The Pakistan question: Ignore rhetoric, Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet won't go beyond clearly defined red lines

It would seem the prime minister of India is going on a date (almost) with the Chinese president in picturesque Wuhan. An incredible amount of signaling is being done by the media from both sides to hammer home the message that it will be a 'heart-to-heart' chat on the banks of Yangtze to resurrect a relationship that at one point last year seemed to be on the cusp of war. That oft-repeated phrase — game changer — has been thrown around enough already.

High-level visits such as these have their own import. In the case of India and China, even more so. It is a bold initiative from Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping to even attempt a re-engagement when the easier option would have been to let bureaucrats manage the risks of a troubled tie. That would have also ensured a certain 'stability'. So in setting up the meeting, both leaders have indicated that they are willing to take some (if limited) risks in setting the course of Asia's (and even world's) most important bilateral relationship.

However, foolish as it is to deny the significance of the development when Modi meets Xi over two days starting Friday, it will perhaps be more imprudent to expect any radical shifts in both nations' geopolitical and strategic positions. The nature of differences between India and China are structural (some complex issues involve other nations), have developed over time and have no mutually acceptable quick-fixes. It is important to recognise these home truths and scale down expectations instead of falling to the lure of hyperbole. Only then can the trajectory be set within a practicable framework.

File image of  Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters

What we are looking at from the Modi-Xi Wuhan summit, therefore, is the reinforcement of a workable relationship. A lot of stress has been laid on the "informal" format and how an "agenda-free" discussion might be more freewheeling in absence of aides and bureaucrats crowding and hunching around the room. Media reports indicate the leaders will only have respective interpreters for company, and even the ubiquitous "note taker" will be conspicuous by absence.

The idea is to create a relaxed atmosphere and let personal chemistry take its course. As former foreign secretary S Jaishankar told ANI on Sunday: "I think what is different about this particular summit would be that it is an informal summit so the meeting will be in a very informal and casual environment. The agenda would be open, they'll spend lot of time over two days and there'll be different kind of conversations, which would be much more personal and much more interactive in comparison with the formal meetings… The whole purpose of an informal summit is the leaders decide what they want to discuss."

If the two-day 'chit-chat' between Modi and Xi is unattached to any agenda, has no stated goal to meet and may not culminate in a joint statement or even a communiqué, what could be its likely outcome? Here we may take note of indications issued by both sides that the discussions would take place within certain broad, inflexible, non-negotiable parameters notwithstanding the flexibility in framework. In other words, both leaders may unburden their hearts and soul but none would step out of their boxes.

This is evident from official and unofficial statements.

Quoting a source, Suhasini Haidar writes in The Hindu: "the objective of this informal meeting was not to come out with an agreed set of documents, but to have communication at the highest level and to gain perspective that each has of the other in terms of domestic policy and in terms of foreign policy…and how to remove misconceptions and misunderstandings that might arise."

While announcing details of the Wuhan summit on Sunday, China's foreign minister Wang Yi's statement makes it clearer: "The leaders of the two countries will conduct strategic communication on the great changes of the current world that have never been seen in the past hundred years, and exchange in-depth views on the overall, long-term and strategic issues regarding the future development of bilateral relations." Wang was briefing the press after meeting the visiting Indian external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj.

The stress on "overall, long-term, overarching" is significant. It is an indication that both countries may focus on broad-based issues — such as the challenges posed by Donald Trump's trade policies where Indian and Chinese interests have rough alignment — and concentrate on avoiding Doka La-like missteps that distract from their larger objectives. Between differences and disputes, there is a huge amount of space for Modi and Xi to explore while attempting a better understanding of each other's red lines that have been set firmly just ahead of the meeting.

Statements that have emerged from both nations post the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet reinforce this reality. India has remained categorically consistent in its two core positions. It has reiterated its opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative. It has also come out swinging against nations that sponsor and use terror as state policy. No prizes for guessing whom it was aimed at.

In the joint communiqué released by member-nations post SCO, India remained the only nation among Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan not to extend its support for Xi's pet project. As The Times of India notes in a report, "far from accepting the Chinese programme, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj listed a wide range of connectivity infrastructure projects being planned and executed by India in different countries." There was broad agreement on all other issues.

On terrorism, Swaraj did not pull her punches while targeting Pakistan (stopping short of naming it during her address). Calling for a strong, interconnected global security framework to tackle the scourge of terrorism, Swaraj said it is the biggest threat to human rights.

"Terrorism is an enemy of the basic human rights: of life, peace and prosperity… The criminal terrorist militias are not impeded by borders as they seek to destroy the architecture of international stability and build walls of fear in societies that believe in pluralism. 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," she said during the address that was also attended by Pakistan foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif.

If Swaraj's address created any discomfort for Asif, China rushed in with words of comfort, going at great lengths to reassure its most important strategic ally that their "iron friendship with Pakistan will never rust and be tempered into steel."

During the joint press briefing with Asif, Wang turned on the tap of hyperbole. "China is willing to, together with brotherly Pakistani people, shoulder the respective historic tasks of national rejuvenation and commit ourselves to realising the great dream of a prosperous and strong country, so that the ironclad relationship between China and Pakistan will stay shining and unbreakable forever…."

He added that "China-Pakistan all-weather strategic cooperation is not only the precious wealth for China and Pakistan, but also provides a model for building a new type of international relations."

It is evident, therefore, that just as India will not budge from its core positions during the Modi-Xi summit, China would likewise stay firm on its geopolitical and strategic goals.

"Delhi should have little reason to bet that Wuhan will lead to chinks in China’s all-weather partnership with Pakistan. Nor can Beijing expect that India will hold back from strengthening its ties with the United States and the West," writes Carnegie India director C Raja Mohan in The Indian Express.

The structural nature of the differences between two neighbours — that resists easy solutions — bears expansion. Most of the areas of friction in bilateral ties involve a third nation, Pakistan. Beijing has made New Delhi's entry into NSG incumbent on a similar arrangement for Islamabad, it has been a stumbling block in Modi government's push to designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist and it has become a stakeholder in India's travails with Pakistan on Kashmir by making CPEC a key component of BRI.

Pakistan is at the front and centre of Xi Jinping's 'great power' aspirations and it will stop at nothing to keep all levers of this tie firmly within its grasp. Its predatory policies are already making Pakistanis nervous and throwing its economy out of gear.

As economist and Columbia University professor Panos Mourdoukoutas writes in Forbes, quoting data from Tradingeconomics.com, Pakistan's CAD (current account deficit is soaring). It recorded a CAD of $3867 million in the fourth quarter of 2017. It has a debt equivalent of 67.20 percent of its GDP in 2017 and its "debt-to-GDP averaged 69.30 percent from 1994 until 2017. External Debt in Pakistan jumped to $88891 million in the fourth quarter of 2017 from $85052 million in the third quarter of 2017. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves and foreign capital flows are falling, making it increasing likely that Pakistan will seek to reschedule its debt to China. Perhaps, by swapping debt with equity, which in essence will handle CPEC to Beijing." China has also become Pakistan's biggest financial sponsor, replacing the US.

This is just one among many reasons why China will not allow any strategic or even tactical concessions to India on Pakistan. Recall that soon after Modi's address in London where he called Pakistan a "terror export factory", China immediately jumped to Islamabad's defence.

Chinese media have gone overboard — for strategic reasons — to paint Wuhan as a 'ground-breaker'. China's state-controlled Global Times has set aside its belligerent rhetoric against India and compared Modi-Xi's upcoming summit to Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping's meeting in 1988.

"The meeting can be as significant as the one in 1988 when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi met, and will set the course for bilateral ties. The Indian external affairs minister, defense minister and national security adviser recently visited China in succession. Indian academia and political circles have agreed the country needs to develop cooperative ties with China. It appears that India is changing its radical attitude toward China highlighted in Doka La standoff last year," read an editorial.

To a certain extent China's hands have been forced by circumstances that include Trump's posturing on trade and North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-un's decision to suspend all nuclear weapons testing that takes away from Beijing's bargaining power. But even as it courts India, China's use of rhetoric is ingenuous.
Chinese vice-foreign minister Kong Xuanyou has posited that Doka La stand-off occurred "because of a lack of mutual trust." According to Hindustan Times, in a briefing on Tuesday, Kong said: "At the informal summit, the two leaders will have heart-to-heart discussions on overarching issues and try to build mutual trust and consensus to resolve outstanding differences. The two countries need to create conditions and trust between them to resolve the boundary issue."

Beyond the "sincerity", this immediately makes India an equal partner in 'trust deficit' when Beijing is solely responsible for breakdown of trust. The 72-day standoff occurred because PLA, in violation of several agreements involving India and Bhutan, unilaterally tried to change the status quo at the tri-junction. Yet by framing the debate in these terms, China is putting the onus of its misadventures (at least partially) on India. Modi would be wary of these traps.


Updated Date: Apr 25, 2018 17:49 PM

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