It is for the first time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China President Xi Jinping have met in an informal summit for a candid exchange of views. This sets the tone for future meetings between leaders of the two Asian giants
The two-day meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China President Xi Jinping at Wuhan, the get-away resort in Hubei province on April 27-28 had all the trappings of a formal meeting between the leaders of the two most populous countries in the world and leading emerging market economies. The summit which was not a summit because there was no formal agenda and there was no joint statement at the end of it was preceded by the meetings of Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with their counterparts. Earlier, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval too held talks with the special representative from the Chinese side. So, the meeting of the two leaders is not to be seen in isolation. It is a high-level, high profile India-China meeting.
The Modi-Xi meeting remains unusual despite the formal structured meetings that took place at other levels. And it reveals many interesting aspects. First, there is a certain personal rapport between the two leaders. One of the defining characteristics of Prime Minister Modi has been that he struck a personal rapport with all the foreign dignitaries he has met in the last four years. And he has done it without much effort. He broke the diplomatic routines and protocols and got into casual conversations. The friendly touch worked and developed.
This has been especially so with the Chinese leader. Mr Xi came to India in 2014, and Mr Modi arranged that he would take him to Ahmedabad in Gujarat. It has been one of the firsts with Mr Modi. Usually, visiting dignitaries, after completing the ceremonial functions in New Delhi, went to the other important places accompanied by a minister. But Mr Modi accompanied Mr Xi to Ahmedabad, and chaperoned him and Mrs Xi through a visit to Sabarmati Ashram and a boat ride on the Sabarmati. This meant that the two leaders were in a less formal, structured situation and quite away from delegation level talks across a long table. Those formal talks had their place, but the break away from the formal ways established a personal link.
The ties between the two countries went through a bad patch as it were. First, China was less than accommodative about India’s full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and it – China is one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – vetoed the Indian demand that Pakistan-based Islamic militant Masood Azhar be named a terrorist.
Prime Minister Modi and President Xi met each other during the multilateral meetings of the G20 in Hamburg and at the BRICS summit at Xian in China. All was not well between the two countries in terms of atmospherics, and it seemed that the Wuhan meeting was planned to diffuse some of the accumulated misperceptions between the two countries.
But it would be a narrow way of looking at the Modi-Xi meeting at Wuhan. There is a broader context to it, and it is not confined to India-China bilateral relations though it includes that as well.
The trade war between the United States and China has broken out in the open with US President Donald Trump imposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminium which impacted China’s exports. China has reacted by saying that it would go to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to challenge the discriminatory tariffs. But China knows that it would not be able to confront the United States on its own, and that too at the WTO. There are two reasons for this. China is a late entrant to the WTO, while India is one of the founding members. And India is much more conversant with dispute resolution mechanisms of the WTO. China needs India’s counsel on this issue. But this is part of a backchannel process, and it is rarely mentioned even in the informal diplomatic channels. One of the topics of conversation between Mr Modi and Mr Xi at Wuhan must have been about the undeclared trade war with the US.
There is recognition in India as well as in China that the Asian giants must consult each other on global affairs. Though it is not necessary that the two countries agree with each other, the two will need to be consulting each other, informally. This consultation will have to be at the level of officials and policy-makers, but it cannot be done in a bureaucratic fashion. Each in its own way, India and China have a bureaucratic mind-set. They will have to acquire the informal American approach to tackle their concerns. The two countries are also quite rigid and ceremonial in their approach, and it is a civilisational thing. They have not been able to talk to each other casually. The informal meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Xi could serve as an example of informal meetings between the representatives of the two countries at other levels as well.
The point has been articulated in the press statement issued from the Indian side at the end of the Modi-Xi summit. It said, “Prime Minister Modi and President Xi underlined that as two major countries India and China have wider and overlapping regional and global interests. They agreed on their need to strengthen strategic communication through greater consultation on all matters of common interest. They believe that such strategic communication will have a positive influence on enhancing mutual understanding and will contribute to regional and global stability.” Mr Xi is reported in the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily as saying that the relations between the two countries should be “enhanced continuously” and that they should be like Yangtze (the major Chinese river that flows through Wuhan) and the Ganges, “which never stop flowing and always move forward.”
It is interesting then that Mr Modi presented Mr Xi prints of paintings of Tagore by the Chinese artist, Xu Beihong, originally painted in 1939-40, when Xu was at Santiniketan. Mr Xi presented with Mr Modi the replica of a 2,400-year-old chime, which was part of the ancient civilization that had developed in the Hubei province. There is certainly a sense of formality in the exchange of the meaningful gifts, but it is the cultural dimension of the gifts that shows that the relations between two countries are not bound by national interests alone, and that it brings in the aspect of soft power of the two sides apart from the immense and intangible good will that it generates.
In a press interaction before the two leaders went into a meeting without aides, Mr Modi said, “Very positive environment created through the informal summit and you have personally contributed to it in a big way. It’s a sign of your affection for India that you have hosted me twice in Chian outside Beijing. The people of India feel really proud that I’m the first Prime Minister of India, for whom, you have come out of the capital twice to receive me.”
Mr Xi said, “In the past five years we have achieved a lot. We have met each other on many occasions.”
At the delegation-level talks, Mr Modi said, “I hope such informal summits become a tradition between the two countries. I’ll be happy if, in 2019, we can have such informal summit in India.”
Mr Modi also expounded his new acronym STRENGTH as the basis for bilateral relations. “S–spirituality, T–tradition, trade and technology, R–relationship, E–entertainment (movies, art, dances), N–nature conservation, G–games, T–tourism, and H–health and healing.”
India and China find themselves in a new situation in the 21st century. Though they describe themselves modestly as emerging economies, the truth is that these two Asian countries have reached a point where the world expects them to provide leadership. Mr Modi and Mr Xi seem to be acutely aware of the demand being made on their respective countries arising out of the global situation, and this is reflected in the post-summit statement issued by the Indian side. It underlined the role that the two countries are poised to play in the world: “The two leaders agreed that as two major countries and emerging economies, India and China, given their vast developmental experiences and national capacities, should join hands to take lead in offering innovative and sustainable solutions to challenges faced by humankind in the 21st century. These include combating diseases, coordinating action for disaster risk reduction and mitigation, addressing climate change and ushering digital empowerment. They agreed to pool together their expertise and resources in these areas and create a global network dedicated to these challenges for the larger benefit of humanity.”
There is the recognition that India-China relations cannot remain at the bilateral level, and that the two countries will have to concern themselves with the global challenges and provide answers which then can be followed by the rest of the world.
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the world leaders were United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin. Seventy-three years later, it is the leaders of India and China, Mr Modi and Mr Xi, who find themselves dealing with the global situation. The other leader who would complete the Asian triumvirate would be Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It then becomes clear as to why the 21st century is being projected as the Asian Century, following the American Century which marked the preceding 20th century.
This does not mean that there are no differences between India and China. There is the recognition on both sides that there are differences, but those differences are not to be allowed to block communication or be allowed to generate a cold war. There is clarity in the Indian view on this. It called for “prudent management of differences with mutual sensitivity”.
The advantage of the informal summit which facilitated a frank exchange of views was noted and it was felt that there should be more opportunities in the future. The Indian statement expressed the view: “The two leaders highly assessed the opportunity for direct, free and candid exchange of views offered by the Informal Summit and agreed on the utility of holding more such dialogues in the future. The forward-looking dialogue raised the level of strategic communication about the perspective, priorities and vision that guide their respective policy choices domestically, regionally and globally. It also helped them in forging a common understanding of the future direction of India-China relations built upon mutual respect for each other’s developmental aspirations and prudent management of differences with mutual sensitivity.”
Prime Minister Modi and President Xi seem to be aware of the fact that India-China relations are both important and complicated, and that there is a need to handle them with maturity and deftness. The two leaders realize that it is not the hassle-free relationship between the two countries. There will be times when they have to do a balancing act with their allies. For China, Pakistan is a close ally and it has to balance its interests between India and Pakistan. There was a time when China would support Pakistan when there was a confrontation between India and Pakistan. Though China appears to be leaning towards Pakistan, Chinese leaders and strategists now know that they cannot afford to offend India. Similarly, India has to balance its relationship with Japan and Vietnam even as it deals with China. India is aware that it should not be seen as anti-China even as it builds strategic ties with the other two countries.
Mr Modi and Mr Xi have been managing the contradictions and complexities involved in positioning their respective countries as emerging global powers. The personal rapport between the two leaders will go a long way in stabilizing the bilateral relationship.
If the informal summits become a regular feature of the two countries, then the precedent set by Mr Modi and Mr Xi will serve as a good example. It is a well-known fact that communication is the key to any relationship, and that this is more important in the case of large neighbours like India and China. The communication to be effective has to be direct. That is why, the informal meetings between the leaders gain in importance.
There would be speculation about whether Mr Xi meant the informal meeting with Mr Modi to be a one-off event. Mr Xi has given enough hints that there should be frequent meetings and exchanges between the two countries at the informal level. Mr Modi seems to have been taken in up the idea of an informal summit. He had suggested to Mr Xi that he would like to host a similar, informal summit in Indian in 2019. The summit venues could alternate between the two countries and this could become the norm. This would not however dispense with the need for formal state meetings, where representatives of the two countries meet, talk and make notes, which would serve as a basis for future negotiations. But the informal summit where leaders of the countries can meet without the pressure of issuing a formal statement whether they have reached an agreement on the many issues that they had discussed has an attraction of its own. It allows the leaders to discuss issues candidly, though it would not be necessary to decide one way or the other. It also helps the leaders as well as other representatives to be aware of what the other side’s position is on any issue. This is of great help in dealing with controversies.
Both Mr Modi and Mr Xi seem to agree that it is not going to be easy either for India or China to deal with each other because there will be many points of disagreement and even clash of interests. It is an old principle of diplomacy that even when there is a deadlock, communication channels should always remain open. It seems that informal summits would serve the purpose of communicating with each other when the formal means are closed.
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