Dancing with the Dragon? Deciphering India’s ‘China Reset’


Thirty years ago and 15 years ago, Indian prime ministers in the last year of their first terms traveled to China. Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003 had historic visits that reset the Sino-Indian relationship substantively. Now, a year before he is scheduled to seek re-election, another Indian prime minister will visit China. Narendra Modi will meet President Xi Jinping in Wuhan on Friday and Saturday for an “informalSunnylands-style summit. It flows from an effort—dubbed a “reset”—over the last four months to improve optics, restore communication, and identify areas where the countries can cooperate.

China has already described the summit as “historic.” But it’s important to keep it in perspective. After two and a half years of either iciness or high heat, this is an attempt to reset the temperature of the Sino-Indian relationship. Yet serious underlying structural issues remain that defy speedy solutions and will prevent a strategic shift. From India’s perspective, these include the boundary issue, the China-Pakistan relationship, intractable—even if not irreconcilable—differences involving their overlapping peripheries, and what Delhi sees as Beijing’s desire for a unipolar Asia. The summit can set the stage for the two countries to reset their terms of engagement, but moving from a tactical to a major strategic reset will require a lot more, including a significant change in Chinese and Indian perceptions of themselves and their role in the world, and of each other.

Waltzing Into Wuhan?

In December, signs of a Sino-Indian thaw were visible. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited India for the (earlier postponed) Russia-India-China trilateral, and a bilateral meeting with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj. Later that month, then-state councilor Yang Jiechi met national security advisor Ajit Doval in Delhi for the Sino-Indian special representatives’ meeting, 20 months after the previous round of that dialogue. Subsequently, a Chinese Communist Party delegation visited India. After a gap of 14 months, the countries also held two meetings of the working mechanism for consultation and coordination on China-India border affairs (in November and March). And there was an indication that China had re-opened the Nathu La route for Indian pilgrims that it had suspended last year.

These developments did not get much attention, but what did was new Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to China in late February. Moreover, there was a report that, ahead of that trip, on Gokhale’s request, the cabinet secretary had asked officials not to attend events kicking off a year of commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India because it was a sensitive time for India-China relations. Even though the earlier developments indicated that the desire for a “reset” was not one-sided, these latest events fueled the narrative that it was Delhi that was pushing for one.

Then, at a press conference in March, Wang Yi said, “the Chinese ‘dragon’ and the Indian ‘elephant’ must not fight each other, but dance with each other.” The Indian foreign ministry responded positively. Subsequently, there was a Modi-Xi phone call, visits exchanged by senior policymakers, meetings of a number of their dialogues, including on strategic economic issues, disarmament and nonproliferation, and, after a gap of two years, trans-border rivers. Beijing resumed data-sharing on rivers, and the Indian army chief said the countries would restart their annual military exercise.

China and India have also been trying to find areas of “synergy” to work together. As the largest global oil importers, they are, for example, discussing cooperation on crude prices. And Delhi has offered to help fill any gap in Chinese soybean and sugar imports due to China-U.S. trade tensions—not an altruistic move, but an opportunistic one to reduce its significant trade deficit with China. In another area, at the Financial Action Task Force , China dropped its objections to grey-list ally Pakistan, reportedly in exchange for American and Indian support for its vice presidency of the body.

All this created the momentum and prepared the ground for this week’s high-level visits of Swaraj and Indian defense minister Nirmala Sitharaman to China for Shanghai Cooperation Organization ministerials, and, of course, the Wuhan summit.

Reset Redux

Some have called this an “astonishing” turnaround or a “new path.” In fact, this is not the first attempt to arrange a Sino-Indian “dance”—even in the Modi era. In the initial months of the Modi government, Chinese analysts saw an opportunity for the two sides to “inject new vitality” into the relationship. After all, Modi had made clear on multiple China visits as Gujarat’s chief minister that he wanted to do business (literally) with Beijing. The Chinese government reached out speedily. Prime Minister Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to call the new Indian premier. Xi sent Wang Yi as a special envoy, and then met Modi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. Beijing subsequently announced that the Chinese president would visit India for the first time. Ahead of that trip, Modi kept a meeting with the Dalai Lama off camera and low-key—reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s first meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader in 2010. And the Indian national security advisor talked of the possibility of the relationship taking an “orbital jump.” There was even discussion of not just managing the boundary dispute, but solving it.

However, two developments soon put paid to any strategic reset: the border incident that took place while Xi was in India in September 2014 and the Chinese president’s endorsement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in April 2015, just ahead of a Modi trip to China. What followed was two years of tension, peaking during last summer’s face-off at Doklam.

The origins of the current reset arguably lie in that “very serious incident.” Doklam was a reminder to both sides that sustained high temperatures in the Himalayas have the potential to boil over. Existing dialogue mechanisms paved the way for disengagement, but the incident also showed that they weren’t necessarily working. The perception of Indian performance at Doklam—and its opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative, which contributed to a wider narrative—also arguably created the space for Modi to come to the table and the Chinese desire to get him to it.

Even beyond avoiding another serious incident, both sides have other incentives to lower the temperature. For Delhi, there’s the potential to expand and balance Sino-Indian economic ties. It has also seen partners like Japan seeking to make their own “fresh start” with China, including Abe’s meeting with Xi in November, his indication that Japan might be willing to cooperate on some Belt and Road projects, and the recent revival of the Sino-Japanese economic dialogue. Personnel changes, economic friction, and President Donald Trump’s transactionalism have contributed to some anxiety about the U.S. approach to India and the region. Russia, which India has in the past considered an important balancer of China, continues its bonhomie with Beijing and recently with Islamabad. On top of that, Modi is going into an election year.

Indian policymakers go into this effort knowing that Beijing has reasons to come to the table too, given the uncertain global and regional environment. China might want a reset to shape how far and fast India’s relationship with the United States (and Australia and Japan) will develop, limit the extent of Indian activism in opposing the Belt and Road Initiative, and enable China to benefit from the growing Indian economy. The uncertain, if not tense, China-U.S. dynamic adds to the incentives, as does the situation with China’s closest partners—the North Korean situation is fluid and, while the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is deepening relations between those two countries, it is also bringing to the fore new frictions.

Still, the reset is not without strategic and political risks for India and Modi. His previous attempts to use the power of personal diplomacy with China have had mixed success—setting the stage for defusing the Doklam stand-off, but not getting Beijing to heed India’s concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or support Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group . And developments around the September 2014 Xi-Modi summit did more to reinforce distrust rather than overcome it.

India’s Dance Card

While China and India are back on each other’s dance cards, they aren’t ready to dance cheek-to-cheek. Fundamental problems remain, not least on the boundary. The governments have continued to hold the other responsible for Doklam. After the Swaraj-Wang meeting in December, which India called “positive and forward looking,” China blamed India for the “severe test” that Doklam had posed for the relationship. In March, the Indian ambassador to China asserted that India reacted only after “the Chinese military changed the status quo”—a contention China rejected. While China has asked India to “stop meaningless playing up” of the issue, India continues to have concerns about what China is doing around Doklam and other parts of the boundary.

In some previous resets, Delhi would omit talk of differences or speak of the boundary issue being set aside. This time around, the Indian government has continued to reiterate that peace at the border is a “pre-requisite” for taking the relationship further, and while stating that differences should not become disputes, it has emphasized the importance of managing these differences. Moreover, officials have stressed the need for Beijing to show sensitivity to Indian concerns.

There have also been limits to how far the Indian government will go with China-friendly optics. On the defense side, the Indian military has conducted major exercises, including a tri-services one in India’s eastern waters in December, and a major recent air force one on the India-China border, which the defense minister attended. Even on the Tibetan question, which is important to Modi’s base, a minister and members of the ruling BJP did eventually attend the commemorative event, which had been shifted from Delhi to Dharamsala, and a government-linked institution recently hosted an event with the Dalai Lama in Delhi.

In addition, India is still worried about China’s influence and activities in its neighborhood. And, in public and before a parliamentary committee, Gokhale has reiterated Indian concerns with the “methodology” of the Belt and Road.

 These deeper, stickier geopolitical and geo-economic concerns have meant that, even while engaging with China, India is not giving up its other dance partners in the extended neighborhood or among the major powers. Engagement with South and Southeast Asia countries over the last few months has included Delhi hosting the Nepalese prime minister, the Vietnamese president, and the Afghan and Singaporean defence ministers. Swaraj went to Nepal twice, and also to Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. Gokhale has traveled to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The ASEAN leaders were the chief guests for India’s Republic Day, which was preceded by an ASEAN-India Connectivity Summit. In June, Modi will travel to Singapore to give the keynote at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

India is also continuing to nurture partnerships with like-minded countries to build and extend its own military and economic capabilities, work in or with third countries (for example, to provide them with connectivity alternatives), and/or provide balance or leverage vis-a-vis China. Swaraj, for instance, has recently traveled to Japan and Mongolia to further these goals. India also launched an Act East Forum with Japan, hosted the inaugural meeting of the Australia-India 2+2 and a meeting of the Australia-India-Japan trilateral. Moreover, it has signed logistics support agreements with Singapore and France—and, with the latter, agreed to deepen maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

U.S.-India interactions in the defense and security space have also continued, despite concern that, in a bid to accommodate China, India would limit its partnership with the United States. The inaugural 2+2 dialogue was postponed, but because of developments in Washington, not Delhi. Meanwhile, there have been visits exchanged by senior diplomats, defense officials and military officers, including for working-level 2+2s. The two countries have also recently reconvened their institutionalized dialogues designed to deepen practical cooperation in the defense trade and technology, cyber-security and counter-terrorism spheres. They have continued the trilateral dialogue with Japan, and launched a trilateral infrastructure working group. American and Indian forces have continued to exercise together. A previously reluctant India has operationalized agreements that will allow greater bilateral interoperability and technology transfer, including the logistics exchange memorandum of agreement. There are reports that Delhi has also agreed to re-start negotiations on another of the foundational agreements and expand the quantity and quality of military exercises. All these development have been focused on operationalizing cooperation further, enhancing the potential for the two militaries to work together, building Indian capacity, and advancing alternatives in terms of regional connectivity.

Competitive Engagement, with Indian Characteristics

Picture an elephant and dragon actually trying to dance. It would be awkward, if not difficult, and require a lot of preparation and practice. Think of the Modi-Xi summit as that preparation, rather than the dance itself. It’ll give the leaders the opportunity to have what the Indian ambassador was needed a dozen times in a recent interview: a frank and candid conversation. They will have the chance to understand the other’s objectives, concerns, and red lines, as well as what the other might be willing to put on the table.

However, there’s work to be done before Delhi will be convinced that it can trust the dragon enough to waltz with it. Doklam—where India believed China reneged on an agreement to maintain the status quo—and other developments at the border have raised questions about how committed China is to existing understandings. Gokhale recently highlighted another reason for the lack of trust in Chinese assurances, stating, “a number of steps, that the Chinese hitherto had said they would not do, are being done,” including establishing bases and sending forces abroad.

What the summit can do is create the conditions for China and India to develop a new modus vivendi, and for the two sides to make tactical adjustments or concessions. For instance, on India’s part, if China finds a way to de-link its projects in disputed territory from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, less vocal opposition to BRI or even Abe-like language of openness to working with Beijing on infrastructure projects on a case-by-case basis. On China’s part, removing its hold on Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group or on the designation of Pakistan-based terrorists at the UN. The former might be more difficult because of its strategic implications; the latter might be easier—the Financial Action Task Force quid pro quo showed that Beijing is willing to ease off its support for Islamabad on issues like terrorism, where they are not on the same page.

Still, these adjustments are not going to change key fundamental strategic—and competitive—dynamics in the relationship. Given this, 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. That’s why the terms of the reset are crucial—what is India getting and what will it be expected to give up? 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. That means not giving China a veto on —or the right to circumscribe—its partnerships, which are indispensable to India building capability, balancing China, and creating leverage with it. It’s also important for Delhi to get its messaging about the reset right. Missteps on this front will result in criticism that it is “kowtowing” to or “appeasing” China. It can also have substantive consequences if China—and India’s partners in the region and beyond—believe India is going into this from a place of weakness and wants the dance more than China does.


Tanvi Madan is director of The India Project and a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons