Two historic summits in Asia, running almost simultaneously currently, could lay the seeds for an impending Asian century. One is the Xi-Modi summit in Wuhan, China, which is seeking to narrow down the chasm between the world’s two most populous countries and the second the informal summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the border of the two Koreas.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping has apparently been driven to look more indulgently towards India lured by the huge Indian market with the US slapping heavy import duties on Chinese goods, North Korea’s Kim is suddenly seeing merit in befriending his South Korean counterpart and pursuing the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula after being technically at war since 1950. Almost magically, the North is transformed from a hawk to a seeming dove. But whether that would last is anybody’s guess.
Equations could indeed change again and political expediency could drive China-India and the two Koreas apart once again but the picture for now looks good.
That in both cases, the respective leaders resolved to not get bogged down by the past is a good sign. But serious differences of approach remain. For India the provocations for wanting a ‘reset’ in ties are a
none-too-bright turn in the Indian economy and an increasingly unfriendly neighbourhood due to the Chinese propensity to draw these countries into its axis and consequently draw them away from India.
Be it Pakistan or Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles or even Nepal, the attempt on China’s part is to lure them with back-breaking loans and then to browbeat them with the weight of indebtedness.
India would naturally want the Chinese to loosen their stranglehold on these countries so that they are more amenable to Indian influence and trade deals.
There is no denying, however, that the journey to Sino-Indian bonhomie would be long and hard. If the starting point could be reducing of tension on the border it would be a good first step.
On its part, India has clipped Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile's wings. India’s asylum to the Tibetan spiritual leader and his activities have always been a sore point with the Chinese.
That India is also preparing to take the Trump administration to the dispute settlement forum in the WTO on steel and aluminium tariffs has also gone down well with the Chinese.
On India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council, and designating Pakistani terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad as a terrorist organization China is unbending. So is the unshakable friendship with Pakistan especially cemented by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor in which China has high stakes and which is anathema to India.
The importance of the Xi-Modi summit in Wuhan lies in the equation that the two leaders have established and the small steps towards greater goodwill in mutual interest. Problems will remain but if the two countries can foster greater trade and investment and defuse tensions on the border there will be cause for satisfaction.
It goes without saying, however, that India must not lower its guard lest it be suddenly confronted by a belligerent China and be caught napping.
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The other new-found congeniality, between the two Koreas could also turn sour at the drop of a hat. Kim and Moon said at their summit that they would hold military talks next month and seek a “phased disarmament”. Considering the level of animosity between the two neighbours, this is significant.
Both have much to gain from de-escalation but will better sense continue to prevail? The North Korean dictator is thoroughly unpredictable and he has shown the world how he plays the politics of brinkmanship.