Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping likely to hold meeting: Retaining engagement more important than hoping for major breakthrough

On the day he was "elected" as China's president for life, news has emerged of a possible one-to-one between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi as Asia's rival powers show a willingness to reset bilateral ties beyond the recent frostiness. If and when the meeting does take place, it will be the culmination of a carefully orchestrated pirouette between both sides, though at this stage the outcome of this effort isn't clear. In fact, reset might be too strong a word to be used in this context when all signals point to a little more diplomatic fluidity in ties from current codified positions.

Quoting diplomatic sources, Hindustan Times reports that the meeting could take place in June or even April and is likely to be a "face-to-face discussion" with only interpreters in attendance to build on the "convergences" and address "differences in a way that helps the relationship go forward." The informal format is expected to "help the leaders to exchange their views more freely and frankly."

Though there might appear a certain 'shock value' to the development in the context of recent friction between both sides, that Xi and Modi may meet isn't surprising. A series of events in recent past have led towards such an eventuality. If we are to take a starting point, a coincidental development could be veteran China hand Vijay Gokhale taking over as the foreign secretary. This isn't to say that India has adopted a sudden change in policy, but a greater willingness to re-engage with China is clear.

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. Getty images

File image of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. Getty images

The first such signal came in February when both countries entered into a quid pro quo arrangement over Pakistan's blacklisting at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) plenary in Paris. Reports of backroom dealing emerged that pointed towards Indian support for China's elevation as the "vice-chair" of the global terror financing watchdog (with a provision for eventually heading the body) in exchange for Beijing's "neutrality" to the motion moved by the US and its allies to put Pakistan back into the terror-financing "grey list".

The motion was moved and Pakistan — to its shock and chagrin at having being let down by "iron brother" — was put into the doghouse. India's reaction left little space for doubt that it was a coordinated effort.

The second marker came when foreign secretary Gokhale asked government functionaries and senior ruling party leaders to skip the "thank you India" programme in the capital organised by the Tibetan-leadership-in-exile owing to a "very sensitive time in India-China relations".

The twin events (also an inter-faith prayer), to mark the Dalai Lama's 60th year in exile after a failed uprising against China's occupation of Tibet, were eventually shifted from Delhi to Dharamsala. Finally, both events (scheduled to be held on 31 March) were shifted again to a temple in McLeodganj.

From India's side, the sequence was revealing and the signals clear. Almost a year since India had allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh — a development that is speculated to have contributed towards the standoff in Doklam — New Delhi has now impressed upon the Tibetan leadership to tone down events that may be perceived in Beijing as "provocative". While India evidently travelled quite a distance to cater to China's "sensitivities", were its overtures reciprocated?

A reading of the tea leaves suggests that it was. Around this time, China's foreign ministry started suggesting that it would be better for the dragon and elephant to "dance together" instead of positioning themselves for a fight. On 8 March in Beijing during a press briefing, foreign minister Wang Yi said: "Chinese and Indian leaders have developed a strategic vision for the future of our relations. The Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other… If China and India are united, one plus one will become not only two but also 11."

The usual references to mountains and depths of relationship followed, given Chinese leadership's penchant for liberal use of rhetoric. "With political trust, not even the Himalayas can stop us from friendly exchanges," said Wang. He went on to claim that "China is willing and ready to inherit and take forward our traditional friendship and be a friend and partner of the Indian people," and ended with a flourish. "Let us replace suspicion with trust, manage differences with dialogue and build a future with cooperation."

By no stretch of imagination should Wang's words be construed as a signal to recast bilateral ties that are irreversibly set within the parameters of fierce competition in diverse areas. Rather, they are an attempt at reengaging with India, so as to not let the relationship fall in a state of permanent disrepair. While the power differential puts China at an advantage vis-a-vis India in context of a conflict, the cost of such friction for Beijing is higher than is generally acknowledged given the size, potential and integration of Indian market with Chinese economy. More than the rhetoric (which is not to be taken seriously) Wang's stress on a dialogue is important.

On cue, Chinese media — which is now more tightly integrated with the party than ever ) — started publishing placatory, even flattering pieces on India in a marked departure from its usual aggressive tone.

One such recent piece in the notoriously belligerent Global Times waxed eloquent on how Chinese public are embracing yoga and Bollywood en masse and how Beijing could learn a thing or two from India's "culture export". These steps are not coincidental. Chinese leadership uses state-controlled media as an arm of realpolitik and it is quite clear that quite a lot of choreographed signaling is going on. We have been told that Sushma Swaraj is going to China on 24 April for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meet (where she may even have a one-on-one with her counterpart Wang) and she might be followed by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman soon after.

This does not mean that China will wind down its helipads and other martial infrastructure in Doklam, or that both countries will withdraw their naval assets from forward positions in Indo-Pacific but the recalibration of stances, high-level visits that may culminate with a Modi-Xi meet, are designed to build some confidence measures and stay engaged in dialogue.

The moot question is whether we may expect any far or near outcome from this renewed engagement. Such chances are practically nil, given the shortage of political space for any meaningful negotiation in areas of differences. It might seem that Modi, as the elected leader of a democracy, has less room to take politically controversial decisions than the autocratic Xi but in reality, Mao Zedong 2.0 suffers from massive insecurities that are inbuilt in autocracy.

India and China's geopolitical rivalry is an inescapable reality that these engagements won't be able to solve. Even so, continued engagement is the best way to manage differences that won't be in short supply.

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Updated Date: Mar 17, 2018 21:43:43 IST

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