Ananth Krishnan points out that Xi Jinping’s decision to travel halfway across his own country to meet Narendra Modi (who had travelled completely out of his own country) for an informal summit in Wuhan is remarkable, and no one in Beijing expected it. It’s been quite a journey for their India policy, from threatening to order military attacks to perhaps ordering a six pack for a chillout session between the two leaders this month.
Were they really impressed by India’s resolute stance of not backing down at Doklam, of not signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative? Perhaps. What really made Xi travel halfway across his country is a man halfway across the world. A certain Mr Donald Trump. Washington is putting extreme pressure on Beijing on two counts: North Korea, and more importantly on trade.
It took Trump to remind Beijing that their projection of power ultimately relies on their economy, and that in turn relies on the goodwill of China’s trading partners. Most importantly, on the United States. A trade war will not only have unsettling effects on the Chinese economy in the short term, it can take the wind out of China’s economic sails in the longer term. The wise men in Beijing ought to have expected this. If they didn’t, then their wisdom is overrated. If they expected this, then they ought to have cautioned Xi Jinping against getting all on the front foot and antagonising India, Japan and Vietnam all at once. If they did and Xi didn’t heed their advice, then his astuteness is perhaps more limited than is made out to be.
In any case, India must expect that Xi’s front-footedness is China’s long-term strategy. Trump’s mercurial policy positions have caused Beijing to buy time and space by reaching out to India and Japan. The moment the pressure is off — for Trump can as quickly change his mind — it’s likely that Beijing will resume pushing the envelope again. New Delhi can certainly hope that Beijing has learned that it is not a good idea to antagonise your neighbours as you set out to confront your distant adversary. Yet if you were sitting in Beijing you might reckon it’s important to suppress your neighbour’s power to create trouble, before you confront your main adversary.
It is in India’s interests to have better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other. So the chillout at Wuhan is a good thing. Modi, however, must be keenly aware that a China reset in Delhi does not mean a India reset in Beijing. There’s nothing to indicate China’s fundamental approach towards India has changed. Or that it will change. For now all the chilling out is contingent on the extent and duration that the United States maintains pressure on China.