'Strategic cooperation' can take Sino-Indian ties to next level, experts say
President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet in the coastal city of Chennai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu on Friday amid expectations of a renewed leadership push to stabilize bilateral relations.
This second informal summit follows one held in Wuhan, Hubei province, last year.
Xi last visited India in September 2014.
Analysts in both countries said they anticipate a range of topics — from hot-button issues to routine ones — to be discussed at this year's summit.
Chinese experts highlighted "strategic cooperation" as a way to take bilateral relations to the next level.
"During this summit, they (the leaders) will likely view bilateral relations more from a strategic perspective and its significance not just for China and India but also the world," said Li Li, a professor at Tsinghua University's Institute of International Relations.
"When we look at China-India relations, we find some structural contradictions," she added, citing the border issue as one.
Li, who specializes in Sino-Indian relations, said the consensus reached in Wuhan focused more on cooperation as well as better management of the border issue.
The format for this year's summit will likely be similar to that for the first, with personal interactions between Xi and Modi and a lack of ceremony or issuance of statements usually associated with high-profile formal government meetings.
Li said she expects the talks to be "free and comprehensive".
On Wednesday, the Indian Foreign Ministry said the Chennai summit "will provide an opportunity for the two leaders to continue their discussions on overarching issues of bilateral, regional and global importance".
China-India trade is set to reach $100 billion soon; cultural exchanges have increased; Chinese companies dominate India's mobile phone market; more Indians work in China in various sectors, including government scientific institutions; and the two countries are even talking of jointly addressing global development issues.
Talking more, not less
However, Sino-Indian relations are complex.
Through bilateral high-level meetings, a mechanism could be created where there are fewer elements of surprise in the relationship, according to Einar Tangen, a commentator in Beijing on Chinese economic and political affairs.
He said he expects economic issues, included regional proposals such as the China-Nepal-India rail corridor to be discussed at the summit.
Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor specializing in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said India is expected to raise the trade imbalance issue, adding that the deficit has implications for government spending in India.
Information technology is an area that offers scope for synergy, Tangen said. "IT is something that Xi and Modi could talk about."
China is at the forefront of not only developing technology but also setting the agenda. "India has the technical manpower to help China with both hardware and software. This would breathe new life into India's tech industry" and create the jobs it wants and needs, Tangen said.
But to do business, "India needs to do more to familiarize itself with China — culturally, politically and legally", he added.
Long Xingchun, a professor specializing in Indian studies at China West Normal University in Nanchong, Sichuan province, said he expects the border issue, mutual connectivity and regional cooperation to be among the topics to be covered at the summit.
Western analysts have questioned the resilience of Sino-Indian relations, asking if the two countries can work together toward greater global security.
Zhang Guihong, director of the Center for UN Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that as long as territorial disputes remain unsettled, mistrust will always exist, but it is important to prevent the disputes from escalating into conflict.
"To build mutual trust, we need — bilaterally — to strengthen our economic relations and promote people-to-people contact, and regionally, to deepen our cooperation in Southeast, Central and South Asian affairs and to jointly build an Asian community with shared future for humanity," said Zhang.
Among the five permanent UN Security Council members, China is the largest contributor to peacekeeping personnel.
As large developing countries, China and India have similar goals such as poverty reduction and cleaner air, but they need to do more to coordinate efforts at the UN on global issues such as climate change.
"I do not see any substantial coordination at the UN on this issue (climate change) but there is some coordination through BRICS and G77," Zhang said.
BRICS refers to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, while the Group of 77 at the UN is a coalition that now comprises 134 developing countries. There were 77 founding members.
Lu Yang, a research fellow with the Institute of BRI Studies at Tsinghua University, said China and India have "different understandings" about the Belt and Road Initiative, but this should not affect their "practical cooperation" on specific projects.
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a good example of such cooperation, she said.
Sino-Indian relations have long been guided by pragmatism.
Li, from Tsinghua University, who is also deputy secretary-general of the World Peace Forum, a diplomatic think tank backed by the Chinese government, said, "Developmental cooperation is pragmatic, but it doesn't mean that we don't want strategic cooperation.
Zhang said: "We need to define our relationship from the strategic perspective, with bilateral, regional and global dimensions. Similar to France and Germany in Europe, China and India should take the lead on multilateralism in Asia."
He added that cooperation on regional and global affairs would help to enhance mutual trust.
Mamallapuram (previously Mahabalipuram), a UNESCO World Heritage site in southern India known for its architecture and where part of this year's summit is scheduled to be held, is a seaside town that linked the two countries in ancient times, when India traded spices for silk with China.
Southern India had other connections with China. Bodhidharma, recognized as an early patriarch of the Shaolin monastic order that gave kung fu to the world, went from the region to Central China, and is said to have also contributed to the development of Chinese Zen Buddhism.
In 1938, Dwarkanath Kothnis, an Indian doctor arrived in Wuhan on a mission to help Chinese people during the Japanese invasion. He died in China and later became well-known in both countries.
In addition to the weekend talks in Chennai and Mamallapuram, about 60 kilometers away, Modi will host Xi to lunch and dinner by the Bay of Bengal, according to Indian media reports.
Indrani Bagchi, diplomatic editor of The Times of India, said: "We are not just two big nations sitting side by side across the Himalayas. We are two ancient civilizations where statecraft was virtually invented."
The two governments recently emphasized culture as "a bridge", and this area will likely be discussed at the summit.
Cultural exchanges between China and India date to ancient times, said Tan Fei, a Beijing film critic who keeps an eye on the performance of Bollywood movies at the Chinese box office.
While the Chinese market has opened up for Hindi movies in the past three years or so, enthusiasm has waned recently.
"Bollywood should focus on the quality of movies, not the quantity. Too many of the same kind (genre) can lead to audience fatigue," Tan said.
In her 2017 book China-India Relations in the Contemporary World, Lu from the BRI Institute discussed India's "national interest and identity". She argued that the nation-building process in India has been more complicated than in China, owing to factors such as diverse languages, religions and ethnicity. As a result, India's policy priority has been "domestic-oriented".
"Reflected in the present context of geopolitics, there is a gap between India's desire and capability to achieve the status in the world that can match the glory of a civilization state," she said.
Zhang described the current state of Sino-Indian ties as "coopetition," meaning "cooperative competition".
Li described the ties as "stable and predictable", drawing a parallel between the Chinese Dream and aspirations for a "new India".
Kondapalli, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, said India and China are driven by their top leaders, adding that while there is turbulence in relations, "the leaders can handle it".
Analysts gave a mixed response to the future for China-India relations.
Bagchi, the diplomatic editor, said she has realistic expectations, adding: "It's a complex relationship. We will have good weeks and bad weeks."
Long, from South West Normal University, said he is cautiously optimistic and that the success of last year's summit had improved mutual strategic confidence.
This year's summit will signal the direction in which Sino-Indian relations are headed.