Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping 'informal summit' equally important for both leaders given US' unpredictability

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, on 27 and 28 April to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping. This 'informal summit' between the two leaders assumes greater significance in the backdrop of recent tensions between India and China. The visit is also exceptional in the sense that Modi is scheduled to go to China again on 9 and 10 June this year to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Qingdao. It is usually uncommon for Indian leaders to visit China twice in such close succession.

This will be Modi’s fourth visit to China since he became India’s prime minister and a second bilateral visit. His first bilateral visit to China took place in 2015, followed by a visit to Hangzhou for the G-20 Summit in 2016 and the BRICS Summit in Xiamen in 2017. However, increasing interaction is yet to translate into better cooperation.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, who is also the state councillor and the special representative for the India-China boundary talks, has called India and China "natural partners", who have no choice but to pursue a lasting friendship and common development agenda. He said, "We will make sure that the informal summit will be a complete success and a milestone in India-China relations. We see socialism with Chinese characteristics entering a new era and India acts as a crucial stage in its development and revitalisation." India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj also said, "We believe that our commonalities outweigh our differences and that we must build on our convergences while seeking mutually acceptable resolutions of our differences."

Swaraj is in Beijing on a four-day visit to participate in the foreign ministers' meeting of the SCO. The Swaraj-Wang meeting was held in the immediate backdrop of another important official interaction between India's national security advisor Ajit Doval and the top functionary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Yang Jiechi in Shanghai. So far, 20 rounds of special representative-level talks have been held to work out mechanisms to keep peace along the 3,488-kilometre-long Line of Actual Control (LAC).

For India-China bilateral relations, 2017 was a particularly bad year as the usual confidence-building measures were entirely missing.

On the contrary, China attempted to test India's resolve through a series of intensely aggressive acts including the postponement of regular military exchanges, a refusal to share hydrological data on the Brahmaputra and unilateral construction activity at the Doka La border tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan. Of course, the most challenging was the Doka La military standoff that could only be resolved by the end of August, just before Modi's visit to Xiamen in China for the BRICS Summit. For obvious reasons, the Chinese leadership did not want the issue to vitiate the atmosphere of the BRICS Summit.

There was a realisation in New Delhi too that disagreements must not be allowed to erupt into open conflict. In the build-up to the upcoming informal summit, the two countries held several meetings across various platforms. In recent months, both have publicly expressed their desire to reduce tensions and improve relations. The process of India’s rapprochement with China gathered momentum in February when the Modi government unprecedentedly decided to downgrade its involvement in events to mark the 60th anniversary in exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s subsequent meeting with Wang in Beijing was in continuation of India's efforts to mend fences with China. In March, Wang extended the olive branch by asserting that the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant should not fight each other, but dance with each other. Both sides also held the fifth Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) where the possibility was explored to align the ‘Make in India Initiative’ and ‘Made in China 2025’ across different sectors of economy. Beijing now wants to resume the annual military exchanges between India and China, which have been a routine affair involving a joint military exercise called ‘Hand-in-Hand’. During Swaraj’s recent China visit, Beijing has also confirmed that it will share data on the Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers.

The informal summit is as important for Modi as it is for Xi. After the removal of the two-term limit for the Chinese president, Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader who is sure to remain in power for a long time. With a larger global profile in view, it is not in China’s interest to get bogged down by unnecessary border controversies at a time of seemingly unmanageable global uncertainties. One of the reasons why Xi seems to show some flexibility with India is due to the challenges engendered by an insular USA led by an unpredictable Donald Trump. Averting a full-fledged trade with the US is Xi’s top priority now. Thus, China’s careful diplomatic outreach to India is not without context. Reconciliation is the new communist mantra for Xi.

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. Reuters

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. Reuters

The unresolved border dispute remains a chill factor. The difficulties on the border are compounded by the fact that they involve third parties — Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. Besides, New Delhi and Beijing have sharp differences on several issues. In particular, India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a globally-designated terrorist and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are some of the contentious issues that have contributed to widen the gulf between India and China. India’s trade deficit with China is already unsustainable — it is one-third of India’s total trade deficit with the world. Now, the Indo-Pacific has also entered the strategic calculation.

From the Chinese perspective, India’s refusal to participate in the Beijing-led ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and New Delhi’s recent activism on the India-US-Japan-Australia 'quadrilateral' front are antagonistic steps. India had abstained from the BRI Summit to highlight its concerns over the CPEC that passes through Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. New Delhi has been openly critical of China’s disregard of India’s sovereignty concerns.

As there is growing recognition of the fact that India's Pakistan policy is a subset of India’s China policy, Beijing has reassured Islamabad that relations between China and Pakistan will continue to remain warm. In a meeting with Pakistan’s foreign minister Khawaja Asif in Beijing, Wang said, "We are ready to work together with our Pakistani brothers to undertake the historical mission of national rejuvenation and achieve the great dream of national prosperity and development. In this way, our iron friendship with Pakistan will never rust, and be tempered into steel." Clearly, Beijing will continue to prioritise its ties with Islamabad and the Wuhan informal summit will not lead to any shifts in China’s all-weather partnership with Pakistan.

During the Modi-Xi meeting, the entire spectrum of significant bilateral and global issues is likely to come up for discussion. However, no major agreements are expected to be reached. Xi may try to 'convince' India to participate in the BRI, albeit differently. There is already talk going on regarding an economic corridor through China, Nepal and India. Following the announcement by India to plan new connectivity projects during Nepal's prime minister KP Oli's recent India visit, Wang met his Nepalese counterpart and conveyed a message to India: "Support for Nepal’s development should be a common understanding between India and China." Wang added, "Nepal on its part should leverage its geographical advantage and connect China and India for greater development. Nepal stands as a natural beneficiary from cooperation from China and India. I think this is a logical desire that should be supported by China and India." It remains to be seen how Modi reacts to Xi’s charm offensive.

On the surface, Beijing claims that the only objective of its BRI is to increase infrastructure connectivity within Asia and beyond for ensuring economic development and prosperity. However, the reality is very different from what is being projected by the Chinese side. According to a report prepared by the US-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, China’s "investments may not be principally driven by the concept of win-win development. Maritime infrastructure investment is inherently dual-use and is capable of furthering both legitimate business activities and military operations. The strategic characteristics of six analytical dimensions that are exhibited across China's Indo-Pacific investments — having a strategic location, a dual-use development model, notable Communist Party presence, significant financial control, limited transparency and unequal benefits." Recently, ambassadors to China from 27 out of 28 European Union (EU) member countries came up with a report criticising the BRI for flouting international transparency norms and putting Chinese companies at an advantage.

Although fundamental political reorientation is out, limited institutional change is not, at least as far as a 'reset' of India-China relations is concerned. Surely, it is time to reboot India’s most crucial bilateral relationship. Whether the informal summit will have the same historical value accorded to the landmark meeting between late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is going to depend upon the outcome of the talks. It may be remembered Rajiv was the first Indian prime minister to visit China since Jawaharlal Nehru’s historic 1954 trip.

Ties at the ambassadorial level had been restored in 1976, more than a decade after the ill-fated India-China war. Eight rounds of talks had been held since then Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua's 1981 India visit, but not much progress was noticed. The Rajiv-Deng breakthrough meeting in December 1988, that imagined a redirection of the relationship, had set the ball rolling for long-stalled boundary negotiations.

The progress towards normalisation of relations between New Delhi and Beijing has not been linear as concrete steps towards practical cooperation often get hamstrung by deep historical suspicions, cultural prejudices and geopolitical rivalries. A few major developments on the global stage may have led to India and China eyeing the possibility of enhancing cooperation, but the overall trajectory in their bilateral ties has been very unsatisfactory.

The upcoming informal summit does not mean that the depth of differences between India and China will automatically vanish, but efforts must be made to enhance mutual trust and strengthen communication channels. However, India cannot be expected to remain silent on Beijing’s unilateral attempts to change 'facts on the ground', its growing clout around India’s periphery, its unhelpful and unexplained position on cross-border terrorism, and its exploitation of river waters. Mitigating the mutual suspicion through conciliation and diplomacy is yet to become the norm for Xi's China.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2018 10:58:55 IST

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