In October 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping sipped on tender coconut water and took in the sights of Mamallapuram, a seaside town in Tamil Nadu. At one point, Modi is said to have offered Xi a paper napkin, “like a close family member or friend”.

But all was not well. Two months earlier, India had revoked special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two Union Territories, drawing protests from Pakistan and sharp statements from China. It did not help that the government asserted that Aksai Chin, the desolate plateau east of the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, was Indian territory.

The “informal summit” in Mamallapuram was arranged despite rising tensions. Apart from discussions on temple architecture, however, it was not clear what the summit achieved. According to a statement released by the external affairs ministry, the two leaders exchanged niceties on mutual cooperation, regional stability and the need to fight terror. On border issues, they agreed on finding a “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement”.

Months later, the Indian and Chinese armies were locked in combat in Eastern Ladakh in one of the deadliest clashes since the border war of 1962. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in the Galwan Valley in June as China made incursions this side of the Line of Actual Control. Two and a half months after the Galwan clashes, tensions persist, now focused on the south bank of the Pangong Tso.

The bonhomie of Mamallapuram has evaporated. The seaside town had been picked for the ancient civilisational ties between its Pallava rulers and the Chinese. Attempts to capitalise on this in the more recent past have not had a happy history. Back in 1956, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had also been given a guided tour of Mamallapuram. Six years later, India and China were at war.

The limits of informal summitry

The skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control have exposed the limits of the political engagement perfected by Modi and Xi in the past few years. Centred on the personality of the two leaders, it relied on symbolic gestures and strenuous assertions of civilisational ties.

Before the “Chennai Connect” at Mamallapuram there was the “Wuhan Spirit” of 2018. This informal summit was meant to bury the tensions of the 2017 Doklam stand-off, where the Indian Army tried to fight back the People’s Liberation Army as it advanced across pastures at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. Amid festivities at Wuhan, the two leaders casually agreed to give “strategic guidance to their respective militaries in order to strengthen communication”. If the instruction went out at all, it does not seem to have been followed.

Informal summits came and went, happily insulated from bureaucratic or military negotiations. “I think both sides have tried to play that distinction to their advantage, along with the related issue of how much to draw the territorial dispute into the public eye,” points out Daniel Markey, author of China’s Western Horizon (2020) and professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

The summits helped Modi and Xi build their personal brand as leaders. Xi has long used “personal summitry” with leaders to “strengthen the identification of Chinese foreign policy with his own name and image,” said Jabin T Jacob, associate professor at Shiv Nadar University’s department of international relations and governance studies. Modi, too, has personalised India’s foreign policy, favouring events that placed him at the centre along with international leaders – witness ‘Namaste Trump’ and informal meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the Mod-Xi meetings clouded the deadlock on border disputes, which might also have worked for both leaders. For Modi because he could not be seen as failing to solve the problem. For Xi because the bonhomie provided cover for continuing with aggressions along the Line of Actual Control.

No formal, enforceable agreements came out of the Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits, which suited the Chinese side just fine, Jacob said. “I think this crisis is the result precisely of poorly thought out political engagements in the form of the informal summits,” he said. “The Chinese simply strung us along but were never intending to back down from the sort of policies that led to the Doklam standoff.”

There was another flaw in such informal summitry, Jacob pointed out. It shifted bilateral matters away from the democratic processes and accountability. “For India, however, as a democracy, the informal summit... brought us down to the level of the authoritarian state we were dealing with,” he said.

Modi addresses soldiers in Ladakh on July 3.

Beyond Modi-Xi

The Ladakh clashes show how little India gained from these meetings. Military-level talks have failed to make Chinese troops withdraw to pre-Galwan positions. After months of negotiation, Indian troops have gone on the offensive, taking control of heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso. Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat has already warned of a war on two fronts – while tensions with China flare up on the Line of Actual Control in the east, the Line of Control with Pakistan has been heated for months.

The costs of a military escalation are obvious. It could mean a tectonic change in India-China ties, which would close up the space for even symbolic meetings like Wuhan and Mamallapuram. “The ongoing border clashes, if allowed to further escalate, could completely change the trajectories of the relations between India and China,” said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “If they are distrustful rivals now, they will soon become mortal adversaries bent on undermining each other’s interests out of pure animus.”

The only solution, Pei felt, was a return to “status quo ante before the deadly June clashes” and a “cooling off period” in which both countries considered the options before them. “It seems that both are jockeying for tactical advantages near the LAC, but at the expense of huge strategic costs,” said Pei. “It is time for leaders of both countries to ask and answer the tough question – are they ready to plunge both countries whose fundamental national interests are peaceful economic development into an open-ended conflict neither side can hope to win?”

Both countries may be moving towards negotiations at the political level, albeit quieter meetings than the Modi-Xi pageants. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar seems to have pinned his faith in diplomacy and “accommodation”. He is slated to meet his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on September 10, on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met his Chinese counterpart in Moscow on September 4, but the details of the meeting are not known.

The unreliable negotiator

The start of political overtures may raise hopes for a de-escalation on the border, but will it be enough to make China return to pre-Galwan positions? By all accounts, it has been intractable in negotiations so far, treating its new positions as the status quo. If it insists on setting the terms in political talks, any accommodation will be made by India.

China’s recent track record as a partner in negotiated treaties is not inspiring. With its aggressions in Ladakh, it stands accused of violating successive bilateral agreements to maintain peace on the Line of Actual Control.

“Beijing is now far more confident in its power, less concerned about the risks of running afoul with other states (including the US), and more willing to press its advantages to put other states like India into a tough spot,” said Markey. “Where Beijing has faced spirited and embarrassing opposition from weaker parties, it has marshalled forces to deliver a crushing blow, on its own timeline.”

Earlier this year, it tore up all guarantees of autonomy to Hong Kong, moving in with an oppressive national security law to stamp out pro-democracy protests. This prompted Britain to accuse China of violating the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which governed the terms on which Hong Kong would be transferred from British control to Chinese.

Jacob, for one, is sceptical of political negotiations: “No more meaningless informal summits or even formal high-level summits for a while.”

Circling China

Some observers feel it may be more productive to negotiate around China than with China. “Time to focus on repairing India’s ties in the neighbourhood and to counter Chinese influence country by country,” said Jacob. “Prime Minister Modi should be meeting with political leaders in the region – stabilise and then grow India’s influence and strengths in South Asia first.”

Markey agreed: India needed to “draw closer to regional and global partners over the medium/longer-term and together raise the costs of Beijing’s aggressive moves.”

But there are constraints, especially in the neighbourhood, where both Delhi and Beijing have battled for dominance. Despite Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy, India has lost friends while China has steadily drawn countries into its sphere of influence. As it absorbed countries into its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, India was isolated as the only outlier. As India’s relations with Pakistan reached new lows, China made common cause with it. China’s growing influence has also been blamed for recent tensions with Nepal, with which India has traditionally shared close ties.

Delhi’s attempts to regain regional influence will be complicated by its economic free fall. While China’s economy grew during the pandemic, India’s gross domestic product fell by a catastrophic 23.9% in April-June compared to the same quarter last year. It also meant India had limited means to punish China economically.

But if Delhi is encircled by Beijing in the neighbourhood, China is also fighting battles on several fronts – with Taiwan and the United States on the South China Sea, with Japan on fishing rights in the East China Sea. The Indian Navy sent warships to the South China Sea and Delhi will host the next meeting of the “Quad”, a loose grouping that consists of the US, Japan, Australia and India, largely drawn together by their interest in containing China. Beijing has already bristled at these endeavours, warning it will not “accept countries outside the region pointing fingers”, threatening to expel Indian warships from the South China Sea.

In days to come, Delhi might have to strike a delicate balance – keep political channels open with Beijing while using external pressures to check its aggressions. There will be no easy choices but India can no longer fall back on the comforts of a Modi-Xi gala.