On 26 August 2019, IPCS hosted Dr Xie Chao, Assistant Professor at the Institute for International and Area Studies (IIAS), Tsinghua University, Beijing, and Visiting Scholar (2018-2020), Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, for a talk on India-China Rapprochement After Doklam. This is a summary report of the proceedings.
The discussion centred on post-Doklam rapprochement in light of three factors: Chinese foreign policy and its key actors; role of public perception in the India-China relationship; and the scenario post Doklam.
Key Actors in Chinese Foreign Policy
One of India’s perpetual grievances against China is that it downplays the former’s role in its foreign policy. A core reason for this is that Chinese foreign policy tends to prioritise its relations with the US in the belief that if the US is handled well, better relations with other countries will more or less follow as a natural consequence.
Chinese foreign policy-making follows a very centralised structure divided into two parts: decision-makers and practitioners. The decision-making component includes key Chinese leaders and a small circle of close associates. Practitioners include the ministry of foreign affairs, the state counsellors, ambassadors, and other important actors that have a significant role to play in the country’s foreign relations. The practitioners’ primary role is to give feedback to the decision-makers, and to implement their decisions.
There is a general perception that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China plays a very important role in the country’s foreign policy. In fact, the PLA, just like everyone else, is directed by civilian control, and thus, its role in foreign policy is like that of the practitioners, i.e. to implement the policy.
Public Perception in India and China
Public perception is very unequal in its nature in that people tend to dwell much more on negative rather than positive news. This imbalance in perception has long affected the Sino-Indian relationship. Positive developments between the two countries find limited audience and attention, as compared to negative developments such as the Doklam stand-off.
China witnessed a wave of negative perception against India during and in the immediate aftermath of the Doklam stand-off. Similar sentiments were seen in India as well.
Public perception plays a very significant role in a country’s politics and its foreign policy. Leaders often project a tough image through speeches and statements. This is later put to test during crises, and any failure could lead to political backlash.
The context of the relationship discussed thus far is useful to understand India and China’s rapprochement post-Doklam.
In the immediate aftermath of the Doklam stand-off, the Sino-Indian relationship was predicted to witness a long period of difficulty. The prediction was short-lived, and the relationship started showing growth within six months. The concept of ‘leadership diplomacy’ is at the foundation of these improved relations. The centralised nature of foreign policy-making in both the countries has led to frequent leadership exchanges and meetings in quick succession post the stand-off. In the year 2018, the two heads of state met an unprecedented four occasions. The informal summit in Wuhan in the same year is touted as a turning point.
The role of an informal meeting is to give both countries the space to communicate differences and convey bottom-lines in a environment that is not covered by the media minute-to-minute. These informal meetings help clear old backlogs and can help set the stage for formal bilateral visits and engagements to take place. India and China’s decades-old differences on borders as well as Tibet have resulted in constant confrontations between the two status-seeking, rising powers. All of this reached boiling point during the Doklam stand-off, when bilateral trust between the two was severely damaged. The Wuhan Summit is where India-China rapprochement began.
Since the informal meeting, the downtrend in the Sino-Indian relationship has been arrested. However, the recent rapprochement is now witnessing a slow climb up owing to the absence of formal bilateral meetings. Formal leadership visits will lead to various agreements and large-scale cooperation, which eventually will fuel the relationship further. India and China have been unable to effectively discuss their differences for a long time. Now, through the current approach of informal meetings, they have found a platform to communicate their differences without any fear or threat of escalation. These informal meetings will lead to better relations, and contribute to the end goal of formal leadership exchanges.
Rapporteured by Ashutosh Nagda, Researcher, IPCS