During the Wuhan Summit, both the Chinese and Indian Press releases emphasized on the respective countries’ maturity and wisdom to handle differences to peaceful discussions.
An informal meeting, the Wuhan Summit had two key purposes. Firstly, the Summit served to put strategic communication or high level interaction between the two countries on a new platform. Despite bilateral meetings taken place regularly on a routine basis between different ministers hailing from both sides, the summit have done differently by creating a new era of diplomacy where the two top leaders meet more frequently – in a much greater detail where they are free from the constraints of protocol. Secondly, the summit served to create a higher level of intensity of talks between India and China, one that covers a great deal of ground while implementing a better understanding of different perspectives of development.
The Wuhan Summit had produced several results. On the surface level, both India and China were able to present to the world their maturity to understand their pessimistic bilateral relations, yet possess the political will to do something about it. Next, it signifies a turning point and the beginning of a new process of a bilateral relationship, just as the ones established by Rajiv Ghandi in 1988 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003. On the practical level, it presents the commitment by both sides to build a common understanding on overarching issues of bilateral and global importance, while they are also independent of third parties’ influence on their respective foreign policies. Immediate results could be seen from the setting up of an India-China military operational hotline to facilitate communication. The Indian army was also instructed to avoid any form of excessively aggressive patrolling tactics on the border as well. Both countries highlight the importance of special representatives, as the two countries seeks a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the border question.
Prior to the Wuhan Summit, Sino-India relations were both progressing and deteriorating. Both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, after coming into office, focused on economic issues. The developmental partnership between the two countries in 2014 is an example of that focus, building upon an earlier strategic partnership established by Wen Jiabao in 2005. However, signs of a troubled relationship was long present, as the two countries get entangled in an actual faceoff over China’s audacious move to build a road in Arunachal Pradesh. Further Chinese involvement in distressing its relationship with India includes the establishment of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in April 2015; China blocking off Indian efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group in May 2016 – despite Modi personally requesting support from China; and again China blocking Indian efforts to the United Nations to place Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar on the 1267 sanctions list. India was as guilty as the Chinese, with the Tibet issue often coming into picture and creating a displeased China. The Doklam issue on June 2017 was the most significant and recent case study prior to the Summit. Yet the crisis was diffused due to the increased in Modi-Xi level meetings. Side-lined meetings were held by top officials from both sides during the G20 summit and BRICS Summit in July 7 and 27 respectively, as it creates a breakthrough in Sino-India relations, with both Modi and Xi giving special instructions to their special representatives to come up with the idea of an informal summit – the subsequent Wuhan Summit. As the build-up to the Summit continues, India had committed to, firstly, “stop playing the Tibet card”, and secondly to not get militarily involved in Maldives. Despite the fierce confrontation between the respective armies in Doklam, Sino-India cooperation was seen to have taken on another step forward just months after the crisis.
The Wuhan Summit, however, showcases the failure of the existing confidence building measures regime established by both countries. Existing examples such as the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement signed in 1993; Protocols on Modalities for Implementation on Confidence-Building Measures in 1996 and 2005; Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination in the Indo-China border affairs in 2012; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2013 were all seen to have failed upon the Doklam Crisis. These agreements lacked of substance, and the crisis highlighted this fact.
Looking ahead, even though most observers viewed this Summit as a tactical move, rather than a strategic one, there is no reason to assume that there will not be any lasting results with regards to strategic gains. Despite the odd nature of Sino-India relations that has pushed forth this Summit, the essence of the meeting was not meant to be of any strategic value. Yet, some lasting strategic gains could be achieved, beyond the tactical issues of keeping peace in the Line of Control, as both leaders are seen to be responding to the rapidly changing geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Also, with the failures of previous agreements resulting to the Wuhan Summit, a stronger summit-level interaction would be construction from both sides. Fortunately, the leaders and top ministers from both sides have initiated such regime, with the Indian Defence and External Affairs ministers preparing to depart for Beijing while the Chinese Defence minister is expected in India this year. President Xi has mentioned in the BRICS Summit that he will be meeting Prime Minister Modi again this year, and visits of military delegation has resumed after a two year gap.
Regarding India’s future, there is a need for the country to maintain a balance in the competitive and cooperative relationship with China. This is where the United States come into play, as India look to deepen its ties with the U.S. in order to maintain the balance of power with China. India is ready to sign a communication and security agreement with the U.S. – which will step up their military cooperation, and the first India-U.S. 2+2 dialogue will be held in New Delhi later this September.
In conclusion, engaging China enables India to prevent zero-sum outcomes relating to China in the immediate neighbourhood in the South Asian region. While there is no doubt that China will continue to involve itself in the region, engagement can make sure these processes will not undermine India’s security interests. With India already doing its part to improve bilateral relations with China with regards to Tibet and Maldives, India had also further prove its commitment to the Chinese by not inviting Australia in the latest Malabar exercise. Consequently, concessions from the Chinese will be created as well. While diplomacy should not be conducted in the public stage, the coined term Megaphone Diplomacy, appears to prove otherwise. The Wuhan Summit, has however, returned the diplomatic discretion of any engagement between the two sides. Consequently, future decisions made and cooperation will be done without any external influences that could exacerbate existing problems. More joint projects with other countries along with India and China could also be realised.
During the Q&A, a total of 17 questions were asked. Questions ranged from whether India is seen to have “sold out” its own interests to China, and whether the current situation in the aftermath of the Summit is more of a process and rather than of substance. One questioned whether India is trying to do too much despite China not giving a lot in return. Also, another questioned whether the Doval Doctrine is mutually exclusive to the strategic interests of India today.