Chennai summit: Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping avoid Kashmir, discuss trade deficit and hit right notes but it's tricky to trust Beijing

  • The second edition of Modi-Xi informal summit was expectedly short on tangibles and long on florid semantics, but it did manage to throw up some promising angles for both nations to explore

  • China isn't remotely as interested in cutting a deal with India as it is with the US, but New Delhi would consider it a positive outcome that both leaders have agreed on a 'new mechanism' to address the trade imbalance

  • It is possible that we are slowly moving into an era of personal diplomacy where ties between nations are better managed through relation between top leadership instead of structured systems

India-China engagement is always accompanied by lofty rhetoric. Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi's latest schmoozing was described by the Chinese president himself as "in-depth", "heart-to-heart", "candid" where they apparently talked of "pragmatic cooperation" and "consolidating the foundation". Later, in a long statement published by Xinhua — part of China's state-controlled media network — Xi is quoted as saying that "China and India should be good neighbors who live in harmony and work together as good partners", and that "the dragon and the elephant (should) dance together."

For his part, in his opening remarks before the delegation-level talks on Saturday, Modi evoked Wuhan spirit which, according to him, had given a "new momentum and trust to relations" and coined a new catchphrase — Chennai Connect — to mark the "start of a new era of cooperation between the two countries."

As this piece notes, given the huge power imbalance between the two sides it is unrealistic to expect either a true "reset" in ties or deliverables. The second edition of Modi-Xi informal summit was expectedly short on tangibles and long on florid semantics, but it did manage to throw up some promising angles for both nations to explore.

On two issues, Modi should feel satisfied. One, a major part of his nearly six-hour long one-on-one chat with Xi at the seaside town of Mamallapuram focused on trade, and the Chinese president seemed amenable to the notion that the huge imbalance in figures that are heavily skewed against India is unsustainable and must be addressed. According to latest data, annual bilateral trade stands at $95.54 billion in 2018 with India's deficit pegged at $53 billion.

 Chennai summit: Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping avoid Kashmir, discuss trade deficit and hit right notes but its tricky to trust Beijing

China isn't remotely as interested in cutting a deal with India as it is with the US, but New Delhi would consider it a positive outcome that both leaders have agreed on a "new mechanism" to address the trade imbalance. Twitter/@narendramodi

China isn't remotely as interested in cutting a deal with India as it is with the US, but New Delhi would consider it a positive outcome that both leaders have agreed on a "new mechanism" to address the trade imbalance. Under this mechanism, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua will thrash out the differences for a more equitable trading partnership and discussions will be held on trade, investment and services.

At the media briefing on Saturday after Xi had concluded his India visit and left for Nepal, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said: "There was a good conversation on trade as we know that this is an issue which has been a concern here back home and President Xi Jinping after hearing out our Prime Minister on this issue said that China is ready to take sincere action and to discuss in a very concrete way, how to reduce the trade deficit."

It raises the question whether earlier discussions on trade were less than "concrete" and whether the Chinese were insincere in their earlier promises on fixing the imbalance but the moot point is that the gaping deficit has been brought to the front and centre of discussions.

The second point that may give Modi a quiet satisfaction is that the issue of Kashmir wasn't raised. China's ploy of blowing hot and cold on Kashmir just before the summit, and Xi's meeting with the visiting Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan a day before his scheduled arrival in India were diplomatic signaling aimed at setting the bar low during Chennai summit so that expectations remain manageable. Khan would have certainly wanted Xi to pick up the topic of Kashmir during discussions but, as FS Gokhale said, "(Kashmir) issue was not raised and not discussed. Our position is anyway very clear that this is an internal matter of India.."

However, Xi apparently apprised Modi of Khan's visit to Beijing, which raises the question what exactly did Modi and Xi discuss while talking about the Pakistani prime minister if the topic wasn't Kashmir? Be that as it may, India's effort to broad-base the bilateral relationship beyond the China-Pakistan rubric and focus on other key areas - maintaining predictability and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control, huge trade imbalance, or RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) that proposes a free trade agreement between 16 nations including India and China - has been successful.

The summit also threw up the need for greater people to people connect and tourism, all ideas that offer ground for following up - something Indians are not really good at. Twitter/@narendramodi

The summit also threw up the need for greater people to people connect and tourism, all ideas that offer ground for following up - something Indians are not really good at. Twitter/@narendramodi

On RCEP, the common regional trade pact, there is tangible fear in India that it will open Indian market further for Chinese companies to exploit, and therefore Modi during his meeting with Xi stressed that India is ready for RCEP but its concerns on having a FTA that maintains a good balance between trading in goods, services and investment must be taken into account. Xi apparently tried to allay such fears.

The summit also threw up the need for greater people to people connect and tourism, all ideas that offer ground for following up - something Indians are not really good at. The other point worth noting is Gokhale's comment during the media briefing that Xi "raised the issue of engaging more on defence and security side…" to "enhance mutual trust between the two militaries and the security forces." Post Wuhan, there was a visible softening of Chinese military forays into Indian side of the undemarcated LAC. Given the chequered history between the two nations, it is practically impossible for India to trust China on any assurances, even if it comes from the top.

That said, the "informal format" seems to have struck some sort of chemistry between the two leaders. Xi mentioned that it was originally Modi's idea (post Doklam) and he would like this mechanism to continue. He has even invited Modi for the third edition which the prime minister has "gladly" accepted. It is possible that we are slowly moving into an era of personal diplomacy where ties between nations are better managed through relation between top leadership instead of structured systems. The expectations from Chennai summit were low, and by that metric it seems to have met the requirements.

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Updated Date: Oct 13, 2019 11:31:25 IST