Written by Tarun Basu.

After a prolonged period of diplomatic frostiness and rhetorical prickliness, there is a welcome change in the official discourse between India and China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in widely quoted comments that “the Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other”,  that China and India should be “free of mental inhibition” and build mutual trust, free of “mutual suspicion” in their ties.

Sino-Indian ties took a nosedive after their armies faced off each other for 73 days at Doklam, at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China. Beijing’s opposition to a United Nations ban on Pakistani extremist leader Masood Azhar and India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has also tested their relationship. Likewise the decision undertaken by New Dehli to refuse any engagement with or to come on board with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

With national elections expected within a year, the Modi government facing reelection can scarcely hazard deepening its confrontation with both  China and Pakistan and risk a two-front war

After resolving the Doklam crisis last year ahead of a meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICs summit in Xiamen, both countries attempted to repair relations and have shown a decided willingness to engage in more dialogue and accommodation. Most notably with New Delhi moving to curb the commemoration of 60 years of the Dalai Lama in exile by asking Indian officials not to participate in any events relating to Tibet.

The Dalai Lama, despite his pacific nature and conciliatory attitude, continues to be a red rag to Beijing and Presidet Xi. In fact, some Indian diplomats contend that, more than the disputed border, it is India’s hosting and feting of the Dalai Lama, his followers and a government in exile that has really angered Beijing and made for a hardening of Chinese attitudes towards closer ties with India.

Last month India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale quietly visited Beijing and met Wang and Yang Jiechi, who is China’s Special Representative on the border talks.

The visit by the former ambassador to China was seen as a key development in paving the way for a thaw in ties before Prime Minister Modi meets Xi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Qingdao in June.

Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full members at the last summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. With the BRI formally linked to the SCO, it was important for China to soften its stance to have meaningful progress on its pet project since India remains the only South Asian country not to come aboard its bandwagon.

China is keen that India shed its objections to the BRI and joins the 60-odd countries that have endorsed the multi-billion, multi-country, infrastructure-linking connectivity venture. India has opposed the project since the Pakistan section of it – the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – impinges on its sovereignty as it passes through part of the Kashmir that is disputed and officially still claimed by India. Pakistan had ceded parts of this disputed territory to China as part of its 1963 “provisional agreement” pending final settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

With China’s penchant for ‘package deals’ as a negotiating tactic in its diplomacy – it had offered ‘package deals’ on the border dispute several times – it is conceivable that some ‘give’ by India, say on the BRI, may result in some ‘take’ on the Masood Azhar or the NSG issue. Beijing did unexpectedly drop its opposition to its “all-weather ally” Pakistan being named on the ‘watch list’ by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force because of its selective support to terrorists. So the imperatives of realpolitik may yet produce some more surprises in the South Asian theater in the coming year.

With national elections expected within a year, the Modi government facing reelection can scarcely hazard deepening its confrontation with both  China and Pakistan and risk a two-front war that its army general warned about recently.

Hence, recent diplomatic gambits towards both Beijing and Islamabad have to be judged from the kind of response they generate in both capitals. While Beijing has responded positively, Islamabad still remains bellicose. Is it chimerical for talk of a two-front war  to transition into two-front peace any time soon?

Tarun Basu is the President of the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Narenda Modi/Flickr.


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