One Year After They Almost Went to War, Can China and India Get Along?

ChinaFile Conversation

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Arrives In Wuhan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, April 27, 2018.

The following is ASPI Assistant Director Anubhav Gupta's contribution to a "ChinaFile Conversation" on China-India relations. The original conversation also features contributions from experts Joel Wuthnow, Selina Ho, Jeff Smith, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Sameer Lalwani, Oriana Skylar Mastro, and Thomas Lynch III. You can read contributions from all of these experts on ChinaFile.

The Doklam standoff was the longest border confrontation between China and India in nearly three decades. Even though no blood was shed, the world held its breath, concerned that tensions between these nuclear-armed neighbors might dangerously escalate.

In restrospect, the way the two countries managed the confrontation and brought it to a close looks impressive. But the end of the standoff did not immediately result in softening relations. On the contrary, each country left with greater distrust toward the other. This is because Doklam wasn’t a singular point of contention but the latest in a string of developments that have strained Sino-Indian ties in recent years.

Strikingly, things look far different today. At the informal summit in Wuhan in April, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi made nice. Though no real agreements were reached, both sides heralded the meeting as a positive development that would allow the two countries to begin afresh on a more productive path. Last week, when Modi was again in China, the two leaders emphasized the “positive momentum” for bilateral ties. In a sign of growing comity, Xi accepted Modi’s invitation to visit India for a second informal summit next year.

After the low point of Doklam, how did India and China reach this surprising détente?

First, both leaders may have realized that Doklam went too far and wanted to prevent another major dustup. For both of them, domestic economic development remains the top priority. With Indian elections around the corner in 2019, Modi is engrossed with delivering on his economic agenda. Another border conflict before then would be a distraction that detracts from his economic agenda. This likely was part of India’s calculus in seeking accommodation at Wuhan.

Second, global dynamics have shifted significantly in the past year. China finds itself in the midst of a burgeoning trade conflict with the U.S. A trade war would harm both sides and the global economy, and the unpredictability of the U.S. administration means further deterioration in ties is not out of the question. Beijing, therefore, has a strong incentive to stabilize its relations with other countries in the region so that it doesn’t end up facing multiple crises simultaneously.

It is also worth considering whether the U.S. is forcing second thoughts in India. Under Modi, India has moved closer to the U.S. than ever before and has increasingly positioned itself as a critical partner of the U.S. in East and Southeast Asia. The Trump Administration’s policies and actions, however, which have unsettled its allies, are likely also raising eyebrows in India. Modi may be less keen to antagonize China if he is starting to perceive the United States as an unreliable or ineffective partner, at least in the short term.

Does the recent thaw in relations guarantee no border clashes in the immediate future? That is hard to say with confidence given Sino-Indian history, but it will depend as much on their bilateral relations as it will on what else is happening in the Asia-Pacific.

Read the full conversation on Chinafile. 

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