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Modi-Xi meet in Goa: Building mutual trust crucial for strengthening India-China relations

The US is looking towards India for an enduring strategic partnership in which balancing China's rise in Asia and the world remains a key US intent. (File photo)

By Syed Ata Hasnain

Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Narendra Modi will meet at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu for their second informal summit after April 2018 when they met at Wuhan, China. This meeting comes on the back of a series of developing situations which threaten international peace and stability. By population the two largest nations of the world, India, and China have had their relationship marred by boundary disputes, trade issues, the difference in perception on international security and a general lack of trust. The US is looking towards India for an enduring strategic partnership in which balancing China's rise in Asia and the world remains a key US intent.

China views India and the US suspiciously perceiving both as the two critical obstacles for its eventual rise to be the world's pre-eminent nation. China also views with suspicion India's partnerships with any nation considered a challenger or inimical to China's growth. Chief in its concern is India's relationship with Japan; an India-Japan-US equation is considered a strategic threat across the Indo-Pacific region. China is also chary of India's refusal to attend two summits of the Belt and Road Initiative which is projected as China's ambitious economic outreach but has serious strategic connotations that spell a threat to India. While India and China both wish to pursue a healthy trade and economic oriented relationship there are other compulsions that prevent these emerging to the desired level.

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The first reason for this is China's serious apprehension that its trade and energy-related shipping through the crucial sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits is vulnerable to disruption by India through its naval power. For this purpose, it forces India's security attention to the north and lays claims to tracts of Indian territory with the intent of keeping India strategically imbalanced. In this quest, it considers in its interest an enduring relationship with Pakistan which has serious political, territorial and ideological problems with India. The latter has particularly come to the fore in recent weeks with India's decisive actions to integrate its territories. Despite all the above China knows the value of the Indian market which is crucial for the upkeep of its economic growth which is plateauing. Thus a compromise between attempted coercion and economic and trade relationship has been China's approach to its relationship with India.

On the agenda between PM Modi and President Xi will be a list of issues prime among which is the buildup of trust particularly after recent happenings in the India-Pakistan-China relationship. Modi is unlikely to hold back from raising or at least flagging the issue of Pakistan's interference in J&K although both sides would prefer that it does not cause any obstacle to other aspects of the relationship. Mahabalipuram is a manifestation of the decision to pursue what has come to be called the Wuhan spirit for the pursuit of relations between India and China.

Both sides have provided the necessary strategic guidance to their militaries with reasonable success. However, preceding the visit a standoff in Eastern Ladakh has once again taken place almost in sync with China's national day. The last time President Xi was in India a serious incursion and standoff was in the making by the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Among other issues will be the crucial aspects of trade which can be exploited by India after the recent US-China trade spat. Both nations are now full-time members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and will wish to build upon this.

Ahead of the Chinese President's visit to commemorate the second year of Wuhan Summit, Indian troops joined their Chinese counterparts in celebrating the 70th National Day of China at several places along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh on 01 Oct 2019. However, some reports also suggest that the Indian Army's exercise Him-Vijay being conducted in Arunachal Pradesh almost 100 km in depth from the LAC is not being considered by China as a friendly gesture when its President is visiting India. Of course PLA maneuvers in East Ladakh or large scale exercises in the plateau north of Sikkim, more as demonstrations to message India, has never been objected to by India. Hopefully the yet to be announced visit will not be affected by the exercise which India may temporarily shelve without any commitment to call off for the duration of the visit. China and India both need each other and have to mutually learn to tolerate optics which may not convey the friendliest intent. These also do not convey any serious unfriendly intent either.

(The author is former GOC Srinagar based 15 Corps. Views expressed are personal.)