By Tang Lu/Xinhua Outlook Think Tank
Beijing, April 27: When India shakes hands with China, the world will pay attention. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to hold a “heart-to-heart chat” in Wuhan in China, they were destined to attract global attention.
On April 22, the world was stunned when both India and China announced that Modi and Xi will have an “informal meeting” from April 27 to 28 in Wuhan.
What was surprising was that Modi had already decided to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit to be held in Qingdao in June. Why would he want to talk to Xi before that? What is the significance of the “informal meeting”? Does it indicate that there will be a historic breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations?
In fact, when Modi touches down in China he will be setting a record in the history of China-India relations –
Firstly, he will be the first Indian Prime Minister to be visiting China three times in nine months. In September 2017 he had attended the BRICS summit in Xiamen. In April 2018, he would be spending two days interacting with President Xi in Wuhan. And in June, he will be back again to attend the SCO summit in Qingdao.
Secondly, this will be the longest “informal meeting” to be held by the leaders of China and India so far. It will be spread over two days.
Modi is a politician who likes to grandstand. In May 2014, at the beginning of his term, he invited all the leaders of South Asian countries to attend his inaugural ceremony. In 2015, when he visited Afghanistan, he whimsically made a detour to Pakistan to have a brief conversation with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In 2015, he invited 55 heads of state from Africa to participate in the India-Africa Summit in New Delhi and with 41 attending, it was the largest turn out of African leaders in India.
In his dealings with China too, Modi has come up with surprise moves. In order to show his sincerity towards China within months of assuming office, in September 2014, Modi broke tradition and received President Xi Jinping not in New Delhi, the Indian capital, but in his home state of Gujarat.
Good Beginning But Trouble Intervened
However, after 2016, due to various factors, Sino-Indian relations got stuck in the quagmire of distrust and animosity. In June 2017, Modi not only refused to attend the “One Belt and One Road” summit in Beijing, but also banned Indian delegates from participating in the conference. A month later, in Donglong (Doklam), China and India had the longest military standoff since the 1962 military conflict.
However, what is gratifying is that after high-level diplomacy between the two countries, the Donglang (Doklam) crisis was satisfactorily resolved after 73 tense days. Thereafter, Modi traveled to Xiamen to participate in the BRICS summit.
Modi Proposed One on One Summit
According to Indian media reports, an “informal dialogue” with China was first proposed by the Indian side at the BRICS summit in Xiamen last year. But it was not until the visit to Beijing of India’s new Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale in February this year, that the “informal dialogue” proposal came to light.
Subsequently, China and India jointly determined the location and timing of the meeting.
However it must be noted that while wanting to have a closer understanding with China, India has been cautious in dealing with a series of issues involving China.
Indian foreign affairs observers noticed that India had played down Chinese moves in the Donglang area. India had not “reacted violently” as it used to do, but “had kept a calm attitude. The Indian side had even stressed that China’s construction on the Chinese side of the border “did not pose any threat to India.”
In the second month of this year, the Maldives President Abdulla Yamin, who has close ties with China, had clamped a State of Emergency despite protests from Mohamed Nasheed and other opposition leaders. Nasheed had called for Indian troops to intervene, but Modi eventually chose to be silent.
Why Rapprochement With China?
All kinds of signs indicate that the Modi government is interested in repositioning its relations with neighboring countries, including China. The motives for Modi’s repositioning of relations with China are probably related to the following factors:
Firstly, India no longer has illusions about the United States. President Donald Trump raised expectations at the beginning of his tenure but only to belie them later. He claimed that, in a challenging world, only India is a true friend and partner of the United States. Modi took to twitter to reciprocate. The two agreed to work closely to strengthen bilateral relations.
Modi invited Trump to visit India.But till date, the visit has not been scheduled. Modi has gradually realized that even though his personal relationship with Trump is harmonious, the interaction between the two countries has been only at the level of officials and therefore formal.
Trump had made gorgeous statements to satisfy vanity but he had not striven to balance trade with India nor has he unconditionally helped India transform itself into a rising power.
Modi is a pragmatic leader who knows that this kind of empty talk will only produce noise. Therefore, while India is an important member of the United States, Japan, Australia grouping (called the ‘Quad’) Modi does not want to directly participate in any Sino-U.S. confrontation, let alone allow the US to interfere in the uneasy relationship between India and China.
Furthermore, the economic development of India urgently needs funds from China. For Chinese investors, India is a relatively safe investment destination. Maintaining friendly relations with India is very important for these investors. India also believes that maintaining friendly relations with China is a very important step in its efforts to register progress in its “Make in India” project.
India needs Chinese investment to increase employment. Although Chinese companies currently face many bottlenecks in India, Modi’s “Make in India” and his plan to make India celebrate “Great India” in 2047 (the 100th anniversary of the independence of India) offer many opportunities for investments and cooperation.
Middle-income and higher-income countries all hope to attract more and more Chinese investments. Only by attracting Chinese investments can India put its infrastructure development plans on the fast track.
In addition, in the run up to the May 2019 parliamentary elections, Modi hopes to be returned. But for this he has to keep dissatisfaction with his government to the minimum.
The domestic issues affecting Modi’s re-election are naturally irrelevant to China. But looking at external factors, the only disturbing factor that may come into play could be caused by China. Although , in general, foreign policy issues do not affect voting the voting pattern, mismanagement could. Modi wants to manage Sino-Indian relations well.
The Modi government’s handling of the Donglang incident had caused controversy in India. The fact is, India has not benefited from the 73-day military standoff. Therefore, it is prudent for India to improve relations with China and reach some kind of an understanding so as to avoid the recurrence of such incidents.
Actually, for both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Modi, holding “informal meetings” with world leaders is not new. Even leaders of China and India have had informal meetings on the sidelines of international events in the past. But these informal meetings would only last a few minutes. But the Xi-Modi meeting in the Huguang Mountain would be spread over two days.
No wonder then, there is such high expectation from the “Moments in Wuhan”. The public expect it to be a milestone in the development of China-India relations.
What is special in this informal dialogue compared with the previous dialogues between China and India?
The first attribute is openness. As mentioned earlier, since 2016, Sino-Indian relations have been going downhill. There was the dispute over India’s application for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the 1267 Committee of the United Nations Security Council. The confrontation in Donglang (doklam) in 2017 also had a negative impact on Sino-Indian relations.
Although there was no lack of high-level exchanges of visits and dialogues between the two countries during this period, nothing could break the Gordian knot.
With the result, every time the author sees a friend in India, one question is invariably asked: “How can China-India relations break the stalemate?”
After the Donglang (Doklam) crisis, a high-ranking Indian friend told the author that current Sino-Indian bilateral contacts are mostly meetings between officials and that “informal meetings” will achieve better results. The purpose of the Wuhan summit is to allow the two leaders to carry on a “heart-to-heart” dialogue.
The informal meeting is not a “negotiation” between the leaders of the two countries. Instead, it gives Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping an opportunity to fully understand each other’s concerns and interests on bilateral and multilateral issues.
For example, President Xi may tell Modi as to why he wants to promote the “On Belt, One Road” idea, and Modi will demonstrate to Xi that he is keen to promote the “Make in India” project and his “One World” vision. In his speech at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Modi said that the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The World is One Family) ) is part of India’s philosophy.
This open dialogue will give leaders of both sides an opportunity to reflect on bilateral relations and formulate more practical development goals.
In the words of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “This informal meeting will deepen the mutual trust between the leaders of the two countries; make strategic judgments on the world situation and China-India relations; and lead China-India relations to grasp the general direction and establish new goals.”
Compared with previous dialogues between the leaders of China and India, this dialogue will be informal. Therefore, not only will the meeting be held in an informal environment, but the agenda will also be open. It will be more personal and more interactive.
Although observers have listed a number of issues for discussion at this summit, the issues likely to come up are: the border issue; the Belt and Road Initiative; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; the Tibet issue; the Sino-Indian trade deficit; India’s nuclear supply group qualifications; climate change and U.S. trade Policy.
However, just as India’s former Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar stated, the overall goal of the informal talks will be decided by the leaders themselves. Only they can decide what they want to discuss he added.
Talks Will Set The Tone
There is no clear “theme” but there is a clear “tone”. Regarding the tone of this “informal meeting” there is no comment that is more clear than Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s: “The leaders of the two countries will carry out strategic communication around the unprecedented changes in the world today, and will discuss the future of Sino-Indian relations and have in-depth exchange of views on the overall, long-term, and strategic issues of development.”
Indian Experts Hopeful
Compared with past doubts about Modi’s major diplomatic initiatives, these days, the strategic elites in India have positively interpreted the significance of the “Wuhan Summit”.
The China-India Summit will not only be an important move towards political reconciliation between the two countries after the impact of the 73 day crisis over Donglang, but will also re-establish a paradigm for the future of China and India.
The holding of this one-on-one “informal dialogue” is a major event. In the future, there will be more “Wuhan moments” in the history of Sino-Indian relations. This will deepen the understanding between the two countries not only to reconstruct relations between them, but also to establish relations between the two countries in the context of the rapidly changing Asian environment.
India should view the informal meeting as a sincere effort made by the leaders of the two countries to improve relations. The success of the meeting is in line with India’s national interests, because the establishment of a more creative China-India friendship will benefit India and benefit the world.
The “Informal Meeting in Wuhan” is a leadership-driven summit that will provide a leadership-driven direction which will show the way for improving Sino-Indian bilateral relations steadily.
The relations between China and India have always been leader-driven. In the 50s and 60s of the last century, the tone of the relationship was set by the then leaders, Nehru and Mao Zedong. Now, Xi Jinping, as President of China and Modi as Prime Minister of India, aim to build a new type of relationship.
China and India must develop a “development partnership” driven by strong economies. In the early years of contact between Prime Minister Modi and Chairman Xi Jinping, this principle actually existed. Therefore, re-referencing these principles is the Wuhan dialogue undoubtedly a great development.
Importance of Trade and Investment
From the steady growth of China-India trade figures, we can see that strong trade and economic relations have been the basis for ensuring stability of relations between the two countries in the past 20 years.
Therefore, no matter what kind of problems exist, including the border dispute, China and India have begun looking forward to the pursuit of a constructive economic engagement.
The “Wuhan Summit” will undoubtedly be the driving force of China-India economic and trade relations. It will allow Chinese investors to enhance confidence in India’s development.
However, considering the depth and difficulty of various problems existing between China and India, it is unrealistic to expect that the Wuhan Summit will achieve major breakthroughs. This is because all issues that plague relations between the two countries cannot be resolved through a single dialogue.
Moreover, both India and China are unlikely to change their relationship with third countries by pleasing each other at this stage.
For a long time, India has had an anti-China counter-current. This force always likes to view China with ambivalence, suspicion, paranoia mingled with irrational confrontation. This time too, the Indian strategic community can use such a mentality to view the “informal meeting” between the Chinese and Indian leaders in Wuhan through colored glasses. No wonder some people say that in today’s Indian politics, only Modi has the courage and strength to be venturesome.
On April 27 and 28, let us witness the “Wuhan moment” as it opens a new chapter in Sino-Indian relations!
(The featured image at the top shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arriving in Wuhan for the one on one summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping)
(Author Tang Lu is Research Fellow, Xinhua Outlook Think Tank, Colombo)