India-China Ties: History, Current Situation & Mamallapuram Summit

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The informal summit was held between India and China in October this year in the coastal town of Mamallapuram also known as Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. This is the second of such summits held between the two nations. In recent times, the informal summits have increasingly become an important tool to ease the tensions between the two rival nations and enhance the diplomatic relationship to prevent any future conflicts for the peace and stability of the region.

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How did it all start?

  • This informal meeting comes in the backdrop of the efforts made by India and China to ease the tensions that came in response to the 2017 Doklam standoff.
  • The initial stages of the bilateral relationship between the nations were cordial in nature,
  • Before the 1950s, the contacts between India and China were at a minimum and were mostly focused on trade and exchange of pilgrims and scholars.
  • India, in 1950, became the first non-socialist bloc to establish a diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China.
  • Nehru’s firm support to Tibet’s independence had led to a rise in tensions between the two nations.
  • However, he had accepted China’s sovereignty over Tibet but wanted Tibet to remain autonomous.
  • The tensions between the two nations intensified when China did not recognize McMahon Line that came as a result of the 1914 Simla Convention that was signed between Great Britain, China, and Tibet in 1914.
  • The Panchsheel treaty was signed between the two nations on 29 April 1954 to ensure the stability of the region after India had officially acknowledged China’s sovereignty over Tibet.
  • In 1959, India provided asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers.
  • This escalated the tensions between the two nations to a whole new level.
  • In 1962, both the nations indulged in the war that led to China defeating India by pushing the Indian forces to within 48 km of Assam plains in the northeast and capturing of major strategic points in Aksai Chin and Demchok region of Ladakh, before it declared a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November.
  • Post the 1962 war, there was a diplomatic freeze between the two nations.
  • The improvement in the bilateral relations happened when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988.
  • The relationship between the two nations normalised through the regular exchange of visits.
  • In 1993, an agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity was signed between the two countries along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India Narasimha Rao. This reflected the growing stability of bilateral relations.
  • In 2003, during PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, the two sides signed a Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation.
  • During this time, both the nations also decided to appoint Special Representatives to “explore the framework of a boundary settlement from the political perspective”.
  • In April 2005, the former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India. The two sides established the Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity and had signed an agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles.
  • During the former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in November 2006, the two nations issued a Joint Declaration containing a ten-prong strategy to strengthen the cooperation between the two nations.
  • Former Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh visited China in January 2008.
  • A join document titled “A Shared Vision for the 21st Century” was issued during this visit.
  • In December 2010, when the former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India, the two nations had jointly set a bilateral trade target of USD 100 billion for 2015.
  • According to the statement, over 60% of the agreements between the two nations have been signed during the last decade.
  • In terms of defence exchange, the fifth round of the Annual Defence Dialogue was concluded in Beijing on January 14, 2013.
  • In 2014, the current Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India. A total of 16 agreements were signed between the two rations on various sectors including commerce and trade, railways, space cooperation, pharmaceuticals, audio-visual co-production, culture, the establishment of industrial parks and sister-city arrangement.
  • Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries to open an additional route for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra in India through the Nathu La pass in China.
  • In 2015, PM Narendra Modi had embarked on his maiden two-day visit to China.
  • Mr. Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held bilateral talks during this visit. Both the leaders had then welcomed the move to initiate a State/Provincial Leaders Forum to advance the bilateral relationship between the two nations.
  • Both the leaders kick-started this forum by attending the first meeting that was held in Beijing.
  • PM Modi had also announced the extension of the e-visa facility to the Chinese nationals who wish to visit India.
  • In 2016, former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited China to meet the Chinese leader and attend a round table between Vice-Chancellors and Heads of Institutions of higher learning of the two nations.
  • 10 MoUs, providing for the enhanced faculty and student exchanges, were signed during this visit.
  • This visit was to reciprocate the historic visit of President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014.
  • From the above-mentioned statements, it is evident that the efforts were taken to ease the tensions between the two nations.
  • However, there was systematic development of prejudice between the two nations leading to the current geopolitical tensions between the same.
  • China’s effort to raise its economic and political presence in the Indian subcontinent was seen by India as a threat to its national interest in the region.
  • India’s military engagement with Japan and the US is seen by China as a threat to its strategic interests.
  • The bilateral relations are further challenged due to China’s relations with Pakistan and India’s close ties with the US.
  • The tensions between the nations worsened when China, on 16 June 2017, had begun extending an existing road southward in Doklam – a disputed territory between China and India’s ally, Bhutan.
  • On 18 June 2017, around 270 Indian troops, with weapons and two bulldozers, entered Doklam to stop the Chinese troops from constructing the road.
  • This was because India saw this road as a strategic threat as it was very close to Siliguri Corridor that is located in West Bengal. This narrow strip of land is of significance to India as it connects India’s north-eastern states with the rest of India.
  • On 28 August 2017, India and China had reached an agreement to end the border standoff.
  • The two nations convened their first informal summit in Central China’s Wuhan in April 2018, where they exchanged views on issues of global and bilateral significance.
  • In May 2018, the two nations agreed to coordinate their development programmes in Afghanistan in the areas of health, education and food security.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had attended the second informal meeting in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu on October 11-12.

Why Mamallapuram?

  • In 2018, Wuhan was chosen by China as the venue for the first informal summit to demonstrate China’s economic resilience and might.
  • This year, the informal summit was hosted by India in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu as a symbol of India’s “soft power”.
  • Mamallapuram is an important town in the kingdom of the Pallava dynasty that controlled a part of South India from 275 CE to 897 CE.
  • The ancient port town of Mamallapuram was used by the Pallavas to trade with China.
  • Furthermore, the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who was famous in China, was the third prince of the Pallava king who travelled to China from Kancheepuram through Mamallapuram in 527AD.
  • He had become the 28th patriarch of Buddhism, succeeding in Prajnatra.
  • Pallava dynasty is also historically significant to India-China relations.
  • This is because, during this time, the earliest recorded security pact was signed between India and China as the latter had sought assistance from the Pallava king (Rajasimhan or Narasimha Varma II) to counter Tibet, which was then emerging as a threat to China.

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Why are these informal summits significant?

  • Informal summits act as a supplementary exchange to annual summits and other formal meetings like G20, EU-India Summit, BRICS Summit etc., to allow for a “direct, free and candid exchange of views” between the nations, something that may not be possible during the formal and multilateral meetings as they are agenda-driven, where the specific issues are discussed and the outcomes are more concretely defined.
  • The informal summits may not take place on a fixed annual or biennial schedule.
  • They are unrehearsed as they take place when the need for them arises.
  • Since informal summits allow for discussion on wide-ranging issues, they are not purpose-specific.
  • They play a bigger role in the diplomatic dialogue than formal exchange as they tend to be more in-depth, and relatively more flexible in intent and scope of discussions.
  • In Wuhan, PM Narendra Modi and President Xi had discussed numerous subjects that include India-China border disputes, bilateral trade and investments, terrorism, economic development, and global peace, and had reached a “broad consensus”.
  • Prior to the Wuhan Summit, the Chinese government had said that the upcoming meeting should be taken as an opportunity to “push forward the realisation of better and faster development of bilateral relations at a new starting point”.
  • The Wuhan summit had achieved the “reset” of the Sino-Indian relationship after the two-month-long border standoff at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction in Doklam.
  • Experts and analysts agreed at the time that it was a good idea to make such summits like Wuhan Summit a regular feature of the diplomatic exchanges between the two nations to prevent the repetition of incidents like that of the Doklam Standoff.
  • Japan and Russia are the only two other countries with which India has annual summits at present.
  • The first informal summit between India and China had resulted in the invoking of the Wuhan Spirit that was on par with the five principles of Panchsheel.
  • Under the Wuhan Spirit, both the nations have agreed that they would form the “backbone” of the economic globalisation.
  • They have also agreed to jointly contribute to global peace and development.
  • Furthermore, both the nations, for the first time, have also agreed to undertake a joint project in Afghanistan.
  • This is seen by many as a major breakthrough in the bilateral ties between India and China.
  • China had also indicated that India’s unwillingness to join the Belt Road Initiative will not interfere with the economic cooperation between the two nations.

What is the current situation with regard to the India-China bilateral relations?

  • The global scenario has changed since the Wuhan Summit leading to a change in the circumstances surrounding India-China relations.
  • The relations between the US and China have sharply deteriorated.
  • In 2018, the China-Russia axis appeared to be carving out an exclusive zone of influence in East Asia.
  • However, by mid-2019, there was a strengthened relationship between India and Russia leading to a new triangular relationship between Russia, Japan and India. This is altering the situation in the East Asian region.
  • Also, China’s BRI has, in recent times, become unpopular due to the debt-trap diplomacy.
  • Furthermore, China’s domestic politics is facing an increasingly unstable situation. Its economy has become far more fragile than in early 2018, as demonstrated by the jitters emanating from China’s equity and currency market and the decline in the growth rates.
  • There is also the regional unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang and the Hong Kong protest.
  • The US’ increasing hostility is only worsening the situation for China.
  • India’s situation in recent times is, however, more favourable than a year ago.
  • Relations with Russia have improved exponentially as it has incorporated economic ties along with the longstanding military relationship.
  • The Quad is also seeing progress in recent times.
  • All this is certain to make China rethink its strategy with regards to India.
  • Additionally, India’s recent actions in Arunachal Pradesh will be seen by China as a threat.
  • For example, India’s recent announcement of an “all arms integrated” exercise codenamed Changthang Prahar (assault) in a “super high altitude” area near Chushul in eastern Ladakh.
  • Simultaneously, the reopening of the Advanced Landing Ground at Viijoynagar in Arunachal Pradesh for the use of military aircraft and a proposed combat exercise, also in Arunachal Pradesh, may aggravate the bilateral tensions.
  • India must proceed with utmost caution as China will see these activities as a threat to its security and may end up inclining towards “adventurism”

What are the key takeaways of the recent informal summit between India and China?


  • During this informal summit, both sides made commitments to improve trade relations. They have also agreed to set up a new mechanism to achieve this goal. The High-Level Economic Trade Dialogue will
  1. Work to enhance trade and commerce relations.
  2. It will also look to address trade deficit and issues related to investments.
  3. It also aims to build a “manufacturing partnership” between the two nations.
  • China is one of India’s largest trading partners. A Reuters report had stated that the bilateral trade between the two nations reached $95.54 billion in 2018. However, the trade deficit was at $53 billion in China’s favour. According to this report, this is the biggest trade deficit India has with any country in the world.
  • This assurance comes at a time when there is a lot of opposition to India joining the China-backed RCEP deal. This deal seeks to form free trade zone among China, India, Australia and New Zealand.

International Issues:

  • Both the nations have agreed on the need for a rules-based and inclusive international order. There was also the agreement on the need for reforms that reflect the new realities of the 21st
  • The nations have also reinforced their commitment to cooperate to ensure open and inclusive trade arrangements.
  • There were also commitments to address global development challenges including climate change and Sustainable Development Goals.
  • India and China have many similar interests at the WTO and the UN.
  • They are also facing similar problems in global trade due to the US’ trade war and rising tensions in West Asia.
  • Thus, both the countries, by putting aside the existing differences, can come together to resolve these issues.
  • If it is done, other emerging economies that are also being affected due to these issues can also be benefited.

People-to-People contact:

  • The year 2020 will be designated as Year of India-China Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges to celebrate the 70th year of the diplomatic relationship between the two nations.
  • The Ministry of External Affairs had stated that to celebrate the civilizational ties between the two nations, the leaders of these nations have decided to form a “Sister-state relationship” between Tamil Nadu and Fujian Province.
  • The focus on tourism and people-to-people contact can enhance the trade and trust between the two nations.
  • This can ease the long-existing mistrust between India and China.

Jammu and Kashmir:

  • India’s scrapping of Article 370 in August was not mentioned during this summit.
  • To China, Jammu and Kashmir hold a strategic interest as it had invested in POK and is claiming a portion of this state as its integral part.
  • China had also supported its “all-weather friend” Pakistan by raising this issue in multiple international forums including the UNSC.
  • However, India has stood its ground on this matter by stating that it was an internal matter and had gotten support from numerous nations in the international forums.
  • The matter on the abrogation of Article 370 was not discussed during this summit as India was firm on its viewpoint and didn’t allow another foreign nation to interfere in its internal affairs just like China doesn’t allow the mention of the Hong Kong Protests in the international forums or bilateral talks.
  • India not mentioning Jammu and Kashmir shows that both the nations are willing to look beyond differences for the progress in the bilateral relations – at least at the political level.


The emergence of informal summits between India and China is a major breakthrough in the bilateral ties between the two nations. This is essential to maintain the stability in the subcontinent. India must continue strengthening relationships with China while also maintaining a cautious strategic autonomy so as to not be dominated by any of the foreign powers.

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