Xi, Modi and the Thucydides Trap


This is the Thucydides Trap with a twist. An emerging power, China, has risen and India, once the established power, is emerging. The world’s attention may be focused on the handshake and meeting of two Korean leaders but another summit is taking place that also has the potential to transform global politics. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and China’s president Xi Jinping will also shake hands to the clicking and whirling of the cameras before heading for talks in a Wuhan villa which was a favourite haunt of Mao Zedong.

Situated on t the bank of the East Lake, the villa is sheltered by pine, bamboo and plum trees. Picturesque? Certainly. Conducive to success? Hopefully. But what is success?  As in Korea, the location is highly symbolic. Wuhan is a city located in central China on the Yangtse river and is a massive transport hub. The “Chicago of China” symbolizes China’s commercial clout. Trade matters.  Growing at nearly three times the pace of US-China, trade between China and India is blossoming.

Tariff threats against China and growing protectionism in the US, has been one of the drivers of a summit that prides itself on its informality.

Important yes, but that is not why they are meeting. The Doklam military standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in their border’s Sikkim sector is the real reason. India and China seemed clutched in a deadly embrace last year in their most serious border crisis in the last three decadesChina’s media was issuing near-daily threats of war, as both sides built up forces on the edge of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan.  China has since built up its forces there, while India has increased its own presence. It may be a rocky outcrop, but militarily it resembles a tinder box.

Like events on the Korean peninsula, it seemed highly unlikely that Modi and Xi would be meeting at an informal summit. After the border dispute was defused, not, however, resolved, in August, Modi and Xi used the Brics summit in September, alongside the leaders of Russia, Brazil and South Africa, to establish what in China is called a contact mechanism. Basically, an agreement to meet and discuss issues.

A flurry of high-level visits to China followed, including by India’s foreign secretary, national security adviser, foreign minister and defence minister.

China is a dry land, with inadequate water resources. Much of its limited supply originates in Tibet making the autonomous region in China an area of strategic importance. In February, the Indian government sent out a private note asking officials to keep away from events marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile, to India, from Tibet. This was greatly appreciated in Beijing.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India has not endorsed and is viewed with deep suspicion in New Delhi, has been a contentious issue between the two countries. China views the Indo-Pacific strategy involving what is called the quad; Japan, India, Australia and the US with equal suspicion.

Korea too plays a role as India believes that Beijing will improve ties both with Washington, if the North Korean crisis is dealt with, and with Moscow, because of the rupture in West-Russia relations. All this, India believes would be at its cost.

India is also responding on the sea to what it believes is China’s maritime encroachment. Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, now hosts a Chinese base and Beijing is deepening its involvement in the island nations to India’s south.

The Indian navy has recently signed agreements giving it access to the facilities of the United States, France and Oman.

Back to the Thucydides trap, where an emerging power threatens an established one. Normally applied to China-US ties it is a factor in New Delhi’s and Beijing’s thinking. While Chinese trade and military might are more powerful than India’s, India does view itself as the established if not de facto power in the region. In the West, people see the world as changing. In the East, it has changed. Xi and Modi are meeting to discuss ways to better manage this change.  One other aspect of this meeting needs to be mentioned. Not since 1945, has a meeting of such potential significance between powerful rivals taken place without the direct or indirect involvement of the US.

Tom Clifford, now in China, worked in Qatar with Gulf Times from 1989-1992 and covered the Gulf War for Irish and Canadian newspapers as well as for other media organizations.