The Second Informal Modi-Xi Summit: Building from the “Wuhan Spirit” to the “Chennai Connect”

 By Dr. Amrita Jash
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping under the framework of the Second Informal Summit, held in Chennai, Tamil Nadu on 11-12 October 2019. Following up on the lines of the First Informal Summit held in Wuhan in April 2018, the talks in Chennai too presided under a free, uncharted and unstructured framework. Stepping into its second round and with the third round already in talks to be held in China in 2020, the Modi-Xi Informal Summit has become a new characteristic feature in defining India-China relations in the 21st century. Although informal in nature, this leadership dialogue is becoming customary in nature, which can also be viewed as a new Confidence Building Measure[1] (CBM) between New Delhi and Beijing.  To which, the key query to be asked is: Is there a consensus in the making between India and China?

In view of this, a corollary can be drawn with respect to their shared perspective on the international situation. With a joint emphasis that the international situation is “witnessing significant readjustment”, both Modi and Xi in their talks expressed that:

“India and China share the common objective of working for a peaceful, secure and prosperous world in which all countries can pursue their development within a rules-based international order”.[2]

More importantly, reiterating on the ‘Wuhan spirit’, both sides also posited that:

“India and China are factors for stability in the current international landscape and that both side will prudently manage their differences and not allow differences on any issue to become disputes”.[3]

The above statement brings into light two key perspectives that are shaping the India-China thought. First, at the global level, there is an emphasised understanding on working within a “rules-based international order”- acting as a normative player. Although, India enjoys the status of a responsible normative actor, China in contrast, is often criticised of being defiant of the rules-based order. Hence, there is a divergence in the way India and China is perceived in the international stage.

Second, at the bilateral level, there is an acknowledgement that India and China are key players that can provide stability to the existing and emerging volatility in the international order. This resonates with the perception that India and China are shaping the 21st Century as that of ‘Asian Century’ by adopting the policy of peaceful co-existence. In this regard, to achieve such a goal both sides sincerely need to manage the differences in order to resolve the disputes.

But although there is an expressed commitment on either side, however, such visions often fall prey to the vested interests. To note, China’s ambitions are often argued to favour a multipolar world order and a unipolar Asia. Thereby, in this context, the shared commitment of peaceful co-existence equated with their simultaneous rise will often be tested with time.

What is also significant to note is the timing of the Informal Summit, which made the Modi-Xi talks much of a watch. While the 2017 Doklam stand-off made way to such a dialogue format between India and China at Wuhan in 2018, the 2019 Informal Summit too is not an exception. It is only the context that has shifted. While the Wuhan Summit aimed at resetting the course of India-China relations on track, the Second Modi-Xi talks came in the larger geopolitical context which holds significant implications for both New Delhi and Beijing. To argue so, as:

First, the Chennai Summit comes in the aftermath of the changing political scenario between New Delhi and Islamabad given India’s revoking of Article 370 that conferred special status to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, what entangles China into the picture is the recognition of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory, given China’s sovereignty claims in Aksai China comes under a check against this new status-quo. Furthermore, linking it to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), India’s such a stand exemplifies and adds to its longstanding strong opposition towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thus, India’s abrogation of Article 370 does equally weigh heavy in China’s strategic calculus.

Second, Xi’s visit to India comes in precedence of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to China on 8-9 October. Although Khan’s visit failed to cast a shadow on the Modi-Xi talks, but what is important to note is that unlike with India, Xi-Khan talks greatly highlighted the ‘Kashmir factor’. As noted, on the issue of Kashmir, Xi posited that:

 “China is paying close attention to the Kashmir situation and the facts are clear”. And that, “China supports Pakistan to safeguard its own legitimate rights and hopes that the relevant parties can solve their disputes through peaceful dialogue”. [4]

Xi’s such a statement exemplifies the ambiguity in China’s stand over Kashmir. Wherein, generally, China preaches to stand neutral by arguing in favour of a peaceful dialogue between India and Pakistan, however, Xi’s statement on Kashmir runs counter to it as it highlights China’s leaning to one side policy that favours Islamabad over New Delhi. Against its own practice, on the issue of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, China adopts a non-intervention policy to its internal matters. This asymmetry in China’s words and action further raises a concern over the key query- ‘Can India and China walk together in the 21st Century?’.

Third, Xi’s visit to India was followed by his maiden visit to Nepal on 12-13 October. Although the Informal Summit was the highlight of Xi’s South Asia sojourn, however, in tangible terms, Xi’s Kathmandu visit appear to be more significant as compared the symbolic visit to India. To argue so, Beijing and Kathmandu elevated their relations from a “Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship” to “Strategic Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship for Development and Prosperity”.[5] Most importantly, Kathmandu’s inclination towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative as witnessed in the Joint Statement also exemplifies Beijing’s growing sphere of influence in India’s backyard. With heavy infrastructure build up in Nepal, India’s CPEC dilemma will slowly be cropped by a ‘Kathmandu dilemma’. Thereby, India needs to sincerely take stock of the changing dynamics in its sphere of influence before it is too late.

Against this backdrop, Modi-Xi talks appear to act more symbolic than providing any tangible dividends. While India adopts a dialogue mechanism with Beijing, its neighbours such as Pakistan and Nepal are engaged in putting the words into action that provides leverage to Beijing under its BRI strategy. Hence, India needs to watch and then act with calibration.

Against this backdrop, the informal summit does provide a new kind of opportunity for both India and China to mitigate the disputes and the differences.  As noted, the Second Informal talks did highlight the issue of trade imbalance and deliberated on how to enhance the bilateral trade volume which reached a record high of USD 95.54 in 2018 with a mounting deficit of USD 57.86 billion in favour of China. Similarly, this high-level dialogue mechanism can help draw conclusions on the boundary problem in the future if both work towards seeking a consensus. Therefore, to walk the talk, an agenda on core issues can make the Informal Summit more significant than becoming just customary and not providing any substantial results. That is to argue, with its heightened symbolism, the Modi-Xi Talks from Wuhan to Chennai and thereafter will only become limited to a tourism diplomacy- which hails civilisational connect but fails to reach any outcome on issues that plague the relations in the current times.

References: 

[1]Confidence Building Measures are broadly defined as measures that address, prevent, or resolve uncertainties among states. Designed to prevent wanted and especially unwanted escalations of hostilities and build mutual trust, CBMs can be formal or informal, unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral, military or political, and can be state-to-state or non-governmental. See, “Confidence Building Measures”, Center for Strategic & International Studies, https://www.csis.org/programs/international-security-program/isp-archives/asia-division/cross-strait-security-initiativ-1, accessed online 14 October 2019.

[2] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2019), “2nd India-China Informal Summit”, 12 October 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/31938/2nd+IndiaChina+Informal+Summit, accessed online 14 October 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Huaxia (2019), “Xi Meets Pakistani PM, calls for forging closer community of shared future”, Xinhuanet, 09 October 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/09/c_138458823.htm, accessed online 11 October 2019.

[5] Government of Nepal, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2019), “Joint Statement Between Nepal and the People’s Republic of China”, 13 October 2019, https://mofa.gov.np/joint-statement-between-nepal-and-the-peoples-republic-of-china-2/, accessed online 16 October 2019.