The format of the Modi - Xi Jinping informal summit can help overcome challenges in bilateral ties: EFSAS commentary

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A lot had been made by analysts of the recent tensions and disagreements between China and India on a host of issues in the run up to the second informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping that was held in Mamallapuram on 11-12 October. The first such summit had been held in Wuhan in China in April 2018. Sections of the media were skeptical about the outcomes and takeaways that a summit held in the midst of serious ongoing wrangling between the two countries would yield.

The two countries have been sparring and trading barbs over weighty issues such as India’s dilution of Article 370 of its Constitution; China’s publicly articulated, bilaterally and multilaterally displayed, and certainly not unexpected, support to Pakistan on the matter; India’s indignation at China’s statements on a situation that India deems as purely its internal matter, and that too at a time when China is itself struggling despite heavy handed methods to quell protests in Hong Kong; and China’s objections to India conducting military exercises in its state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China also lays claim to. Some imaginative minds even questioned, just a few days prior to the scheduled start of the summit, whether the Mamallapuram summit would take place at all given such a vitiated atmosphere. They were completely missing the point and the rationale behind the two leaders holding such an event.

As  China’s Ambassador to India Sun Weidong said in the run up to the summit, a “new set of consensus including guiding principles” on giving a new direction to bilateral ties were the expectations from the summit. He also tweeted, “Under the strategic guidance of our leaders, China-India ties made steady progress in recent past. Looking ahead, we should further unleash the positive effect of Wuhan informal summit, transmit leaders’ consensus to all level & gather positive energy for stronger bilateral ties”.

In Mamallapuram, Modi and Xi Jinping had long, free-flowing sessions, in which they touched upon a wide-ranging array of issues that impact upon the two countries and the dynamics of their bilateral relationship. At the outset, Modi credited the Wuhan summit for bringing about “increased stability” and “fresh momentum” to ties, adding that “Strategic communication between two sides has improved… We had decided that we will prudently manage our differences and not allow them to turn into dispute, be sensitive of each other’s concerns and be pillars for peace and stability in the world… Wuhan spirit infused new momentum and trust in our relations. Today’s Chennai Connect (Mamallapuram is located close to Chennai) will begin a new era of cooperation between our two countries”.

Among the issues discussed at the summit, trade, unsurprisingly, figured prominently given that the volume of bilateral trade between the two nations stood at a massive $95.54 billion in 2018, as per Reuters. India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said after the summit that there had been “good discussions” on trade, and that “President Xi Jinping said that China was ready to take sincere action”. He informed that the leaders had agreed on a new High Level Economic and Trade mechanism to be chaired by Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, adding that “The decision on its activation will be taken through diplomatic channels”. The Indian side said that the objective of the mechanism was to achieve “enhanced trade and commercial relations, as well as to better balance the trade between the two countries”, and to increase investments in selected sectors “through the development of a manufacturing partnership”. India’s has had a substantial trade deficit with China over the years, and that stood at about $53 billion last year.

During the talks, Xi Jinping brought up the issue of finalizing the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which seeks to form a free trade zone among the ASEAN member countries, China, Australia, New Zealand and India. Gokhale revealed that “Prime Minister Modi said that he looked forward to this, but believed that there should be a balance between trading goods and services”. Xinping responded by observing that the “Indian concerns” needed to be addressed. In the backdrop of both countries being adversely affected by US President Donald Trump's trade war, Gokhale averred that both India and China fully supported the rule of law in trading regimes and backed the World Trade Organization (WTO) mechanism.

The two leaders also discussed and spoke out against radicalization and terrorism. India’s press statement after the summit underlined that the two leaders concurred that terrorism “continues to pose a common threat”, and that “As countries that are large and diverse, they (Modi and Xi Jinping) recognized the importance of continuing to make joint efforts to ensure that the international community strengthens the framework against training, financing and supporting terrorist groups throughout the world and on a non-discriminatory basis”. In its press release, the Chinese foreign ministry said “The two leaders believe that both China and India are victims of terrorism. The two countries are committed to combating terrorism in all its forms and call on all countries to strengthen international cooperation against terrorism”.

Other prominent issues discussed included the situation along the India – China border, the mechanism for settlement of the border disputes between the two countries, enhancement of cooperation in the defense sector, strengthening people to people relations, and global and regional issues, including Afghanistan. The two leaders concurred that since the Wuhan summit, peace and tranquility had been ensured at the border through “strategic guidance” imparted to the two militaries. At Mamallapuram, they agreed to negotiate additional confidence building measures. Xi Jinping stressed on the need to “step up engagement in defense and security”, and the two leaders decided that Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh would visit China shortly to pursue this. Modi and Xi Jinping directed the designated Special Representatives of the two countries to “continue their efforts to arrive at a mutually-agreed framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement based on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles that were agreed by the two sides in 2005”. In the sphere of people to people relations, the leaders decided that to mark the 70th year of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations, 2020 would be designated the Year of India - China Cultural and People to People Exchanges, and several cultural events would be organized in both the countries. 

The effort by both the leaders to zoom in on convergences rather than dwell on differences not only reflected their maturity, but also rendered the whole exercise meaningful and useful. India did not bring up the issue of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) at all, thereby reinforcing its position of the issue being an internal matter on which China should not have anything to say. Gokhale affirmed this fact in clear terms by saying, “I want to state quite categorically that Kashmir was not raised or discussed”. He added, however, that Xi Jinping did mention the visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister to China immediately prior to the summit, adding simply that “Prime Minister Modi listened”. Despite Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s bluster, that the summit eschewed any discussion on J&K demonstrated that Modi and Xinping were willing to put that issue aside and look beyond.

Xi Jinping has invited Modi to China for a similar informal engagement next year. The relevance and importance of the format of informal summits that Modi and Xi Jinping have evolved for themselves and their countries was brought out aptly in an editorial of China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency, which invariably carries the official Chinese line.

It stated, “In a relaxed and friendly atmosphere in Chennai, the two leaders exchanged in-depth views on issues of global and regional importance. Beijing-New Delhi relations have now entered a new stage. The two sides should strengthen strategic communication and mutual trust in order to properly manage their differences and sensitive issues”.

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