Sino Indian Informal Summits –Wuhan, Mahabalipuram and Beyond

Our effort is to prevent “differences from degenerating into disputes” observed Prime Minister Modi, during his talks with President XI Jinping. The Chinese leader was visiting Mahabalipuram (Chennai) for the second informal summit from 11 to 12 October. He appreciated the one-on-one “candid discussions as friends” with his host that lasted six hours, in addition to delegation level talks. They shared their respective national visions, challenges and aspirations, in order to bridge the trust and perception gap between the world’s most populous nations.

China and India are ancient civilizations separated by the great Himalayan mountains. Over the centuries, pilgrims, scholars and monks undertook long and arduous journeys to learn from each other. They penned fascinating accounts of life, learnings and achievements of the host regions. The renowned Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar and translator, Hsuan Tsang for example, travelled across India, including the present-day Chennai region, between 627-643 AD.

With a coastline exceeding 7000 kilometres, India has traditionally been a seafaring nation, enjoying close cultural, people-to-people and trade ties with East and South East Asia (ASEAN).The Chennai / Mahabalipuram region similarly had linkages with the Chinese region now centred around the Fujian province. But why the informal summits?

Truth be told, notwithstanding the cordial history, India and communist China are frenemies. Beijing seeks to construct a China-centric continental order which constricts India’s role and developmental space. We fought a war in 1962. China occupies tens of thousands of square kilometres of Indian territory and claims even more. Homilies apart, Beijing has refused to show sensitivity towards India’s core concerns including that of the unsettled boundary, terrorism emanating from Pakistan, ballooning trade deficit and India’s membership of the UNSC or NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group).

India and China share a 4000+ kms of undelineated boundary (or LAC – Line of Actual Control). Due to the unsettled border, hundreds of incursions take place every year both by accident and design, which are sorted out peacefully. Of late, thanks to the aggressive Chinese posture, incursions have periodically begun to spiral into military standoffs. In 2017 a 73-day tense eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation took place at the Doklam plateau involving China, Bhutan and India. Quiet diplomacy by India, even in the face of Chinese bellicosity, defused the situation, just few days before the BRICS summit in Xiamen.

It was at Xiamen that PM Modi suggested an informal summit, to enable the two leaders to have a free-flowing conversation on all issues of interest. Resultantly the first ever informal summit took place in Wuhan in April 2018. The Chinese President had agreed to such a format for the first time. Over a two-day period, Modi and Xi spent 8 hours together, mostly having a tête-à-tête covering the entire gamut of issues and opportunities in the bilateral relations. There was no pressure of deliverables or high expectations of a breakthrough. The objective was to lower the temperatures and deepen bilateral understanding. Both sides believed that the objectives were met and that a new ‘Wuhan spirit’ had been injected into bilateral ties.

However as expected, given the geostrategic divergences, the Wuhan spirit began to slowly dissipate. Despite making common cause with India on the issue of terrorism, China continued to protect Pakistani terror masterminds from being brought to justice. Masood Azhara notorious Pakistan based terrorist, for example was shielded from being designated a global terrorist by the UNSC for ten years. It was only when it was completely isolated, consequent to a suicide bomb attack by Masood Azhar’s outfit that consumed 40 innocent Indian lives that China was forced to relent.

India was shocked when in August and September this year, China led the charge against India, on Pakistan’s behest, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UNSC in New York, on the issue of Kashmir. On 5th August the Indian Parliament had amended the temporary provision under Article 370 of the Constitution granting a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Pakistan immediately launched a shrill campaign, packed with falsehoods and half-truths, to paint a dark picture including that of a nuclear conflict. The Indian External Affairs Minister had visited China soon thereafter and had assured his hosts that the move had no impact on the LAC, but was of no avail. It is a different matter that the Chinese intervention was soundly rejected by both the August bodies. It was in this background that the 2nd informal summit took place in India.

The sides agreed to enhance strategic communication on all matters of mutual interest and to continue the practice of informal summits as they provided a very good platform for an open, friendly and forward-looking dialogue. It was decided to establish a High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue mechanism to better balance the trade and encourage mutual investments in identified sectors by developing a Manufacturing Partnership. President Xi and PM Modi agreed that the simultaneous development of India and China presented mutually-beneficial opportunities. A number of steps were outlined to enhance cultural and people to people relations.

President Xi, according to Xinhua, stated that cooperation of the “dragon and the elephant” was “the only correct choice for the two countries” and served their fundamental interests. China-India relations “had entered a new phase of sound and stable development” since the Wuhan summit. "We must… map out a hundred-year plan for the relations from a strategic and long-term perspective” he added.

One wonders if India is willing to wait 100 years to find a modus vivendi with China, all the more so, as there is a significant amount of trust deficit between the two neighbours. China has great expertise in deflecting inconvenient issues, to the distant future, by using such flowery language, while doggedly pursuing its national interests by stealth. The militarization of the South China Sea is a good case in point.

While the jury is still out on the extent to which China would walk the talk, from India's perspective the most important outcome is the dialogue itself. It certainly helps in understanding each other’s perspectives, bridging the communication gap and improving the atmospherics. Since 2014 the Indian and Chinese leaders have met 18 times and have developed a good personal equation which augurs well for the bilateral relations. In any case, India has learnt the hard way to be prepared for any eventuality, while continuing to explore ways and means to build on existing relationships.

Ambassador Vishnu Prakash was India's High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea, Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs and Consul General to Shanghai. Presently he is a regular columnist, panellist, author and speaker on foreign affairs.

This article was originally published by The Korea Times on 17 October 2019. ""

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