Mamallapuram summit: China's mixed messaging on Kashmir aimed at setting bar low, is part of its diplomatic arsenal

  • For India, continuous engagement with China is crucial not just for bilateral ties, but also a necessary ingredient of its foreign policy

  • This posturing is important to lower the expectations so that any affirmative move may be painted as a positive step

  • The Indian media would do well to take note of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar�s recent comments

‘Wuhan Summit’ had a crisp note to it. In contrast, Mamallapuram, the coastal resort in the state of Tamil Nadu near Chennai, is a bit of a tongue twister. The venue for the second India-China ‘informal summit’ has a rich cultural history dating back to the Pallava Dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries. It is New Delhi’s attempt to show Beijing that India is no less a civilizational nation-state than China. While that point may be noted, the semantic shift from a crisp ‘Wuhan Summit’ to a more challenging ‘Mamallapuram Summit’ ironically captures the challenges that have crept into bilateral ties since the inaugural “informal” exercise.

Right now, India and China are going through with the summit because none of the parties want to disengage with each other even though the prospects of a true “reset” in ties are bleak, and both sides are keen to portray an image of “responsibility” and “maturity.”

 Mamallapuram summit: Chinas mixed messaging on Kashmir aimed at setting bar low, is part of its diplomatic arsenal

File image of Chinese president XI Jinping. Reuters

This is a different paradigm than the concept of treaty or alliance-based diplomacy. For both these nations that perceive themselves as “great powers,” diplomacy is not just building relationships and alliances with nations based on shared values and mutual interests, but a more multipolar approach where relationships can be built and nurtured despite deep structural and strategic differences.

An understanding of this concept is crucial if we are to make sense of what is happening between India and China, both of whom have found themselves at odds with each other recently over several issues. There might be differences in political systems and more competition than cooperation, but that shouldn’t deter nations from engaging with each other to iron out wrinkles in the relationship.

For India, continuous engagement with China is crucial not just for bilateral ties, but also a necessary ingredient of its foreign policy that is based on keeping relations “well-oiled with all the major power centres” so that India’s relative geopolitical heft overshadows capacity constraints.

From this perspective, there are more reasons to remain engaged with China than remain disengaged, and therefore the “setbacks” may be viewed as “opportunities” for negotiations. India’s fundamental aim vis-à-vis China is to create enough legroom in ties to address and develop its structural deficiencies for eventually a more equitable relationship.

As Brookings Institution scholar Tanvi Madan noted in a piece for War On the Rocks during the Wuhan Summit “the reset should be seen not as India moving from competition with China to engagement, but rather as an attempt to develop its own version of competitive engagement with China… For the “competitive” part, India will need to use any time and space a reset buys to reduce its asymmetries with China, including by enhancing its military and economic capabilities.”

Even during the summit at Wuhan, despite the rhetoric about a “reset” in ties and positivity surrounding the event — chiefly because it followed a tense 70-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on the soil of a third nation — it is useful to remember that the summit failed to fundamentally reset ties.

Had that been the case, we would have not arrived at a situation where headlines even 24 hours before Chinese president Xi Jinping lands in India are mostly alarmist, and paint an image of negativity.

Wrinkle in Xi’s red carpet: China and Pakistan raise Kashmir, India objects” announced Indian Express, noting that in response to the joint statement on Kashmir issued by China and Pakistan following Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing, the ministry of external affairs has issued a terse comment, reminding China that “India’s position has been consistent and clear that Jammu & Kashmir is an integral part of India. China is well aware of our position. It is not for other countries to comment on the internal affairs of India.”

The MEA response followed the China-Pakistan joint statement that referred to Kashmir as a “dispute left from history, and should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.”

In its report “Ahead of Xi-Modi meet, India, China talk tough on Kashmir” The Times of India notes that Xi apparently assured Imran that “China supports Pakistan in safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and hopes the parties concerned can resolve the dispute through peaceful dialogue” and that “the rights and wrongs of the situation in Kashmir are clear.” 

If China is repeating the stance on Kashmir that it had taken at the United Nations General Assembly where Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said pretty much the same thing, it is also worth noting that on Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang omitted all references to the UN on Kashmir and “advised” India and Pakistan to thrash out the issue “bilaterally.”

“China’s position on Kashmir issue is clear and consistent,” the spokesperson was quoted, as saying. “We call on India and Pakistan to engage in dialogue and consultation on all issues including Kashmir issue and consolidate mutual trust. This is in line with the interest of both countries and common aspiration of the world,” said Geng, revealing the fact that China’s position on Kashmir is anything but “consistent and clear”.

On that occasion, India Today went so far as to announce that China left Pakistan “totally isolated”.

This mixed messaging is part of China’s diplomatic arsenal and instead of feeling jubilant and depressed by turns, Indian media would do well to take note of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s recent comments at a program organised by New York-based Council on Foreign Relations where he said: “Considering that international affairs is a business of realism… there are differences we have with China. It’s not a secret. They accept it. We accept it. We have a boundary issue… We have other areas where we may not always agree. But I think today it is a very stable relationship. It’s a very mature relationship. Where we differ, we have mechanisms and a sort of a—in a way a sort of ethos of handling it. And frankly, it’s not a relationship that has given cause for anxiety to the world for many, many years.”

So, a lot of the posturing that both nations are indulging in right now are effectively aimed at setting the backdrop for an “informal discussion” (in reality the carefully choreographed event is anything but).

This posturing is important to lower the expectations so that any affirmative move may be painted as a “positive step” arising out of the summit.

This by itself may be interpreted as a study in time-wasting but from a different perspective, it is also a crucial manouvre between both sides to stay engaged.

Updated Date: Oct 10, 2019 17:25:56 IST