The Summit of Spin

Why progress in Indo-China relations under Modi is an illusion

Both India and China’s governments have hailed Modi’s meeting with China’s president, Xi Jinping, in Wuhan last year as a milestone in bilateral relations.
01 May, 2019

On 27 and 28 April last year, a rare “informal summit” took place between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s president, Xi Jinping, at Wuhan in China. The meeting was described by the Indian and foreign media as a chance for the two countries to “reset” their fraught relationship. According to the Indian government, several outstanding issues were discussed—the dispute over the 4,056-kilometre Line of Actual Control; the trade deficit India has with China, a statistical figure going up every year; and ways to develop cultural exchange. Whether China’s occupation of Tibet—a longstanding bone of contention between the two nations—figured in their discussions is not known.

Both countries’ governments and sections of the mainstream media hailed the visit as a milestone in bilateral relations. India’s ministry of external affairs released a press statement on 28 April, stating that Xi and Modi had “agreed that proper management of the bilateral relationship will be conducive for the development and prosperity of the region, and will create the conditions for the Asian Century.” Since then, several members of the Modi government, including the minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj, have referred to the “Wuhan consensus” or the “Wuhan spirit” to claim an improvement in Indo-China relations.

However, a year since the summit, there has been little visible movement on any of the issues supposedly discussed at Wuhan, making any claims of progress seem like hogwash. India and China have several existential conflicts between them, where any resolution would have to be marked by compromises. However, Modi’s populist domestic politics barely leaves any room for such a scenario. While Modi and his supporters keep boasting of his successes in the realm of foreign policy, the relationship with China offers a case where style can be distinguished over substance.

Any discussion on the India-China relationship must account for the foundational tensions woven into the bilateral relationship. The ideological differences between the two countries make a smooth alliance highly unlikely. The political and economic systems of India and China are miles apart from each other. China continues to function under single-party rule, with the Communist Party of China perpetually in power. In contrast, India’s multi-party democracy system has largely remained under the grip of dynasty politics, which now seems to be giving way to majoritarianism. China’s economic system is a unique brand of capitalism with “socialist characteristics”—for instance, while individual entrepreneurship is valued, all land is owned by the state. In contrast, India—which started out as mixed economy—is moving towards free-market capitalism, where regulatory bodies function as referees.