Asia's "Cold Peace": China and India's Delicate Diplomatic Dance

President Xi Jinping just might have missed a golden opportunity to transform his nation's relationship with India.

It was a prospect of Himalayan proportions. Here was a historic chance to redraw the strategic and economic map of Asia in ways that would benefit regional prosperity, stability and Chinese influence all at the same time. But the recent diplomatic trek to India by Xi Jinping ended up stuck in the foothills.

Instead of a game-changer, it will likely be remembered as a missed opportunity on China’s part, an episode in a gathering narrative of Beijing’s strategic paradise lost. Amid all the talk, the promises and the morally compelling logic of building a developmental partnership between the world’s two most populous countries, the shadow of a militarized border dispute was never far away.

It didn’t need to be like this. Here was a chance for Xi’s China to translate mutual economic gain and pan-Asian respect into the beginnings of a relationship of strategic trust with India’s powerful new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has long had little reason to love the United States. In turn, this could have had the potential to set early limits to efforts by Washington, Tokyo and others to engage India as a security partner in the present ballet of Asian power balancing. The visit could also have done much to sway Indian public opinion, which, according to detailed polling, is suspicious of China as a risk to India’s interests, yet open-minded about cooperating with China, too.

It was not to be. Unexplained Chinese military activity on the disputed border is likely to leave many Indians thinking more about perfidy than partnership. If it was meant to signal disapproval about Modi’s openness to strategic partnership with Shinzo Abe’s Japan, it will probably instead bring Delhi and Tokyo closer. More immediately, it will ease the way for Modi to share strategic concerns with the Obama administration when he visits the United States shortly.

Just days after the summit, when there should have been a diplomatic afterglow, there was an aftertaste of anxiety. With a series of border confrontations continuing, India has called off a media dialogue with China and kept back its army chief from a planned foreign visit to ensure things are kept under control. Hysteria from some parts of the Indian media, inaccurately portraying Xi’s guidance to the PLA on its overall “regional war” posture as being aimed specifically at India, has not helped.

Indians are accustomed to a pattern of apparent Chinese provocations on the eve of high-level meetings—as if to remind India of its place. Last year, a prolonged incident was resolved before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Delhi. Months later, another took place before former Prime Minister Singh went to Beijing, testing his policy of restraint. This one was different: it began before Xi arrived, eased only towards the end of his visit, and resumed with a fresh “incursion” into contested territory within 48 hours of his departure.

It all seems so counterproductive for a China that needs a stable external environment and is already needling neighbors in the South and East China Seas. So perhaps there is something to the suggestion circulating in the Indian media that Xi Jinping’s recent warnings to the People’s Liberation Army about “absolute loyalty” and heeding his command had something to do with the Indian border standoff. It has become reasonably accepted that Xi Jinping has been successful in deepening his control over the PLA and other of China’s potentially errant security ‘actors’. But if he cannot prevent, anticipate or control the actions of self-interested or overly-enthusiastic commanders, the implications for regional security are almost as worrying as if he had personally choreographed the border push.