On September 5, 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held one-on-one talks on the side lines of the 9th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit held in Xiamen, China. Xi expressed that healthy and stable relations between China and India are in line with the “fundamental interests” of their people. Xi further added that China is willing to work with India on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence to “improve political mutual trust, promote mutually beneficial cooperation, and push Sino-Indian ties along the right track”.
Xi’s bonhomie towards India ran contrary to his earlier hardline rhetoric during the two-month long military stand-off at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction in the Doklam plateau. Owing to this change in Chinese behavior, it can be rightly argued that BRICS acted as a coolant for Sino-Indian tension. Hence, the query here is: What prompted China’s positive tilt towards India?
China’s change in attitude can be understood in a two-way perspective. First, the immediate causal factor can be attributed to India’s withdrawal at Doklam. On August 28, calling off the Doklam stand-off, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a press statement, “Doklam disengagement understanding,” which stated: “In recent weeks, India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam. During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests. On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going.”
China responded by declaring that “China will continue to exercise its sovereign rights and preserve its territorial sovereignty in accordance with historical border agreements.” Although a joint statement was not issued, this mutual understanding alleviated China’s tensions that arose over speculations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation at the BRICS Summit.
Secondly, this sudden cooling can be significantly attributed to the 9th BRICS Summit, in which China was the host. Under China’s vision, the Summit aimed at building a “Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future”. The partnership is based on four priorities: deepen BRICS cooperation for common development; enhance global governance to jointly meet challenges; carry out people-to-people exchanges to support BRICS cooperation; and make institutional improvements and build broader partnerships. One of the key aims is to enhance a partnership that “upholds world peace,” and, according to Beijing, it is important “to uphold international fairness and justice,” and to have “peaceful and political settlement of disputes through dialogue and negotiation.”
Furthermore, in the background of the Doklam stand-off with India, President Xi on July 28 at the 7th Meeting of BRICS High Representatives for Security Issues posited that enhancing BRICS partnership “carries out meaningful exploration for building a new type of international relations.”
In the run up to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the current priority for Xi lies in maintaining stability and peace in China’s foreign relations, wherein any form of discord will impact his power calculus.
This very vision of “strengthening partnership” provided an impetus to China’s cooperative behavior. Furthermore, President Xi’s extension of the olive branch elevated China’s status as a responsible and mature player in the international order. To elaborate, the Doklam stand-off impacted China’s international image given its assertive military muscle-flexing which drew severe criticism. In view of this, BRICS provided a timely opportunity for China to undo this negative image.
What can also be added to this rationale is President Xi’s prioritization of the neighborhood policy in China’s overall foreign policy. Since the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Xi has sought to turn China’s neighborhood into a “community of common destiny” by following the principles of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness” in conducting neighborhood diplomacy; promoting “friendship and partnership” with China’s neighbors; fostering an “amicable, secure and prosperous” neighborhood environment; and boosting “win-win” cooperation and connectivity with China’s neighbors.
This also dovetails with Xi’s “Four-Point” proposal towards building Asian regionalism by jointly upholding peace and tranquility; dovetailing development strategies in an in-depth way; actively conducting security cooperation; and continuously consolidating amity among the peoples. From these perspectives, some parallels can be drawn between China’s interest in building stable and good relations with its neighbors and China’s positive attitude in building ties with India at BRICS. These factors motivated China to sideline the Doklam crisis and look ahead in forging ties with India.
Furthermore, putting the act together with India in the aftermath of the crisis also gives a positive boost to burnish President Xi’s credentials as a responsible leader both domestically as well as internationally. This is significant given Xi’s consolidation of power in the run up to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which is scheduled to take place on October 18. The current priority for Xi lies in maintaining stability and peace in China’s foreign relations, wherein any form of discord will impact his power calculus.
For instance, during his talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the sideline of the 2017 G20 Summit, President Xi agreed to build “stable” relations by reaffirming the “readiness to strengthen the partnership and cooperation between the two countries in the future despite differences in a trove of issues and severe challenges ahead.” It is important to note that China and Japan share a fragile relationship given their territorial and maritime tensions in the East China Sea and historical issues. More importantly, Japan has given a nod to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). PM Abe declared that the BRI holds “the potential to connect East and West as well as the diverse regions found in between.”
It can be suggested that Xi’s “right track” principle with Modi is a way to get India on board with the BRI. This friendly attitude is further coupled with the growing Chinese concerns over the security nexus between India, Japan, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific theatre — which is mainly aimed at balancing China. Hence, for Beijing, the wisdom lies in mending ties rather than widening the gulf with New Delhi given its strategic concerns.
China’s diplomatic choices are well calibrated. In Beijing’s calculus, its step forward to New Delhi at BRICS holds greater dividends both in bilateral terms and also serves its regional and global interests. If not anything else, it did burnish China’s responsible great power image in the international order. It can be rightly stated that BRICS acted as a coolant in redefining China-India ties.