A week before China’s President Xi Jingping’s scheduled visit to India, the Indian embassy in Beijing was frantically trying to confirm whether he was still planning to come. The uncertainty in India’s diplomatic circles ended after a Chinese envoy in New Delhi, Sun Weidong, tweeted that both countries should build new models to achieve peace. The tweets sent up a collective sigh of relief in New Delhi and Beijing as Xi’s visit was finally confirmed.
The plan for an “informal summit” was formalized in June this year when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Xi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Bikshek, Kyrgyzstan. The upcoming “informal summit” was supposed to be a follow up of a similar bilateral meet between the two Asian leaders in Wuhan, China, in April 2018.
But South Asia has undergone significant changes since the meeting between Xi and Modi in June this year, and clearly, the strains have begun to show.
The Kashmir & Doklam conundrum
Xi and Modi are scheduled to meet in the small town of Mamallapuram, about 50 km from the city of Chennai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The three-day summit was supposed to take forward a process that began two years ago, and boasted of a new found chemistry between the two leaders.
But the first sign of trouble emerged last week, when the Chinese side suddenly went quiet over the visit. Indian diplomats pointed to an ongoing Indian military exercise called “Him Vijay” (Victory in the Himalayas) in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. The state witnessed a temporary occupation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the border war between India and China in October 1962. Chinese forces overwhelmed the poorly equipped Indian Army and swept through Arunachal in a matter of days. While the PLA unilaterally withdrew from the state a few months later, it never gave up its claim. China considers the area known as Tawang as a part of “lower Tibet” and therefore, Chinese territory.
Indian troops were practicing insertion methods into China as part of the military exercise that led to tense moments ahead of Xi’s visit.
But Indian diplomats were also aware that the Chinese could also call off the visit since India had abrogated Article 370 in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5. The eastern parts of the state known as “Aksai Chin” were also occupied by the PLA in the 1962 war. This area continues to be under China’s control. Any change in status, the Chinese say, will disturb the regional balance and claims they make over the region. The change in Kashmir’s status has also renewed hostilities between India and Pakistan. China views Pakistan as an “all-weather” ally and believes any tension between India and Pakistan in the region can upset their plans for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
“Wuhan was an important summit in April 2018,” a senior Indian diplomat said. “We used that as an opportunity to resolve differences that had cropped up over the standoff between Indian, Bhutanese and Chinese troops in the Doklam plateau. But recent developments have eroded what was achieved in Wuhan,” the diplomat said.
In mid-June 2017, Indian forces were rushed to “aid” Royal Bhutanese troops who were trying to prevent the PLA from building a road across the Doklam plateau into Bhutan. The disputed area is of little value to Bhutan but has immense strategic value for India. It overlooks a territory known as the “Siliguri corridor” that connects India’s northeast to the mainland. If China gains control of the Doklam area, it will be able to dominate the Siliguri corridor and threaten a major Indian point of vulnerability.
Recent reports out of Thimpu indicate that Bhutan is close to establishing a final settlement in Doklam with China. If this is true, it will have major implications for India. For nearly 30 years, India has “leaned” on Bhutan to delay a final settlement in the Doklam region while it was addressing its border issues with China.
The Wuhan “informal summit” managed to reduce tensions between India and China. But the abrogation of Article 370 that gave Kashmir a special status and autonomy has led to a recent chill between New Delhi and Beijing. The 22nd round of talks between India and China’s special representatives to resolve the border dispute was scheduled for September but is yet to be held. The last time the two special representatives held their annual bilateral discussions was in November last year.
The Huwaei wrangle
Meanwhile, India has also been hedging on a final decision on Chinese telecom major Huwaei’s bid to participate in 5G trials. India is keen to embrace 5G and Huwaei is far ahead of its European competitors in terms of cost and technology. China has warned that if India does not allow Huwaei to participate, it will have major consequences on bilateral trade and can hurt Indian interests significantly.
Indian diplomatic sources confirmed that President Xi will be raising the issue of Huwaei’s participation in the 5G trials with Prime Minister Modi. “The Chinese president places it very high on the agenda and we are aware of their concerns,” the Indian diplomat said.
India has been worried that allowing Huwaei to participate in a strategic sector can have major security implications in the future. While Huwaei has issued several assurances that there will not be any “back doors” if they are allowed to set up a network in India, the company’s challenges in the US and many European markets have belied their claim. The US is keen to prevent Huwaei from setting up networks in other countries, citing them as a security threat.
However, if India takes a decision to allow Huwaei in the upcoming 5G trials, it will be a major win for President Xi. The final decision on this rests with the Indian prime minister’s office due to the strategic implications of the decision.