India-China Relations: From the “Wuhan Spirit” to the “Chennai Connect”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 19

Image: PRC President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for a photo before the landmark “Arjuna’s Penance” bas-relief sculpture during their October summit in the southern Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram. (Source: ANI)


On October 11-12, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for their second informal summit at Mamallapuram, near Chennai in southern India. Xi described his “heart-to-heart” discussions with Modi as “candid,” like those with a “friend”. In turn, Modi said that the “Chennai Connect” would mark the start of a “new era of cooperation” between the two countries (Scroll, October 12). The effusive rhetoric and ambiance at the summit notwithstanding, the Mamallapuram summit was low on visible outcomes.

The biggest outcome of the summit was that India and China agreed on setting up a new high-level mechanism to increase trade and commercial relations, to “better balance the trade between the two countries”. The two sides also agreed to enhance investments in selected sectors “through the development of a manufacturing partnership”. Besides these vague agreements, little else came out which was concrete or substantial. The subject of Kashmir, which had triggered a sharp fraying of the Sino-Indian relationship in the two months preceding the summit, was “not raised or discussed” at Mamallapuram (The Wire, October 12).

It has been evident for some time now that the “Wuhan Spirit”—a mood of rapprochement set in motion by the first formal summit between Xi and Modi at Wuhan in China in April last year—is dissipating (China Brief, July 16). Bilateral relations have frayed considerably, especially in recent months. This, and the rather limited outcomes of the Mamallapuram summit, raises serious doubts over the usefulness of informal summits to address the complex issues that beset relations between India and China—two rising powers that are not only rivals, but also neighbors with an unresolved and decades-old border dispute.

The Rough Road to Mamallapuram

The Mamallapuram summit was under a cloud of uncertainty in the weeks preceding the event. Strained relations were responsible for the uncertainty over the event. The primary trigger for the bilateral tension was the Indian government’s announcement on August 5 of its decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood, and to divide it into two centrally governed union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The Modi government’s categorical statement that Ladakh includes Aksai Chin (an icy plateau in eastern Ladakh) raised hackles in Beijing, because the PRC claims the region as its own and has controlled it since the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Consequently, Beijing accused India of violating its territorial sovereignty concerns. Additionally, China has been backing Pakistan’s position in regard to Kashmir policy (India Today, September 10).

Beijing pressed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to discuss India’s unilateral decision on Kashmir (Dawn, August 16). Chinese and Pakistani political leaders and military officials have met several times in recent months to coordinate their strategies, and the PRC hosted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan less than two days ahead of Xi’s departure for India. Xi’s statement that China would “continue to firmly support Pakistan on issues concerning its core interests and of major concern to it” [Kashmir], ruffled feathers in India—especially since India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar had made it clear to the Chinese government during his visit to Beijing in August that New Delhi’s move would have no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control, India’s de facto boundary with China (The Statesman, August 13 and Xinhuanet, October 9).

As a result, several high-level bilateral visits were postponed or canceled, including a planned visit to India by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi on September 9-10 for the 22nd round of talks on their disputed border; and another planned visit to Beijing by Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, the Indian Army’s Northern Area Commander (Hindustan Times, September 4). India has also repeatedly flexed its military muscles vis-à-vis China. The Indian armed forces held a massive, high-altitude military exercise for the first time in eastern Ladakh in September; and followed that up with their largest-ever mountain combat military exercise, this time in India’s eastern-most state of Arunachal Pradesh, where the PRC claims around 90,000 square kilometers of territory (Times of India, September 18; India Today, October 4).

India has also indulged in some diplomatic signaling. On September 26, Jaishankar participated in a “significantly elevated” meeting in New York of the “Quad”, a security dialogue comprising the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. China views the Quad as a grouping set up to contain it (Deccan Herald, September 28). On October 6, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala passed a resolution that only the Dalai Lama, and “no nation, government, entity or any individual”, would choose the spiritual leader’s successor (Tibet Post, October 5). India’s growing proximity with the United States, and its use of the Tibet issue to embarrass and pressure Beijing, are two issues that have never failed to draw China’s ire. Therefore, Beijing kept Delhi waiting and confirmed Xi’s visit less than two days before the summit.

The Run-Up to Wuhan and a Reset in Relations

The mood in the run-up to the 2018 Wuhan summit had been different. The decision to hold an informal summit was a response to the dangerous escalation of tension during the Doklam crisis in 2017: over a 73-day period between June and August in that year, India and China amassed their troops at the strategic Doklam plateau—which lies at the junction of the borders of India, Bhutan, and China—and were on the brink of war. Although Beijing and Delhi reached an agreement in September, tensions did not subside much and mutual suspicion remained high. It was in this context that India and China decided to hold an “informal summit” at Wuhan.

Both sides were keen to defuse tensions in the lead up to the summit. Hence, they signaled sensitivity to each other’s concerns through a variety of measures to ensure a favorable setting for the talks. India wound down its use of the “Tibet card” that it had been leveraging frequently since May 2014, when Modi’s first term as prime minister began. The Indian government took steps to ensure that Tibetan events marking the 70th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India were low-key and that officials would not participate in such events. China, which has generally done little to facilitate global action against Pakistan’s support to terrorism, lifted its objections to inclusion of Pakistan in the “gray list” of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental terror financing watchdog. India and China’s adoption of an accommodating approach paved the way for their decision in February 2018 to hold an “informal summit” between Xi and Modi (China Brief, May 31, 2018).

This first informal summit was held on April 27-28 at Wuhan, where Xi and Modi agreed that they would provide “strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to improve communication, implement various confidence building measures, and strengthen existing institutional mechanisms in order to prevent and manage situations in the border areas. They also decided to work together on a joint economic project in Afghanistan (Economic Times, April 28, 2018).

The “Wuhan Spirit” emerging from the summit did somewhat improve Sino-Indian relations. The disputed border between the two countries has since been relatively calm (Hindustan Times, September 24, 2018). In June 2018, India and China signed two memorandums of understanding: one on Beijing sharing hydrological data on the River Brahmaputra with India; and another on India exporting rice to China, which was aimed at addressing India’s concerns over the huge trade deficit between the two sides (Economic Times, June 9, 2018).  The two countries also carried out joint training programs for Afghan diplomats (Xinhuanet, October 15, 2018). Additionally, the PRC supported a UNSC resolution to designate the Pakistan-based chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, as a terrorist. Hitherto, Beijing had blocked the Indian attempt to blacklist Azhar (The Wire, May 2).

Whither the “Wuhan Spirit”?

China’s positive actions vis-à-vis India may not have been an outcome of either the “Wuhan Spirit” or the result of new-found sensitivity to Indian concerns. The PRC’s vote supporting the UNSC resolution blacklisting Azhar, for instance, may have come as part of a deal in return for Washington designating the Baluch Liberation Army, which has been attacking China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects and Chinese nationals in Pakistan (China Brief, February 15), as a terrorist organization (Nikkei Asian Review, July 6, 2019). As for the relative calm along the disputed India-China border in 2018, there was a congruence of interests between India and China that year. It is likely that China, under pressure from the U.S.-initiated trade war, and Modi, who was preoccupied by a string of elections to state assemblies and the parliament, both wanted to avoid distractions by a revival of tensions along the India-China border (Money Control, December 18, 2018).

In September, there was a day-long standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on the banks of the Pangong Lake (which straddles India’s Ladakh region and Aksai Chin), and delegation-level talks successfully prevented the tension from escalating into hostilities (India Today, September 12). However, India’s apprehensions over another face-off with China at Doklam or along the disputed border have not decreased since the Wuhan summit—especially since China’s road-building activity in Doklam and its deployment of soldiers there, which first triggered the crisis in 2017, continues (The Print, April 2).

The impact of the “cooperative spirit” set in motion by the Wuhan summit has been shallow and transitory. China may have taken steps to address India’s concerns over their massive trade deficit, but this has had little impact: the trade deficit grew from $51.72 billion in 2017 to $57.86 billion in 2018 (The Mint, July 10) and remains huge. Furthermore, China’s unease with India’s aspirations to play a larger role in the regional and global arena remains strong. In Afghanistan, the two countries are not on the same page, as China, like Pakistan, is keen to restrict India’s role in the war-ravaged country. The “Wuhan Spirit” has also failed to make itself felt in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where Beijing continues to block India’s membership (The Hindu, October 5).

Conclusion: Beyond the “Chennai Connect”

Despite the tensions in the run-up to the October 2019 Mamallapuram meeting, the event went off smoothly. It provided the two leaders with an opportunity for “direct communications” where they could assess “each other’s intentions and objectives” (Deccan Herald, October 13). Will the “Chennai Connect” be able to revitalize the fading “Wuhan Spirit”? Can the second informal summit go further than the first one in improving Sino-Indian relations?

If the “Wuhan Spirit,” which emerged from a summit that was considered relatively successful, produced outcomes that were at best superficial and short-lived, even less is likely to come out of the “Chennai Connect.” With China’s relations with the United States likely to worsen in the coming months and Delhi’s ties with Washington getting stronger, Sino-Indian relations are expected to fray further. The “Chennai Connect” is not strong enough to keep Delhi-Beijing ties afloat. Informal summits are useful ice-breakers. They encourage free-wheeling and frank conversations between leaders, unhampered by the presence of officials and delegations or cramped by processes and procedures. Leaders can talk without the added pressure to show the success of the meeting with deliverables. They are useful for deal-making, rather than addressing complex border disputes and issues.

Serious structural problems in India-China relations are preventing the “smooth development of bilateral ties” (Outlook, October 2). Such problems are “unlikely to be resolved by two leaders having ‘informal’ dialogues or meetings without agendas” (Money Control, December 18, 2018). India and China have several dialogues and mechanisms already in place, and Xi and Modi need to push these to produce results. At Wuhan, the two leaders sent out a message to their bureaucracies that they do not want differences to become disputes. They could have used their Mamallapuram meeting to give the mechanisms and dialogues already in place timelines in which to deliver results. They did not do so.

The efficacy of the “Chennai Connect” will be tested soon. India has yet to make a decision whether or not to allow the Chinese telecom company Huawei to participate in upcoming 5G field trials. Beijing has already warned that there would be consequences for Indian companies operating in China should India decide to block Huawei from doing business in the country. Such a development, alongside the tensions that already exist between the PRC and India, could trigger an early unraveling of the “Chennai Connect.”

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bengaluru, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asia Times and the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.