypes through objective media coverage, encouraging high level and other exchanges, especially among the youth, enhancing confidence building measures between the armed forces, balancing India’s trade deficit of $58 billion and injecting greater transparency in China’s growing presence in South Asia.

China expects the world to accommodate its rise and core concerns on Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Likewise, China too needs to adjust to the rise of India and accommodate its concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. This could pave the way for furthering cooperation under the India-China Plus framework.

Neither China nor India can contain the other. Both are destined to rise. Much will depend on the choices we make at Mamallapuram.

Sujan R. Chinoy, a former Indian Ambassador and China specialist, headed the Indian side in the Expert Group of Diplomatic and Military Officials tasked with boundary-related CBMs between 1996-2000. He is currently Director General of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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