3 August 2023

How to interpret China’s imaginary consensus with India

Following a meeting on the sidelines of a BRICS gathering of National Security Advisers, between India’s Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign ministry has been reported as saying that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping had reached “an important consensus” to restore bilateral ties during their meeting in Bali at the G20 Summit in November. That meeting marked by a handshake at dinner and a brief conversation had come after the two leaders refused to even acknowledge each other at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit earlier in September in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. 

The Bali interaction in full glare of the press lasted a few minutes at most, and unless there was a separate private meeting, there is no scope for the two leaders to have reached a “consensus” so quickly — especially amidst a cold front in ties since 2020 in which New Delhi has stuck consistently to a public position which calls the bilateral relationship ‘abnormal’ and impossible to take forward without de-escalation and disengagement at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries. Nor has India at any point until now acknowledged that the two leaders reached such a consensus. 

India’s MEA spokesperson responded to a direct question by reiterating the Foreign Secretary’s statement at the end of the Bali summit that the two leaders had only “exchanged courtesies and [talked] of the need to stabilize… bilateral relations”.

One possibility is to merely assume that this call to stabilise ties is the “consensus” China is referring to. But ‘stabilizing’ and ‘normalizing’ ties are two different things.

China has, however, also plenty to gain by promoting a “consensus” whatever India might say.

One, when China keeps referring to the “consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries” — that “China and India should not be a threat to each other, but an opportunity for each other’s development” — the attempt is to focus on the centrality of the two leaders to their respective political systems. For China, of course, Xi is ‘chairman of everything’ — its current politics is built around promoting the core and unquestioned leadership role of the Chinese President. For this purpose, highlighting his statements, views and say in foreign policy matters helps bolster the domestic agenda, too. 

China’s focus on individual foreign leaders is designed to both normalise Xi’s central place in foreign policymaking as well as to make it look like such centralisation is normal practice elsewhere, too. Of course, there is the possibility that China might also be pandering to the egos of individual foreign leaders as a way of currying favour, as one more way of achieving its interests in another country.

Two, there is also the very Goebbelsian approach of simply repeating something long enough to create an alternate narrative or to put doubt in a listener’s mind about the veracity of other formulations and views.

Three, with the growing closeness of India-US ties and the weakening of non-Western forums such as BRICS and the SCO due to the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its President Vladimir Putin’s inability to travel and be physically present at various summits, China needs to find ways of keeping India from drifting too far away. It could well be that China’s statement following the NSAs meeting is an attempt to signal openness to more dialogue and the willingness to be flexible in negotiations. 

However, existing military-to-military talks have gone nowhere, and nor have talks between the foreign ministers and NSAs. The only remaining approach is of a meeting of the two top leaders themselves.

After the misstep of the informal summits between Modi and Xi in 2018 and 2019 — which had also resulted in a ‘consensus’ between the two leaders before the Indians were surprised by the large-scale transgressions in eastern Ladakh the following year — it would be extremely unlikely for the Indian side to agree to a meeting that would immediately and easily be interpreted as conceding on the LAC to China’s might. New Delhi will prefer that ongoing tensions be resolved at the lower levels before the leaders meet in any substantial manner.

For Beijing, however, as India’s G-20 presidency draws to a close, its window to exert diplomatic pressure on New Delhi is also closing. For Beijing, therefore, the claim of a Bali consensus between Xi and Modi and the timing of the claim might represent an attempt to make use of the time left and tempt India to a change of stance by focusing more on the bilateral relationship rather than refer to ties in the context of the global situation (read, India’s ties with the US). 

However, New Delhi has also been willing to live with a lack of consensus on multiple issues at various G20 meetings so far suggesting that it has a thicker skin and higher tolerance for failure. Earlier, India conducted the SCO leaders’ summit in the online mode much to the disappointment of the Chinese who seemed to think that India did not give the forum, where Beijing is a heavyweight player, adequate importance.

It is, therefore, also not surprising that China continues to needle India by its policy of issuing stapled visas to athletes from Arunachal Pradesh selected to travel to the Chinese city of Chengdu for the World University Games.

China will always employ a mix of the seemingly conciliatory and the provocative believing it can run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. This might seem like obtuse Chinese policymaking, but what it does is offer us a picture of how China assesses India’s policy stances, strengths, and weaknesses and of some of Beijing’s own dilemmas in its India policymaking.


Originally Published in Deccan Herald, 31 July 2023