Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet: Wuhan Summit emits right noises, but is bonhomie too good to be true?

Before leaving for Wuhan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tweeted that "developments in India-China relations from a strategic and long-term perspective" will be one of the broad agendas of his purportedly "agenda-less" one-on-one informal meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping. He also left other cues. We were told that a range of issues would be on the table, including (but not limited to) matters of "bilateral and global importance", "visions and priorities for national development" in the context of the current and future global situation, etc.

The parameters were set in terms so wide and ambiguous that it seemed a deliberate attempt to play down the significance of the talks to manage the perception and control the outcome. In other words, Modi was trying to put a lid on expectations through a careful choice of words. It hinted at a certain skepticism.

 Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet: Wuhan Summit emits right noises, but is bonhomie too good to be true?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Wuhan. PTI

This skepticism was also shared by the Indian media. The attempted "reset" of bilateral ties gained wide publicity but the coverage was overwhelmingly cautious, bordering on cynicism. With good reason. The gap between what China says and what China does is so huge that it is difficult to fathom Beijing's intentions and harder still to trust it. The prime minister's skepticism was perhaps warranted.

Applying suitable disclaimers, as Modi returns home from his two-day sojourn in China, the signals emerging out of Wuhan are surprisingly positive. To the extent that such wide-ranging discussions between top leadership can set actionable targets and goals, the Wuhan Summit should be declared a success.

Consider the takeaways. Both nations have, in principle, agreed to develop a joint economic project in a third nation. To add to the significance, the country in question is Afghanistan with whom India enjoys abiding civilisational ties, has poured billions and billions of dollars to resurrect the war-torn nation and has deep-rooted strategic and security interests.

In a speech last year, Afghanistan's ambassador to India Shaida Abdali had touched upon India's pivotal role in stabilising Afghanistan. On the India-Afghan Strategic relationship that was established formally in October 2011, Abdali had noted that "India is the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan and fifth largest donor globally with over $3 billion in assistance." "There are over 200 public and private schools with over a 1,000 scholarships sponsored by India. Around 16,000 Afghan students study in India," said the ambassador, mentioning India's help in constructing over 4,000 kilometres of roadways, dams, electricity transmission lines and even the country's new Parliament building. "Over 4,000 Afghan officers have been trained in Indian military institutions with an expected increment of 50 percent in the number of officers being trained in India this year," he said.

The scale and significance of India's role found mention in US president Donald Trump's Afghanistan policy where he urged India to "do more", simultaneously raising the hackles in Pakistan which sees India's asset-creation and enduring ties with the key Central Asian nation as a direct, strategic threat to its interests and has invested in a formidable jihadist network to sabotage Indian and US interests.

In an interview to The Guardian in 2015, former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf had admitted that ISI cultivated Taliban to "counter India". The report quotes Musharraf as saying that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate cultivated the Taliban after 2001 because Hamid Karzai's government was dominated by non-Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, and officials who were thought to favour India. "Obviously we were looking for some groups to counter this Indian action against Pakistan… That is where the intelligence work comes in. Intelligence being in contact with Taliban groups. Definitely, they were in contact, and they should be,” he told the British newspaper.

Given this backdrop, China's willingness to partner with India in an "economic project" – the modalities of which are yet to be identified and worked upon – is significant in more ways than one. It shows that China has no wish to be bound by its "iron brother's" strategic compulsions and is governed by its own interests. Piggybacking India in a country where it has little influence could be a great strategy, on paper. It also shows that the two competing nations can also cooperate in regional development. The announcement alone is loaded with symbolism.

The second notable takeaway pertains to the border dispute, specifically Doka La, which became a signifier of China-India rivalry and pushed bilateral ties to the precipice. Modi and Xi seemed to identify lack of communication as the main reason behind the 73-day faceoff and agreed on a set of measures to prevent a recurrence.

The media statement released by the ministry of external affairs (also referred to during foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale's press briefing on Saturday), pointed towards a need for better and strong communication network to mitigate challenges arising out of border disputes.

"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 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."

The decision to issue "strategic guidance" to the respective militaries leaps out as a significant development. It also hints at a tantalising possibility that the PLA misadventure at Doka La last year might even have happened at the military-strategic level and may not have had sanction from the top.

Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney had pointed out last year in Hindustan Times that the Doka La resolution coincided with Xi's decision to replace the chief of the People's Liberation Army’s (PLA) joint staff department. "The Doka La pullbacks suggest that the removed chief, General Fang Fenghui, was an obstacle to clinching a deal with India and probably was responsible for precipitating the standoff in the first place," he wrote.

Incidentally, as the author points out, Xi's visit to India in 2014 to greet newly elected prime minister Modi was marred by PLA's incursion in Ladakh.

It is impossible to detect a direct causal relationship but the messaging here is certainly significant. It encourages an impression that China is "sensitive" to India's interests. The reason for such posturing could be many, as this columnist had pointed out in an earlier piece. Whether "strengthen(ing) existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms" will work to prevent a recurrence will be clear with the passage of time, but the signalling is worth noting.

It ties with similar promises to "significantly enhance efforts to build on the convergences through the established mechanisms in order to create the broadest possible platform for the future relationship." Both leaders apparently "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."

While the Indian media was skeptical about the Wuhan Summit, Chinese media seemed to go out of its way to create an impression of positivity. The belligerent Global Times splashed Modi's visit as its lead story on Saturday, replete with Xi's comments that "Meeting with Modi to open new chapter in China-India ties". The newspaper also quoted the Chinese president as saying that "both sides should look at the complete picture of China-India ties from a strategic perspective, so as to ensure that relations between the two countries always proceed in the right direction."

People's Daily, China's widest read newspaper, gave an equally flattering coverage.

There were reports that Xi had personally taken care of "little details" to show that he cares.

And charm was not in short supply, to show the reach of Bollywood in China.

Finally, all the right noises were made even when it came to Xi's vaunted BRI project with China's vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou claiming that "there is no fundamental difference between China and India on the issue of supporting inter-connectivity", and "as for whether India accepts the expression Belt and Road, I think it is not important and China will not be too hard on it."

Recall the thumb rule that when something appears too good to be true, it probably is. No harm in playing along though.

 

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2018 19:16:21 IST