The Leaders of the World’s Two Biggest Countries Meet—and Come Away With Little Progress

Flashy summits between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi don’t achieve much because India has a weaker set of cards than China. To change the game, New Delhi needs to hew closer to Washington.

Indian school students form the Chinese characters for the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Indian students form the Chinese characters for the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Chennai on Oct. 10, ahead of a bilateral summit in Tamil Nadu state. ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

In what may turn out to be an enduring image from this past weekend’s so-called informal summit between the leaders of India and China, Narendra Modi presented Xi Jinping with a handcrafted gold-and-red silk shawl bearing the Chinese president’s portrait. The gift was beautiful and showcased Indian expertise in textiles, but it was more flashy than useful—an unintended metaphor for the meeting between the leaders of the world’s two biggest countries by population. While the summit at the Indian beach resort of Mamallapuram generated newspaper headlines in both countries, little progress was actually made on addressing a range of contentious issues that characterize the bilateral relationship.

An underwhelming meeting shouldn’t be that surprising; after all, summits rarely amount to much. But in this particular case the underlying reason why the Xi-Modi meeting involved more pageantry than substance is the fact that India has a much weaker hand: It has a comparatively small economy and weaker regional alliances. Beijing doesn’t need to make meaningful concessions. Even so, New Delhi also has some potential advantages—its relationship with the Dalai Lama and its closeness with Washington—that it can better leverage to compensate for its relative lack of heft. Until it does so, India will always fall short of making real advances in bilateral meetings with China.

Amid a reported six hours of freewheeling talks between Xi and Modi, one of the issues tackled was the yawning trade deficit in China’s favor. The two agreed to create a joint commission co-chaired by Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. But whether or not they can address India’s concerns over China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—which could lead to the Indian market being flooded with even more cheap Chinese products—remains an open question. The two sides also reportedly discussed mutual efforts to combat terrorism. Even here, it is far from certain that China will vote to blacklist its “all-weather” ally Pakistan when the Financial Action Task Force meets in Paris this week.

What was conspicuously missing from the discussions between China and India was any substantive mention of their long-standing border dispute, which led to a war between the two countries in 1962. Even after 21 rounds of talks, the two sides are far from reaching any resolution of the dispute. The sensitivity of the issue is such that it was unclear if Xi would attend the summit because of China’s reported misgivings about a recent Indian military exercise in the state of Arunachal Pradesh—a region that China claims as part of southern Tibet.

What was conspicuously missing from the discussions between China and India was any substantive mention of their long-standing border dispute.

As the summit drew to a close, Xi invited Modi for a return meeting in China. It is uncertain when exactly this will take place. Regardless of its timing, these summits are highly unlikely to enable the two parties to make substantial headway on their many differences. The reasons are complex and merit discussion.

At the outset, the two countries have markedly different self-images and support mostly different causes. India is essentially a status quo power. While New Delhi wants some limited changes in the global trading order, has some reservations about an international human rights regime, and would like to see itself widely accepted as a legitimate nuclear weapons state despite its unwillingness to accede to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the changes that it seeks are incremental at best. India has no interest in fundamentally challenging any features of the existing global order.

China, on the other hand, is clearly a revisionist state. It harbors significant ambitions to expand its maritime territory, as made clear through its actions in the South China Sea; it has little use for the liberal global order and sees itself in competition with the global hegemon, the United States. And at a regional level, China sees India as an upstart that refuses to accept its primacy across the region, including in South Asia. To that end, China has, over decades, forged a close relationship with India’s archrival Pakistan, bolstering its capabilities through the transfer of advanced military technology and substantial economic assistance. China has rarely missed an opportunity to try to expand its influence among India’s other smaller neighbors, such as Sri Lanka and Nepal, through the provision of both economic and military aid. Most importantly, beyond making informal offers such as a territorial swap, it has proved to be utterly intransigent in terms of solving the Himalayan border dispute. Instead, it has expanded the scope of its territorial claims over the last two decades, further undermining the possibility of a resolution.

The reality is that India is playing with a mostly weak hand in its dealings with China. By any number of indices, China is well ahead of India. Its GDP is now five times the size of the India’s; Beijing spends three times as much as New Delhi on defense; and China has a diplomatic corps that is more than five times the size of India’s. Not surprisingly, India, except on rare occasions, has not chosen to pursue a more muscular approach in resolving various outstanding differences with China.

There are, however, two areas where India still holds some cards. The first involves the question of the future of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual head of China’s restive Tibetan population. Modi’s government has, in fact, granted the Dalai Lama a bit more latitude than previous Indian governments in conducting what China deems to be political activities. Among other matters, it has allowed him, until recently, to travel anywhere within India, including areas in dispute with China. But the mere fact that Beijing attaches such significance to the Dalai Lama’s activities within India underscores its concerns about the future of its Tibetan population—and the significance of the Tibetan diaspora in India. A principled and unyielding stance on the part of the Indian government would grant freedoms such as allowing Tibetan exiles to organize meetings highlighting the plight of their compatriots in Tibet, allowing them to peacefully protest when a Chinese dignitary visits India, and granting the Dalai Lama the right to travel freely to Tibetan religious sites in India in areas claimed by China. Put together, those moves would constitute a point of significant leverage in New Delhi’s dealings with Beijing.

The other area where India wields considerable advantage involves its growing, if fitful, strategic partnership with the United States. Though unwilling to commit itself to any possibility of a formal alliance that would, among other matters, commit India to militarily assisting the United States in the event of a conflict in Asia, New Delhi has nonetheless chosen to forge a viable partnership with Washington. The United States, of course, is keen on placing this strategic partnership on a more secure footing because it believes that India can serve as a bulwark against China’s expansionist ambitions in Asia. If India were to prove more forthcoming, the prospects of enhancing this partnership are quite promising. To that end India, could bolster the scope and dimensions of its military-to-military contacts with the United States; dispense with its tentative approach toward the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the United States, Japan, Australia, and India; and move ahead with a proposed cooperation agreement that would enable the two sides to share geospatial information. All of these steps would add considerable ballast to the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership and enhance mutual trust. This prospect of India emerging as a regional balancer in concert with the United States remains a vital concern for China. A closer Indo-U.S. partnership is likely to induce a greater degree of caution on the part of Beijing in its dealings with New Delhi. India could then rely on greater and real-time access to U.S. intelligence on China, and it would find reassurance from a steadier American naval presence in the Indian Ocean and could have better access to relevant U.S. weapons technology. More to the point, China would be aware that if it chose to provoke or threaten India, it could very possibly invoke a response from the United States.

So far, India has hesitated to forge a more robust partnership with the United States because of a lingering historical distrust: Memories of flawed American choices, including and especially its military support for Pakistan during the Cold War, continue to linger. But it is now time to dispense with these misgivings as China continues its rise. One possible objection to aligning more closely with the United States is that it could adversely affect India’s relations with Iran and Russia. But in all likelihood Iran would be forced to adjust itself to this shift in Indian policy. And as far as Russia is concerned, apart from India’s partial dependence for some military equipment, the relationship has lost much of its Cold War dynamic. An otherwise declining power and no longer a wholly reliable partner, Russia’s friendship is of limited consequence to India when compared with the potential gains of being more closely attached to the United States.

In the coming years, India will not be able to deal with China on equal terms. However, if it can deftly handle the delicate issue of the Tibetan diaspora in India and simultaneously fashion a closer, predictable security partnership with the United States, it may not have to simply exchange pleasantries and satisfy itself with hesitant progress at a future summit.

Sumit Ganguly is a Foreign Policy columnist. He is also a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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