Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet: Beyond bonhomie and symbolism of Wuhan Summit, some stark differences remain

As the dust settles on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping's weekend schmoozing at Wuhan, a comparative study of the media statements issued separately by India and China may give us an idea of the divergences that remain despite the two-day exercise.

As we read between the lines, it'd be worth remembering that the informal summit wasn't meant to deliver a magic bullet for all bilateral ills but to deliberate on a new modus vivendi in ties, bring down the temperature and at least in the short term, dial down the state of mutual animus from 'spiraling' to 'managed'. If it emerges from the documents that these broad objectives have been met, Modi and Xi could take some satisfaction from their efforts.

On terrorism: The starkest area of difference that leaps out from the statements is how both nations have addressed the scourge of terrorism. In the statement released by India's Ministry of External Affairs, "terrorism" occupies a meaty paragraph: "Prime Minister Modi and President Xi recognised the common threat posed by terrorism, and reiterated their strong condemnation of and resolute opposition to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. They committed themselves to cooperate on counter-terrorism."

 Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet: Beyond bonhomie and symbolism of Wuhan Summit, some stark differences remain

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in Wuhan.Twitter/@narendramodi

These were roughly the same words uttered by foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale during a media interaction in Beijing shortly after Modi and Xi had concluded their engagement. On being asked to expand on the discussions centred around terrorism, Gokhale replied: "Jahan tak aatankwaad ka mudda hai ek general level par discussion hua hai kyonki jaise maine kaha specific muddo par is star par baatcheet nahi hoti hai (As far as terrorism is concerned, it was discussed on a general level because as I mentioned earlier that at this level specifics are not discussed.) India and China both sides maintain that there will be no tolerance for terrorism and that it is in the interest of both countries to collaborate. As I said beyond that it is a matter of discussion and there is continuing discussion between both countries on how to collaborate in this area."

We learn two things from India's statement. One, that the issue didn't come up for specific referral during interactions but was part of a broader agenda where India claims a convergence in purpose. Two, if that is so, the MEA statement appears more hopeful and optimistic than it can afford to be. Foreign Secretary Gokhale, for instance, acknowledged during the media briefing that "there is continuing discussion between both countries on how to collaborate in this area." In other words, collaboration is still a 'work in progress', and there has been little convergence between the two sides on terrorism.

This becomes clearer when we take a look at China's statement. China made a mention of the word 'terrorism' only once in its statement, and that too in passing. "Both sides agree to promote more active regional and international cooperation. They agree to join hands in offering innovative and sustainable solutions to global challenges such as epidemics, natural disasters, climate change and terrorism."

Between India's desire to highlight the issue and China's to play it down, the differences remain stark. This isn't really surprising because the issue of terrorism refers to a structural problem in bilateral ties that also involves a third nation: Pakistan.

During her address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet in Beijing, Union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had launched a stinging attack on Pakistan (without taking the fellow member's name): "We strongly believe that our fight against terrorism should not only seek to eliminate terrorists but should also identify and take strong measures against States that encourage, support and finance terrorism and provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups".

China had promptly leaped to its "all-weather ally's" defence, portraying Pakistan yet again as a victim, and not a perpetrator of terrorism. "China will continue to firmly support the Pakistani side in fighting against terrorism and safeguarding national security and stability. China is willing to help Pakistan strengthen capacity building in anti-terrorism and security and provide reliable security guarantees for the economic cooperation and common development of the two countries," Wang Yi, China's foreign minister said during a joint media briefing with his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Muhammad Asif.

China's urge to defend Pakistan at the cost of weakening its own position on a global scourge lies in Beijing's strategic compulsions. Pakistan is China's crown jewel — a useful tool for Beijing in its containment of India, a vital cog in its maritime security infrastructure, a champion of its connectivity projects in the region, a key to Central Asia and a gateway to the Muslim world where Islamabad is worth its weight in gold.

As Andrew Small writes in The China Pakistan Axis (Vintage publication, Page 1): "Pakistan is a central part of China's transition from a regional power to global one. The country lies at the heart of Beijing's plans for a network of ports, pipelines, roads and railways… Its coastline is becoming a crucial staging post for China's take-off as a naval power… Penetration by Pakistan's intelligence services into the darkest corners of global jihadi networks are a vital asset to China as it navigates its growing interests in the Islamic world, and seeks to choke off support for the militant activities that pose one of the gravest threats to China's internal stability."

India has been successful in drawing global attention to Pakistan's role as a state sponsor of terror but its efforts have clearly hit the Great Wall in China which considers Islamabad as too vital a strategic and geopolitical asset to be hung out to dry.

On border dispute: India's statement raised strong speculation about PLA's role during the Doka La standoff. The MEA release reads: " They also agreed that both sides have the maturity and wisdom to handle the differences through peaceful discussion within the context of the overall relationship, bearing in mind the importance of respecting each other's sensitivities, concerns and aspirations…

"The two leaders expressed their support for the work of the Special Representatives on the India China Boundary Question and urged them to intensify their efforts to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement. The two leaders underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India-China border region in the larger interest of the overall development of bilateral relations. To this end, they issued strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs. The two leaders further directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence-building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms to prevent incidents in border regions."

It is possible to detect a hint from the MEA statement that last year's 73-day standoff in the Sikkim sector was due to a communication failure, and not merely between India and China. By mentioning the words "strategic guidance to respective militaries", the Indian statement carried a hint that Doka La could have also been the result of rogue PLA unit's misadventure. If that was indeed the case, it isn't clear why the PLA has since been engaged in furious capacity-building on the disputed zone just adjacent to the face-off site. Notably, no new mechanisms were proposed, but the stress was laid on "strengthening" the existing ones.

The Chinese statement carried no reference to "strategic guidance".

"Both sides agree to properly manage and control their differences. Both sides have the maturity and wisdom to handle their differences through peaceful discussion and by respecting each other's concerns and aspirations. They agree to use the Special Representatives' Meeting on the Boundary Question to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement. The two militaries will strengthen confidence-building measures and enhance communication and cooperation to uphold border peace and tranquillity," it read.

India sought greater mutual trust and "predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs", but this was missing from the Chinese document. Both sides stressed on maturity and wisdom in handling disputes and "strengthening" CBMs and communication channels but India's statement was more explicit in "including the principle of mutual and equal security"… "to prevent incidents in border regions." Also notable is India's inclusion of the word "sensitivities" in addition to "concerns and aspirations" as points of mutual respect.

The power differential between the two nations is obvious from the wordings. Though the Wuhan Summit indicates a broad understanding of the reasons behind border disputes and some concrete measures to prevent a recurrence, the Indian declaration comes across as more earnest and desirous of peace in contrast with China's, which is more open-ended. This is to be expected because China's assertiveness on sovereignty is exceptional, unilateral and arises out of a combination of reactionary, revisionist and imperialist impulses. This enables China to justify its actions and simultaneously claim high moral ground.

The success of Wuhan Summit will be proven if, despite these differences in power and ideology, both sides largely manage to control the tension instead of letting it spiral out of control. The state of "managed tension," as a Stratfor analysis points out, refers to a "relationship under which the two countries agree to address their unresolved problems. The two sides resolve mutual incursions or skirmishes through meetings involving local border personnel while also referring questions regarding disputed territories, such as Aksai Chin in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh in India's northeast, to a special bilateral mechanism that discusses such matters."

At this stage, Modi would perhaps be more keen to arrest the relationship within these parameters more than Xi, and that dichotomy is evident in the Wuhan statements.

On trade: Once again, India and China strike discordant notes.

The MEA release states: "The two leaders agreed to push forward bilateral trade and investment in a balanced and sustainable manner by taking advantage of complementarities between their two economies." In his media briefing, FS Gokhale had said: "The two leaders underlined that the trade should be balanced, it should be sustainable and that we should take advantage of the complementarities between the two economies to enhance the trade and investment. In that context, the prime minister also mentioned the importance of balance in trade and spoke about few possibilities of agricultural exports and pharmaceutical exports to China and it was decided that through the existing institutional mechanisms both sides would continue to discuss matters relating to trade and investment."

China's was pithy: "They (both nations) will tap into the full potential of business and investment cooperation, set new targets, harness positive forces, and explore new ways of cooperation to achieve win-win results."

The word 'balance' was conspicuously absent in Chinese document whereas India was at pains to stress on it. The reason is obvious. "India’s trade deficit with China increased more than two-fold (219 percent) from $16 billion in 2007-08 to $51 billion in 2016-17, according to commerce ministry data. India’s imports ($61 billion) from China were six times its exports ($10 billion) in 2016-17, making rising trade imbalance a major concern," mentions a report in Bloomberg Quint.

Whereas China was worried about "protectionism" from the West in multilateral trade and sought "open, inclusive, balanced and win-win economic globalisation that benefits all", that focus on balance was missing when it came to bilateral trade with India. This, after an "informal meeting" loaded with symbolism and bonhomie, should tell India where Chinese priorities lie.

Updated Date: Apr 30, 2018 20:24:17 IST